5 things we discussed in my #scio14 “social media as a scientific research tool” session

BloggingMarch 10, 2014

ScionlineAt ScienceOnline Together 2014, I moderated a session titled “social media as a scientific research tool” (background information here). We had a great discussion, and I wanted to thank everyone who came or participated virtually. For the benefit of those who couldn’t make it, I wanted to summarize our discussion.

1) Social media and “big data” can be an incredibly powerful research tool. The ability to study what hundreds/thousands/millions of people are saying, and therefore thinking, about a given topic has countless implications for research. I listed 5 examples in my background blog post, but we discussed many more in the session.

2) It is relatively easy to use social media as a research tool. Though some of the software, like Radian6, can be expensive, if your project is relatively small, it can be inexpensive (even free) and simple to get the data you need. To demonstrate this, attendee Edmund Hart performed an analysis of tweets about the NC Natural Sciences Museum within a few hours of my session ending. Someone made a NodeXL graph of the resulting #scioResearch twitter conversation before I had even gotten snacks in the break after my session. The programming involved is relatively simple, which means that, in the words of an attendee, even if you can’t do it yourself, buy your friendly neighborhood programmer a beer and they can do it for you quickly.

3) The ease in getting the data doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t involve a trained social scientist in study design and data analysis. In order to ensure that the data is analyzed correctly, be sure to involve someone in the project who is familiar with content and discourse analysis, the study of knowledge and attitudes, etc.  Just because you can easily obtain the data does not mean that you have the training needed to properly analyze it.  As has frequently been discussed, social science is a technical and rigorous discipline.

4) It is important to understand what data you AREN’T getting from social media. Any tool has its limitations. For example, if someone isn’t on twitter (for any reason, including but not limited to “doesn’t have a smartphone/computer” or “doesn’t live in an area with internet/3G”), then you simply won’t be able to study their knowledge and attitudes using their tweets.

5) There are important ethical considerations when using social media and “big data” to study certain subjects. While someone’s tweets are essentially public statements from a legal perspective, someone with only a few followers on twitter is probably not thinking of their tweets in this way. While a study like mine (knowledge and attitudes with respect to shark conservation and management) is unlikely to have any negative effect on the stakeholders I study, it is easy to see how a study that can detect medical conditions like post-partum depression can cause problems for the research subjects if the information gets into the wrong hands. As with any research involving humans, it is important to get approval from your Institutional Review Board (IRB).

Thanks again to all who participated in the discussion! If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments!

Thanks for your support of my SciFund crowdfunded shark research!

BloggingMarch 8, 2014


The SciFund Challenge came to a close last night. In total, more than 15 projects, including mine, were fully funded! More than $45,000 was raised for scientific research!

My minimum funding goal for this project was $3,000, an amount which would have allowed me to use stable isotope analysis to study the feeding ecology of shark species in two different habitats in south Florida, processing a total of 300 samples. This represented the minimum I’d need to perform one of my Ph.D. dissertation chapters. With the SciFund challenge now closed, I can report that (after credit card processing fees and Experiment.com’s fee), I will receive almost $8,000, more than twice my minimum goal and enough to process 800 samples from five different locations throughout south Florida!


I want to thank everyone who donated to my project or helped spread the word about it (it was featured by io9 and Smithsonian Magazine, as well as countless Facebook posts and tweets). 117 people donated to my project, and 12 of them will be joining our lab for a day of shark research. Thanks also to the SciFund Challenge and Experiment.com teams!

Don’t diss the dolphins

Blogging, ConservationMarch 6, 2014

Parsons Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in research projects in every continent except Antarctica. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) (the world’s  largest academic marine conservation conference) and is currently the Conference Chair and a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 100 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.

At a recent conference of marine scientists I attended, one of the speakers announced, albeit tongue in cheek, that they “hated dolphins”. This prompted a round of applause and cheers from the largely marine biologist audience, much to the chagrin of the marine mammal researchers in the audience (there were several, and almost all of these were involved in marine mammal conservation).That sort of attitude unfortunately is common in the marine biology community. There seems to be a misapprehension that dolphin researchers get all the glamour, glory and funding, and to paraphrase Yoda, this leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

I’ve been studying dolphins (mostly in conservation-focused research) for over 20 years, and admittedly it has led to some rather nice trips on boats, sometimes in warm tropical locations. But it has also been 20 years with marine biologist colleagues constantly commenting that dolphin research is not “real marine biology” – even to the extent of having a reviewer say that, in response to a manuscript. Within the marine mammal science professional societies this has led to the rather unfortunate situation where: (a) marine mammalogists keep themselves to themselves with their own journals and conferences and not mixing with many other streams of marine biology; (b) there is such a fear of being seen as “not a real scientist” that within the marine mammal science community there is frequently a stigma against doing any applied, or interdisciplinary, or non-pure science research, including research that is conservation-oriented. This is at a time when such research is drastically needed, with so many cetacean species being endangered. In fact, a study on cetacean science literature  determined that about half of the studies could be important to conservation, but unfortunately much of the information lies locked within the ivory tower, and the relatively few ivory towers of marine mammalogists at that.


