Whitman Assistant Professor of Biology Kate Jackson is both brave and scientifically expert when it comes to snakes. So much so that, in recognition of her research in the Republic of Congo studying reptiles and amphibians, she has been selected to receive a 2011 “Women of Discovery” award in the “Courage” category.

The award comes from WINGS WorldQuest, an organization “dedicated to recognizing and supporting visionary women advancing scientific inquiry and environmental conservation,” according to its Web site. When Jackson received a call about the award in September, she says she “didn’t really believe it at first” when the person on the other end of the line, the president of WINGS WorldQuest, said she had won an award for courage, along with a $10,000 research grant.

But for many who know Jackson it is no surprise that she would be the recipient of such an award. The apparently fearless professor routinely handles dangerous snakes and other reptiles, traipses through remote jungles, spending weeks on end in damp and dirty clothing – activities from which the average citizen might recoil. Instead, Jackson seems to run towards these opportunities, in the name of science.

Jackson was nominated for the award by a woman she did not know. The woman was inspired after reading Jackson’s book “Mean and Lowly Things.” The book, written before she came to Whitman, details her experience of snakes, science and survival in the Congo.

She says she is thankful to the Whitman community, since her arrival in 2007, for its support in her continued research in the Congo, during her recovery from malaria, and then from a virus that damaged her spinal cord, leaving her legs paralyzed, both contracted during her research there. This support has helped her continue to do the courageous work for which she was nominated, such as the cataloguing of amphibians in previously underrepresented portions of the world and training Congolese graduate students in her work.

“Whitman College deserves a lot of credit for me getting the award,” Jackson said. “Whitman has allowed me to continue research, write popular science, supported my work in the Congo and has enabled continuing student research. That research has led in many directions including a book about the snakes of West and Central Africa, which many Whitman students have helped with, to be submitted to the Johns Hopkins University Press this summer.”

She says the publicity she usually gets is about a woman doing crazy and bizarre things. “I have done some things that people think are crazy, but the purpose of the work, conservation of biodiversity in Central Africa, is not crazy.”

She says the research money likely will be used to fund a return trip to the Congo; she was last there during the summer of 2010. But first, Jackson is off to New York in April, for a gala event at which she will receive the award.

Learn more about the Women of Discovery program here.

Nat Clarke ’11, uses the new scanning electron microscope in the Hall of Science to image cobra fangs. Nat and Jackson are working together on a research project to develop a mathematical model explaining why snake fangs evolved the way they did. Nat will be presenting his work at the Whitman Undergraduate Conference in April.

—Ashley Coetzee