Meet the Fellow: Amelia Urry


Photo by Celia Talbot Tobin,  2017

It’s amusing to find a friend whose name rhymes with yours, odder to be mistaken for one another, and weirder yet to work together as partners in the field.

One of the first things I learned about Amelia when we met last year during a different fellowship was that she had, at a young age, already co-written a book.  Not just any book, a book about mathematical fractals as they occur in nature, art, and technology. (In this aspect, at least, we are nothing alike.)  I remember thinking at this point: here is a truly interesting human and we should probably be friends.

I’ve since realize that this was a befitting bit of information to learn about someone who a) assumed for most of her life she would become a scientist and b) describes her youth as mostly glued to the pages of books. These two threads of science and storytelling are clearly woven through her being, bound together like strands of DNA, sharing in common an insatiable curiosity for the world.  

One of the many things Amelia and I share is our obsession with water, with a particular affection for the sea. It’s no coincidence that for this fellowship we were both attracted to a story that centered on the topic.

“More than two thirds of humans depend on the ocean in some way. It’s just this huge part of life on the planet, but a place we know very, very little about,” Amelia said when I asked her why the sea fascinated her. “It’s been such a source of terror and wonder for so long.”  She pointed out that although humans have only just begun to explore the deepest parts of the ocean, in many parts of the world there are communities with many generations of built-up knowledge of the sea.

Amelia is someone who checks herself frequently to be sure she isn’t coming across as too much of the know-it-all she says she can be. But being a know-it-all implies both a degree of arrogance and a lack of self-awareness, two things that do not at all describe her. Rather, she is a delighted nerd. She visibly brightens with wide eyes when looking up banana botany on the internet and sharing her findings aloud (something quite irrelevant to our story). She litters conversations with random facts about the differences between male and female lightning bugs, and is happy to explain the reproductive anatomy of ducks, seemingly unconcerned with whether you believe her or not (though it’s almost always in your best interest to do so).

It’s clear that growing up in a household in which the quest for knowledge was at the forefront left an imprint on her. “Everyone in my family except me is a scientist,” she explained.  But she’s also spent her life enamored with stories, both reading and writing.  Halfway through college, she accepted the fact that she should stop fighting her inclination to write professionally.

When I asked about the most formative books of her life, it left her pondering for a while. In the end, she listed only fiction writers, among them Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Virginia Woolf  (“I think if I had gone to grad school right after college, it would have been to study modernist authors”). When I pointed out how fascinating I found it that that should be the case with an almost-scientist who now writes about science as a journalist, she considered the fact for a moment.

“I think nonfiction can be really amazing, but often isn’t. Because nonfiction is seen as being ‘important,’ there’s an assumption that it doesn’t have to be artful, that I can just tell you these important facts and you’ll automatically pay attention,” she said. “But I think there’s a limit to the usefulness of  ‘import.’”

In other words, science can’t get far without a great story to carry it to wherever it’s going. And Amelia is pretty much the perfect person to try and achieve that.

Celia Talbot Tobin,  Fall 2018 Guatemala Reporting Trip