Month: February 2018

Daniel Dashevsky, PhD Student, University of Queensland

Just in case you missed the title up there, my name is Daniel Dashevsky. I’m partway through my PhD on snake venoms at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, about halfway up the east coast of Australia. All in all it’s pretty far from having grown up in Fairbanks, Alaska.

When I started putting this post together I realized how much of what I might highlight as work/life balance is actually pretty closely related to my PhD. I like to think this is a good sign in that it suggests that my project is close to my passions. It’s also partially due to the fact that sitting around reading or cooking aren’t activities that lend themselves to pictures. Despite that, cooking is definitely the activity that scratches my craft-ish creative itch on a daily basis, so here’s some bread to represent that part of my life.

My other main hobby—playing Ultimate—also doesn’t leave much of a photographic record: not very many people bother to take photos of Ultimate games and I’m almost always making a weird face when someone does get me on film. But even if I don’t include a lot of Ultimate photos, I want to emphasize its importance. Exercise is obviously good for mental and physical health and something about chasing down a frisbee brings me great joy, but Ultimate is way more than that to me. Nearly everywhere I’ve gone since leaving Alaska over seven years ago, Ultimate has been a source of community and friendship. I lived with teammates for much of my undergrad degree at Reed College  and have recently moved in with Ultimate players again here in Brisbane. On top of all that, the self-refereed Spirit of the Game that is central to Ultimate reaffirms a lot of my core values related to honesty, integrity, and self control in a similar way that living under an Honor Principle at Reed did. Playing Ultimate on the regular helps me be a better researcher and human.
I obviously also love snakes, which is one of the main reasons why I wanted to move to Australia in the first place. When the weather’s right, I’ll often take a drive out to one of the nearby national parks just after dark to see if I can spot any critters crossing the roads. It’s a relaxing experience cruising along empty roads listening to podcasts or music until you see something, the adrenaline hits, you slam on the brakes, and engage in a mad scramble to safely park, turn off the car, get out, and find the snake before it disappears. Some of my recent finds include these two carpet pythons (Morelia spilota, sizes XS and L) and a golden crowned snake (Cacophis squamulosus).
I’ll even travel specifically to look for reptiles. I spent Christmas camping at a reservoir in rural Queensland. During the day I read in my hammock and swam when the heat was unbearable, but at night I cruised the roads. This January I visited Thailand with a couple labmates. We enjoyed huge amounts of incredible Thai food and spent much of our time hiking, driving, or boating through mangroves looking for snakes.
I’ve also been known to dabble in paleontology, which in many respects is more craft than science. To be sure, academic paleontologists who study the details of fossils are engaged in a rigorous science, but all the steps that get those fossils to the point that they can be studied are crafts. To begin with one must roam the landscape looking for fossils or for promising locations. Then comes the digging and the wrapping. If you’ve found the very tip of a complete Triceratops skull sticking out of the side of a steep hill, uncovering its entire length (well over two meters) means moving a lot of rock. Then you cover the fossil in a protective coating of plaster and burlap. Digging underneath the fossil and plastering the top of that overhang is a tenuous and messy process. Once the fossils are back at a museum, they have to be prepared for study. The preparation process is a long and painstaking one: all the rock surround the fossil has to be removed without damaging the bone, broken pieces must be jigsawed back together, gaps are filled with putty, and the bone is stabilized for long term storage. The crocodile osteoderm (bony armor in the skin) pictured below was a relatively simple and easy project, but I still had to use dental tools to remove sandstone from every one of the holes on its pitted surface.


I also recently completed a kit of equipment for extracting venom from snakes. Clear plastic tubes are often used to handle snakes safely, but this design includes flared ends so they can form a joint allowing you to expose the head of the snake without having your hands directly on it. It is possible to safely handle snakes, but virtually everyone who routinely puts their hands near the pointy end will end up being bitten through carelessness or freak accident at some point. During our trip to Thailand I got the chance to demonstrate this hands-off technique at a research station using a large-eyed pitviper (Trimeresurus macrops) they temporarily had in captivity.

When I get it in my head to do something crafty, it’s usually pretty utilitarian. I like to make and maintain objects and tools that fit my particular needs and preferences better than something from a store can. Examples include a bicycle light mounted on a baseball cap that lights up the forest at night like nobody’s business,


a bushcraft knife, a watch strap, and my minimal sandals. Not only do I enjoy the process of thinking about how I do a task and how it might be improved, but I’ve found that the act of taking an idea and making it real is immensely helpful to my mental hygiene. This is as true of making sandals as it is for cooking or writing, but when you make a tool that you employ regularly you get that little hit of satisfaction every time you use it.

Occasionally I do come up with projects for aesthetic reasons and the nice thing about that is that you can just look at whatever you’ve made and get that hit. Since I’m a biologist, all of the projects here revolve around cool bits of animals. For instance there’s the skulls on my windowsill, most of which I’ve skinned and defleshed myself. I’ve also created a necklace from a tooth and phalanx (toe bone) as well as a collage of shed skin from a variety of venomous snakes. I only just recently tanned the skins of a water dragon and a carpet python and have yet to decide what to make from them. I’m open to suggestions.