Dentist/Marine Mammal Biologist
Photograph courtesy Martin Nweeia
Photograph courtesy Martin Nweeia
Birthplace: New Britain, Connecticut
Current City: Sharon, Connecticut
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an orchestra conductor and a heart surgeon at a very early age. Though I played sports and outside games, there were times in my bedroom that I conducted with a pencil in one hand while classical music was playing in the background. By age eight, I was corresponding with the famous heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey. Now as an adult, it's hard for me to believe that this man who was so busy would respond to this little kid. But I remember he sent me scientific publications and even some synthetic heart parts as I was making an artificial heart for a science fair when I was ten years old.
How did you get started in your field of work?
From a very early age, I was an integrative thinker who was fascinated by crossing academic boundaries. Combining interests in poetry, art, music, science, mathematics, anthropology, and philosophy came easily to me. In college, the interests were more narrowed to biology and English literature and creative writing. Dentistry attracted me as it was a wonderful blend of science and art. There was an interest in anthropology which began in college, and my first expedition as a college student was living among the Kogi Indians of Colombia, and then the Ticuna Indians of the Colombian Amazon. As a child, I always rooted for the Indians in the cowboy movies, and the interest continued with other indigenous groups. Later in dental school, I applied for a fellowship at the Smithsonian in anthropology, which was my first brush with serious science, exploration, and anthropology. Unlike many who develop a single or a few interests, my fascination with life came from multiple disciplines, and inter-, cross-disciplines. My current interest in the narwhal developed as a question from the curious child within me. After presenting talks on dental anthropology, I became interested in functional morphology, which led me to what I believe is one of the most extraordinary questions in the marine mammal world: What on Earth is this marine mammal doing with this mythical tusk?
What inspires you to dedicate your life to marine biology?
I love when life points you in directions that you resist. It's too easy when things make sense, and life hums along. There was nothing about the narwhal that made any sense to me. In fact, many of its features contradicted everything I had learned about teeth in dental school. After reading many of the published works on the tusk, I felt as if this odd tooth expression was conveniently put in a category that made sense. Researchers were not seeing it for what it was, but for what they wanted it to be. This is much of life for me. Do we really have the courage to break our own boundaries of knowledge, and search for truth? It is as much a question for religion as it is for science.
What's a normal day like for you?
As a single dad, my normal day begins around 6:30, getting my seven-year-old daughter to school. Many days are spent at my private practice of dental surgery, combining research analysis, preparing for expeditions, and fielding calls from collaborating investigators. After school and dinnertime is spent with my daughter and getting her off to bed around 8 p.m. Then my work continues with research interests until usually 11 p.m. Most of my writing time, planning field expeditions, lectures, Web forums, and Internet communications occurs at night. My brain seldom rests. Even sleep provides me with another opportunity to conceptualize an observation.
Do you have a hero?
My hero is Albert Schweitzer. Here is a man who understood his life at an early age and followed truth in the face of family and social disagreement. He believed that those who continued education beyond the age of 30 were a bit self-indulgent, and felt strongly that we all owed humanity and this planet a life of devotion and dedication to giving back. He was prolific as a writer of diverse topics from music to religion, but mostly he was a man of Christian virtue who was living his values, not merely talking about them.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience in the field came one night in a remote area of the Amazon basin after living among the Ticuna Indians. I had been conducting a dental study there and felt as if I was viewed as a curiosity. Although respected, I wondered if I was liked. Then, one night, there were two children in an open hut who were spontaneously dancing and singing, and the child in me decided to join in. Time was lost as we continued to sing and dance, and the children became more animated and joyful as did I. After what seemed like an hour or so, someone tapped me on the back and said, "Have you looked around the hut?" There in the surrounding darkness were the facial outlines of the entire village who quietly gathered and sat to watch this display. From that day on, only smiles came from those who passed my way.
The most challenging experience came in the High Canadian Arctic in a field season marked by tragedy, bad luck, stalking polar bears, and an Arctic hurricane. One day after arriving to the community where our work was based, a leader who had been meeting with us hours before was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range by his girlfriend. The scene was so gruesome that villagers burned the house days after the tragedy. Despite a year of preparation, no whales were seen or caught so no research could be conducted. Three polar bears were stalking the campsite and threatened lives to the point where floodlights and anxious gun-bearing watches seemed no contest for the bears' pursuit. At the end of the field season, an Arctic hurricane hit the area and our campsite with 120-mile-an-hour winds, and tides that threatened a wash-out of equipment and supplies. What becomes immediately apparent in such a situation is the remote isolation and self-reliance to survive the day.
What are your other passions?
Music composing, windsurfing, singing and finding ways to touch other people's lives are passions. Since passion is connected to love, my main passion is finding ways to help others. I've been involved with several health organizations, foundations, and groups devoted to giving back and helping those less fortunate. While living in Hawaii, I composed and directed a music project that benefited Hawaii's homeless families with children. I've served as dental director of a Volunteers in Medicine Clinic, a medical service ship in the Marshall Islands, and several church-based groups in Connecticut.
What do you do in your free time?
Since I am a child at heart, my free time is spent with my seven-year-old daughter and her friends. Discovering and finding the paths of exploration in a child's world are at the core. Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods describes many of the ideas and values that I hope I can pass to kids. Since I live near the Appalachian Trail, and a diverse natural setting in northwestern Connecticut, you'll likely find me with three young kids walking on a path in the woods.
If you could have people do one thing to help indigenous cultures, what would it be?
Learn to love, not to judge.
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Martin Nweeia, a Connecticut-based dentist, is principal investigator and founder of the Narwhal Tooth Expeditions and Research Investigation. The initiative aims to determine the purpose and function of narwhal tusks.
In Their Words
I love when life points you in directions that you resist. It's too easy when things make sense, and life hums along.
One of science's greatest riddles is finally solved when Dr. Martin Nweeia discovers the function of the narwhal's tusk.
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