How jellyfish shed bioluminescent light on dying oceans, a memoir

    By: Angie Weidinger, Producer

    St. Louis native Juli Berwald has a gift: she exudes enthusiasm and it’s contagious. That’s a very good thing since her current passion is jellyfish — not exactly the most riveting of topics. But, when she talks or writes about the invertebrates, you’re completely drawn in.

    The goal of her debut book, Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone is to get more people thinking about jellyfish, what they could be telling us about our oceans and climate change, and how we should all think more about the ocean’s impact on our world.

    “The reason jellyfish are so interesting and why we should be paying attention to them is because in today’s oceans, which are damaged, jellyfish are tending to do well at least in certain places,” Berwald says. “They are taking hold and changing ecosystems in fundamental ways. We need to understand that the oceans affect our health. They’re part of this global weather system that needs to be stable in order for us to have good lives on this planet.”

    They’re pretty heavy topics, but Juli Berwald somehow manages to present them in light, entertaining ways both in her book and her presentations.

    In Spineless, Berwald shows us jellyfish are more than just beach nuisances that wield painful stings. She takes us on a journey that reveals their somewhat ethereal presence and amazing qualities that have done much more good for our health than harm.

    For example, the glowing protein (what gives a jellyfish it’s bioluminescent abilities) extracted from the crystal jelly, has become a vital tool in cellular research and medicine.

    This book is also part memoir; even Berwald laughs at the unusual genre.

    “I knew it would have to have a story and memoir in it if it was going to be the kind of story I wanted to tell,” Berwald says. “So I thought, who is going to publish this book that falls in this weird space between memoir and science. I had a lot of doubts, but I also just couldn’t let go of it.”

    She documents her journey into “jellyfish journalism” and how her children are often not impressed with her Jerry Maguire-like factoids and culinary experiments (i.e. jellyfish salad).

    In her presentations, Berwald utilizes her humorous wit to captivate audiences about these ancient animals. She’s even written a humorous haiku that she encourages her listeners to help finish:

    “Consider the life of a jelly, its tentacles are like vermicelli. You might think it’s crass, but it eats with its ass because it has just one hole in it’s ____!” *Watch the video ^^^ for the answer.

    What makes all of this even more remarkable is that Berwald is from St. Louis and lives in Austin – both landlocked states. And, yet, she’s become an ardent protector of the ocean and ocean life, especially jellyfish. Her exuberance for the topic leaps off the pages in interesting examples and metaphors despite her previous occupation as a textbook writer.

    Through the process of writing Spineless, Berwald says she has learned to grow the backbone a jellyfish never could.

    “I’ve become aware that what really needs to happen is that I need to share my voice,” Berwald says. “Researching jellyfish nurtured a part of me that needed to be nurtured.”

    In the end, Berwald overcomes a huge personal hurdle, and ends up doing something she never thought she would ever do.

    Find out what she overcame, and more about jellyfish, in Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone and keep an eye out for her new ocean-themed book coming out in the future.

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