Reflections on the Boundary of Science and Policy

#SciComm, Conservation, Science Life, Social ScienceJune 20, 2016

People have dedicated their careers and spilled much ink on bettering relations across the science – policy divide. In recent years, whole institutions have sprung up in order to better communicate and work across this boundary, the kind of institution formally called a boundary organization. In short, the people who work at such places must know the language and culture of both sides, be able to navigate around the sensitivities of each, and serve as a trusted person in moving a conversation along. These people are often called “honest brokers” because of the importance of the trust they must gain and hold. As someone who’s now working on the boundary for a number of years in the marine conservation world, I have some reflections of how exactly that role is not so simple. Hopefully my top 10 reflections will be helpful in building the next generation of boundary spanners. (more…)

Life in the Ithilien ranger service

Field notes from Fantasy, UncategorizedJune 19, 2016

People call them the “Dead Marshes”, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The marshes are in fact incredibly biodiverse and productive. Admittedly that productivity has a lot to do with the slow decomposition of the corpses of men and elves, but they are productive nonetheless. The marsh vegetation also plays an important part in detoxifying the ecosystem. There is a slight problem with the level of mithril contamination in the marshes, but there are several marsh plants that sequester this trace element.

 Illithien ranger2

The marshes are also important sinks for carbon. Climate change is increasingly a concern in Middle Earth, what with the dramatic rise in dragon-related emissions and the felling and burning of Fangorn Forest, not to mention the carbon dioxide plume from Mount Doom.


Did monster hunters find a 120 meter long giant squid on google maps?

A Renewed Sense of WonderJune 17, 2016

oopsNo. No they did not.

I awoke this morning to a delightful flood of emails in my inbox pointing to this article: Has a KRAKEN been spotted on Google Earth? Monster hunters claim to have found 120m long giant squid-like creatureIn short, while exploring the area around Deception Island on Google Earth, some well-known anomaly hunters found a weird thing.

Google maps is full of weird things. The planet is full of weird things. Weird things are awesome.

Rather than dig just a little bit deeper, they went on to wax poetic about giant squids, busted out some measurement tools to determine that it was 120m long, and promptly alerted the press. Also, another anomaly hunter says it’s a UFO.

If, however, they had pulled up a nautical chart, they would have realized that this is Sail Rock, a well mapped outcropping that, from the sea, looks a bit like a ship under sail.

Sail Rock (

Sail Rock (

Update: Since I can’t find an easily-accessible nautical chart of the island online, here’s a high resolution scan showing the rock and its relation to Deception Island. 

Deception Island to King George Island

Sorry, folks, it ain’t a 120 meter long Kraken or an Underwater UFO. It’s a rock.

#JacquesWeek 2016 Official Schedule

EducationJune 16, 2016

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

Jacques Yves Cousteau

Summer is here, and with it comes the perennial ocean explosion that is Shark Week. Last year, in response to Shark Week burn out (heck, David and I even published a paper on it) and being tired of becoming the saltiest of wet blankets during a week where people are excited about the oceans, we launched #JacquesWeek! #JacquesWeek is an online alternative the Shark Week. We sourced and screened Jacques Cousteau documentaries from the early years all the way through his later works and provide context and discussion from an array of marine scientists and explorers.

#JacquesWeek is back!

From June 26 to July 1, we’ll feature classic Cousteau films, hold Twitter discussions, and host a few hangouts with experts to discuss these films and help put them into context. As with last year, we will try to provide as many free options as possible (due to some very complex issues surrounding copyright, the Cousteau estate, a production company that no longer exists, and some fascinating interpersonal politics, many of Cousteau’s earlier films are de facto public domain) but we will also be drawing from his later series: The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey, Jacques Cousteau Pacific Explorations and Jacques Cousteau River Explorations which you will have to track down on DVD (but don’t worry, alternate suggestions are also provided)

Are you ready for adventure?


Help crowdfund shark research: bycatch reduction with the loopy leader

fisheries, marine science, Natural Science, Science, sharksJune 15, 2016

GlennDr. Glenn R. Parsons is a 30 year veteran in the battle against University Administrators, bean-counting bureaucrats, and disinterested students (i.e. he is a Professor at Ole Miss). In his spare time he conducts research work on fish physiology and ecology and has published many papers on shark biology, primarily Gulf of Mexico species. He is author of the seminal book on sharks of the Gulf of Mexico entitled “Sharks, Skates and Rays of the Gulf of Mexico” and a popular novel entitled “Cherokee Summer” that could have been on the New York Times best seller list (if only it was better written and was backed by a high-powered agent like John Grisham’s). He received his PhD from the University of South Florida, School of Marine Science, MS from the University of South Alabama and BS from the University of Alabama. He was a DISL Marine Research Fellow, a Gulf Research Council Research Fellow, and a winner of a World Wildlife Fund, Smartgear Competition (for his bycatch research).

Folks, The world has witnessed an unparalleled decline in sharks that began about 30 years ago and has continued to the present. While the explanations for this decline are varied, scientists are in agreement that “bycatch” during fishing is one of the problems. Bycatch is the un-intended capture of non-target species during fishing. For example, commercial fishing for tuna and swordfish results in the capture of many sharks. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 50,000,000 sharks are taken as bycatch during commercial fishing. Unfortunately, many of these sharks do not survive the stress of capture (a topic that my lab has researched for many years). Fishers do not want these sharks (they are dangerous to handle and they damage fishing gear) and they would welcome new developments that would reduce or eliminate shark capture.


Help crowdfund shark research! Always chew your food – how freshwater stingrays gnaw on prey.

