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Science as Leisure

Liz Marchio

I am a trained ichthyologist interested in what gets people interested in natural history, biological sciences, and science careers. My passion is to find out what fuels curiosity for the natural world.

Biology-related serious leisure activities can impact people's interest in ecology, biology, and natural history. Do these activities promote biological understanding? If so, how does that progress and to what level does it progress to? 

If you're interested in a starting a dialogue, please feel free to contact me. If you're curious about how I got here, my story can be found on the About Me page.


Filtering by Tag: nature

The Environment is Caching in on Geocaching

When I was a kid I really liked playing in the woods. I climbed trees and played hide and seek with my friends. Once, I found a small wet box with little trinkets inside. My imagination told me this was most certainly a treasure! 

Little did I know that yes, this was a treasure! A treasure for a scavenger hunt!

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

This scavenger hunt is global game called "geocaching" ("geo" = earth; "caching" = hides).

When you join the game, you use clues, namely GPS coordinates, to locate caches. You sometimes have to walk far distances, climb over logs, look under and inside natural objects, and always, always keep your eyes open and searching. There are urban caches as well, hidden in plain view.

I'm sure you've passed by multiple caches every single day.

How crazy is that?!

Check out the introductory video from

As with most leisure activities, you can "get serious" and advance. As you progress you get better at finding caches, you create your own for others to find, and you may even join in geocaching events. Many advanced geocachers participate in CITO® events, which means "Cache In, Trash Out" which is exactly what it sounds like. You go in for the cache and you bring trash in the area out. Literally, bags of trash are brought out by geocachers with the ultimate goal of keeping the environment clean and giving back to the local communities they use. 

The geocaching website states, "Cache In Trash Out® is an ongoing environmental initiative supported by the worldwide geocaching community. Since 2002, geocachers around the world have been dedicated to improving parks and other cache-friendly places. Through these volunteer efforts, we help preserve the natural beauty of our outdoor resources!"

Now, is geocaching itself to blame for this trash? Are the caches really just hidden trash? Of course some people may see the negatives in the game and understandably so. That's critical thinking, right? Well, there is, with everything, always a trade off... if getting people outside helps improve environmental concern and stewardship (which CITO does), it seems the positives outweigh the negatives. National parks deal with the same kinds of issues; a recent article tells how the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park have been discolored by humans simply visiting the site. Carlsbad Caverns National Park regularly has volunteers go through and pick fuzz off formations. So what do we do? Ban people from nature? 

One of the best things I think we can do is promote environmental stewardship through leisure activities that get people invested and involved in the environment. Makes sense, right? Well... now it's your turn. After reading this blog, head over to, make a free account, watch some tutorials, download the app to your smartphone (or use a GPS), and go out into the world to explore, invest, and get involved! I promise you will find places you never knew existed. 

NOTW: Mark Valen, a man of many naturalist hats

 This NaturalIst of the Week has been written by guest blogger: Katie Wedemeyer

Sometimes when you meet some people for the first time, you can tell right away that they’re special. Mark is one of those people.

Mark and I got hired around the same time at the Living Coast Discovery Center (formerly the Chula Vista Nature Center) at San Diego Bay in Chula Vista, California. I was hired for education and Mark as the lead horticulturist (“hortus” = garden; “cultúra” = cultivation). I knew right away Mark had a lot to teach me, as a colleague and a human being in general.

Mark, a man of many naturalist hats showcasing a Yucca flower pruning. (photo credit: Mark Valen) 

Mark is the epitome of a naturalist: 

Every aspect of his life shows appreciation and awe at the natural world  - and a profound respect for it that is contagious. His enthusiasm spreads to those who are lucky enough to learn from him, young or old.  

Mark in his natural habitat (photo credit: Mark Valen)

His list of naturalist-related accomplishments is impressive, and steadily growing. He currently is in a Masters of Liberal Arts in Sustainability and Environmental Management through Harvard, while also working as the Horticulturist and Facilities Lead at the Living Coast Discovery Center. Did I mention he also is adjunct faculty in the San Diego Community College District and the Southwestern Community College Districts, teaching about sustainable landscaping and urban agriculture? 

Through his work at the Discovery Center, which reaches many underprivileged schools, and through working at the Community Colleges, Mark is directly impacting and inspiring students who may not have the same “top tier” opportunities as those from more “privileged” (i.e. funded) neighborhoods.

In his free time he serves as commissioner on the City of Chula Vista's Resource Conservation Commission that advises the City Council on environmental decisions. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz he not only helped develop his own sustainability major he also created and taught classes for it. There’s a reason he is the NOTW of many hats!

Despite so many accomplishments, Mark is the most Down to Earth (pun-intended), sincere nature lover out there. Each time we interacted at work I was always paying close attention, excited to learn something new, to gain a new appreciation for plants.

As a scientist, I always appreciated plants for giving me oxygen but lost interest after that – until Mark presented them as fascinating organisms with incredible adaptations.

His lessons may have been geared towards the 7 year olds attending summer camp but I was hooked! 

Mark inspiring (and blowing minds of) some of the Living Coast Discovery Center campers (photo: Living Coast Discovery Center facebook page

Did you know that pickleweed (Salcornia virginica) lives near the brackish (salt + fresh water mixed) water of the salt marsh It lives so close to the water’s edge that it can actually “drink” salt water! What? How cool is that!  Have you ever accidently ingested salt water? Did it quench your thirst or make you thirstier? It makes me thirstier! Several marine animals (like sea turtles, sea birds, and marine fish) have adaptations for drinking salt water, but it turns out that plants do too! Pickleweed, which gets its name from its pickle-like shape and salty taste, is generally green in appearance except for its red tips where it concentrates the salt it has sucked up and when the tip becomes saturated with salt, it turns red and falls off. By getting rid of the excess salt it can hold onto sufficient freshwater to help it grow and survive! What a cool adaptation!

Pickleweed! (Photo credit:

Mark was a key component of many of the education programs I created at the Living Coast Discovery Center, always eager to contribute to educating the youth and getting them out to play in the dirt.

We had several campers compost and the looks of amazement on the kids’ faces were priceless as they held worms for the first time, their eyes fascinated, moving quickly along with the squiggly movements of these often underappreciated creatures. 

For the first time they realized that worms have an important job: mixing different layers of the compost and aerating it simply by burrowing through it. They couldn’t wait to dive in to the compost pile to find more! 

Mark teaching a composting class at the Living Coast Discovery Center (photo credit Living Coast Discovery Center facebook page)

He has, without a doubt inspired thousands of individuals, from children through senior citizens, to get out in nature and not be afraid to dig in the dirt and to appreciate all of nature’s contributions to the beauty and function of our everyday lives.

For these reasons, Mark is our NOTW and our naturalist of many hats!

To contact Mark, send him an e-mail or just go visit the Living Coast Discovery Center (or at least visit their Facebook page)! Bring the kids, bring the wife! Get Dirty! 

For more information on our guest blogger, Katie Wedemeyer, please follow her on twitter @krwedemeyer and visit her website!

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