Attack of the paranormal mermaid romance novel: Why you should never, ever lose a bet to David Shiffman

Popular Culture, Science FictionMarch 3, 2014

breakingblueTake heed, all those who would dare to gamble against David Shiffman. You will fail.

It seemed innocent enough. I was in the middle of a job search, paying the bills with consulting, freelance work, and science writing while pursuing the next academic appointment. Finally having a bit of time, I wrote a science fiction novel, something I’ve always wanted to do. Sometime last summer, our resident shark fanatic made a dangerous suggestion. “Why don’t you just cash in on the mermaid craze?” “Fine,” I said, “if I don’t land a job by 2014, I’ll write a marine science-inspired paranormal mermaid romance novel.”

It’s 2014. This is Breaching Blue.

Below, for your enjoyment, is the first chapter.

If you’re interested in my other writings, you can check out Fleet and Prepared on Amazon or read my short story, The Lucky Ones, at Nature. And a huge shout-out to Mark Gibson, who writes the excellent marine science blog, Breaching the Blue, and was kind enough to let me use the inadvertently parallel name. For obvious reasons, this is not the final draft.

Chapter 1: Sisters of the Reef

The reef was old. It rose out of the seamount, a honeycomb of chambers piled one on top of the other; each chamber perfectly sized for Janthia and her sisters. This reef was made for them.


Fun Science Friday – Using the Force to Detect Cancer…. Sorta

biology, Fun Science Friday, Natural ScienceFebruary 28, 2014

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish! What does that have to do with this week’s Southern Fried Science…. nothing! But that quote always makes me laugh.

This week we bring you another crazy break through in science that involves fruit flies and cancer. No, fruit flies do not cause cancer… that we know of. I am probably a little late on this, but the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is the newest weapon in the fight against cancer. Yes you heard that right, man has turned one of the more annoying creatures into something useful! Useful for humans that is. ;)

Side view of a  a 0.1 x 0.03 inch (2.5 x 0.8 mm) small male fruit fly. Credit: André Karwath

Side view of a a 0.1 x 0.03 inch (2.5 x 0.8 mm) small male fruit fly.
Credit: André Karwath


New “Rescue a Reef” citizen science project focuses on coral restoration. You can help!

UncategorizedFebruary 25, 2014

Rescue-a-Reef-logoCoral reefs provide critical habitat to countless unique species of animals and plants. However, many reefs are in trouble, being hammered by climate change, destructive fishing techniques, pollution, disease, and other threats. A coral restoration project at the University of Miami’s (UM) RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program aims to rescue Florida’s reefs through coral restoration. The research focuses on an important and endangered reef-building coral called staghorn.

How coral reef restoration works 

UM researchers grow staghorn coral in an underwater nursery to create a sustainable source of healthy coral colonies. Once a colony reaches the right size, the researchers  transplant these new corals  onto a damaged wild reef  through a process called “outplanting”. This creates a new population of corals that helps restore and conserve the natural reef.

Small colonies of staghorn coral outplanted in a nursery. Photo courtesy Dr. Diego Lirman.

Small colonies of staghorn coral growing in a nursery prior to transplantation onto damaged wild reefs. Photo courtesy Dr. Diego Lirman.


Dr. Diego Lirman, a professor at the University of Miami and a lead scientist of the Rescue a Reef program, said, “working on active coral reef restoration makes us feel part of the solution. After watching populations of important reef-building corals decline over the past three decades, we have an opportunity to contribute to their persistence and recovery. Using very simple techniques and inexpensive materials, we are exploiting a key attribute of the life history of branching corals (i.e., propagation by fragmentation) to create a sustainable and genetically diverse source of coral colonies for reef restoration and population recovery.”

This method of coral reef restoration has been used for decades and has been shown to be effective. Dr. Lirman’s team has outplanted over 2,500 staghorn coral colonies in recent years, and over 90% of them have survived.

How you can help

Donate! This project is supported by donations from the interested public, and you can donate here. Any amount helps, but larger donations have associated rewards, including:

1) Naming a patch of restored reef
2) Participating in a citizen science coral restoration trip, where you will be able to SCUBA dive with the Rescue a Reef research team and actively help plant and maintain coral nurseries!


Angler gives up world record to release massive shark alive

Blogging, ConservationFebruary 24, 2014

Scranton  attorney Michael Roth has been fishing since 1959, and has traveled around the world to pursue his hobby. “Fishing simply takes me to amazing places,” he told me, “from Alaska to Panama to the Eastern Caribbean.”  In January, Roth went on a fishing trip to the Turks and Caicos. While targeting sharks off Provo, he saw a huge blacktip shark cruise by and threw a red and orange fly in its path.

Photo courtesy Michael Roth

Photo courtesy Michael Roth

According to the International Game Fishing Association, the largest blacktip shark ever caught using the gear Roth was using (a fly rod with M-10 KG line) was 77 pounds. This blacktip was over 120 pounds, and would have easily set a new world record for this line class. However, International Game Fishing Association regulations require that animals submitted for a record must be weighed at an official weigh station. In this case (and in many other cases), this would have required killing the animal, as it would not have survived transport to the weigh station. Instead, Roth took a quick photo and released the shark.

“While I would love to be a world record holder, the thought of killing this beautiful animal was completely abhorrent to me,” Roth told me. “I felt so fortunate to have hooked and landed this spectacular fish. Killing it was always out of the question. Releasing this fish, and for me all fish,  to keep the species healthy is a top priority for me. I always encourage all anglers to catch and release.”

Want to name a shark and track it with Google Earth? Donate to my SciFund project!

BloggingFebruary 18, 2014

scifundThanks to the 73 people who have donated to my SciFund Challenge shark feeding ecology project so far, helping me to meet and surpass my minimum funding goal! I can still accept additional funds beyond my minimum funding goal, and all funds raised will still be used exclusively for lab processing fees.  As before, donations of any amount are appreciated, but larger donations have rewards.  One of the rewards for donating to my project is the opportunity to “adopt a shark,” supporting our lab’s ongoing shark satellite tag tracking research.

A satellite tag being attached to a bull shark

A satellite tag being attached to a bull shark

Specifically, the reward for a donation at the $3,000 level is that you get to name one of our lab’s GPS satellite tagged sharks, which can be tracked using Google Earth for up to 2 years. You can also give this reward as a gift, letting a shark lover in your life name the shark. Our tagged sharks, which include bull sharks, tiger sharks, and great and scalloped hammerheads have made amazing migrations sometimes exceeding 1,000 miles!

The movements of Bucky Badger the tiger shark, named by a U Wisconsin alumnus.

The movements of Bucky Badger the tiger shark, named by a U Wisconsin alumnus.

In addition to the opportunity to name one of our satellite tagged sharks, a donation at the $3,000 level includes all of the other rewards offered by my project, including the opportunity to join us in the field for a day of shark research.

One of our satellite-tagged hammerhead sharks. Photo credit Dr. Evan D'Allessandro

One of our satellite-tagged hammerhead sharks. Photo credit Dr. Evan D’Allessandro

You can learn more about the satellite tagging project here. You can learn about the steps we take to make our non-lethal research methods as stress free as possible to the sharks here. You can read the answers to some frequently asked questions about satellite tagging of sharks here. You can learn more about my project and make a donation here. Thanks for your continued support!

Help support marine biology SciFund projects!


scifundThanks for everyone who has donated to my SciFund Challenge shark feeding ecology project so far! Though I have surpassed my minimum funding goal of $3,000, I am still able to receive additional funds and all will be used for sample analysis fees. The offer to join us for a day of shark research still stands.

There are also other marine biology projects involved in the SciFund Challenge that need your support! A brief description of some (provided by the lead scientist on each project) is below, along with a link to learn more and donate.


Gills Club launches to inspire girls to pursue a career in marine biology

UncategorizedFebruary 17, 2014

a4d2a0_42219fc8cc5448adaf6844e8b685fa3a.png_srz_p_399_216_75_22_0.50_1.20_0A new organization called the Gills Club is connecting girls with female marine biologist role models.

Cynthia Wigren, President of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, told me that,

“Through Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC), I’ve met a lot of young girls who love sharks. The goal in founding the Gills Club was to connect girls interest in sharks to science. According to the National Science Foundation, women make up 46% of the total workforce, but hold only 24% of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.”

The Gills Club currently has more than 30 female marine biologists from all over the world who have volunteered their time. Every month, the newsletter highlights two of these scientists by letting them share their research, and online discussions allow girls to ask questions of these researchers. There are also in-person events at museums and science labs that give students the chance to meet scientists in person and learn in a more hands-on way.

Scenes from a recent Gills Club event. Photo courtesy Cynthia Wigren

Scenes from a recent Gills Club event. Photo courtesy Cynthia Wigren

“By introducing girls to female role models in shark research, I hope to jump start their interest in science. I hope the Gills Club will inspire girls to get involved, ask questions, soak up knowledge, and follow their passion wherever it leads,” Cynthia Wigren said.

If you are (or are the parent of) a girl 14 years old or younger, you can join the Gills Club for free from this link. You can also donate to AWSC here to help support the costs of the Gills Club.

Staff: Andrew David Thaler (919), David Shiffman (439), Amy Freitag (219), Guest Writer (35), Kersey Sturdivant (13), Chuck Bangley (12), Administrator (1), Sarah Keartes (1), Iris (1), Lyndell M. Bade (0), Michael Bok (0)
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