Natural Science, ScienceJune 14, 2016

MattMatt Kolmann is a PhD candidate whose research program is at the interface of evolution, comparative anatomy, and biomechanics. He completed his Master’s degree at Florida State University with Dr. Dean Grubbs on the feeding biomechanics and fisheries ecology of cownose rays, a purported pest on commercial shellfish. During this process he developed a love of field work, and since then has collected rays and other fishes on expeditions across South and Central America with the Royal Ontario Museum. His PhD research investigates the evolution of biodiversity using South American freshwater stingrays as a model system. The number of different feeding niches these stingrays occupy is astounding, and Matt is using gene-sequencing, comparative phylogenetic methods, and biomechanical modeling to characterize the evolutionary processes underlying this biodiversity. From June 8th through the end of Shark Week, he will be raising funds to delve more deeply into the evolution of feeding behavior in freshwater rays – specifically investigating whether freshwater rays ‘chew’ tough prey like insects in a manner comparable to mammals. Follow him on twitter! 

What role does our food have in explaining where we live, what we look like, and how we behave?  I study how properties of prey – material, structural, and ecological – shape the evolution of predators.  Specifically, I am interested in how animals adapt to novel foods and diets that pose unique challenges: prey that are tough, stiff, hard, or just generally robust.  I approach these questions at the macroevolutionary (how species are related) level; biodiversity lends insight into engineering and synthetic design based on an understanding of how animals evolve using similar organic principles.


Help crowdfund shark research: Quick(silver?) stingrays

marine science, Natural Science, ScienceJune 10, 2016

KadyKady Lyons is a Ph.D. candidate whose research focuses on the intersection of physiology, ecology and toxicology.  Her Master’s at Cal State Long Beach with Dr. Chris Lowe got her involved in elasmobranch toxicology.  She is interested in how elasmobranchs respond to anthropogenic contaminants and how contaminants can be used as another tool to study ecology.  Currently, her Ph.D. is examining how accumulation of these man-made contaminants influences round stingray growth and reproduction. As part of her Master’s work, she began to investigate mercury accumulation and body distribution of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, in elasmobranchs using the round stingray as a model species. She is continuing to work on this project and will be raising funds to finish this research as part of The Experiment’s Sharks Grant Challenge beginning June 8th and running through the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

Mercury concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere have significantly increased with human activities such as mining and fossil fuel burning.  Mercury can be transformed into its more dangerous form (methylmercury) and this form is what becomes concentrated in animals’ tissues.  For animals that occupy higher positions in the food web such as elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays), mercury can bioaccumulate to high levels due to their long life and carnivorous behavior.


Trading blue collars for scarlet robes, my working-class experience of academic life

Academic life, Life in the Lab, Personal Stories, Science, Science Life, Underrepresented Issues in Marine Science and ConservationJune 9, 2016


More people are going to college, graduate school, and obtaining PhDs in STEM fields than ever before (Figure 1), and a growing minority of these PhD candidates are non-traditional or not white affluent males. While we celebrate this change, let us not forget that academia was built by – and for – the “traditional” student. My favourite analogy to explain this type of ingrown privilege is bicycles on USA streets. Bicycles are legally allowed to be on streets, some streets even have extra space just for bicycles, but streets were designed for automobiles. You may be allowed and, in some areas, encouraged to get on the street with your bicycle, but biking a street is going to be intrinsically more difficult than if you were driving a car.


Like Marconi and La Bamba in a city built on rock and roll, you will inevitably end up in situations that conflict with your way of life. You will not receive a warning before you stumble upon these bumps, and you will be judged by how quickly you accept traditional standards (if you can).  I remember a conversation with traditional tenured and tenure-track scientists discussing proposals for a large grant scheme. One tenure-track scientist was lamenting the process of shopping for editors for his proposal. He talked about it freely, how there were two companies that charged different rates and he was in talks with one but that company felt a conflict of interest that he had worked with another rival editing company. The rest of the traditional scientists nodded in mutual understanding. Finding good, cheap editors to improve your work is hard. My working-class ethos was busy screaming inside my head.  How can hiring someone to edit and improve written works that you will ultimately be rewarded for be so blithely acceptable? You’re not allowed to hire editors for any task throughout your training. You learn how to write from earning disappointing grades (or failing grant applications). You read more, you study written works, you develop a voice, and you try again. The results get better until you are at an appropriate level to move up another notch on the ladder, right? Not for traditionals.

Here are some more bizarre “traditional” customs you should expect if you are biking down the academic street:


Dive the Wreck of the Steamship Tahoe with OpenROV!

A Renewed Sense of Wonder, Education, Oceanography for EveryoneJune 6, 2016

OpenROVOne-hundred-fifty meters hardly seems like anything at all.

Standing in the parking lot of OpenROV, I pace out 150 meters. The small sign, hanging against the wall of the battered warehouse, pointing visitors towards the entrance, is clear.

One-hundred fifty meters is less than half a lap around a standard running track. It’s the height of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, the tallest building in the world, 700 years ago. The fastest man in the world could cover 150 meters in 14 seconds.

On land, 150 meters is barely noteworthy. Plunge into the sea and 150 meters is the wine dark deep. It is the edge of the photic zone, a world of eternal twilight. It is three times deeper than most SCUBA divers will ever venture. At 150 meters, the water pushes down with the weight of 16 atmospheres.

And, if you climb high into the Sierra Mountains and descend into the frigid alpine waters of Lake Tahoe, just off the coast of Glenbrook, Nevada, lying on a steep glacial slope at 150 meters depth is the wreck of the Steamship Tahoe.


The Importance of Scientific Discovery and Communication for a General Science Audience

#SciComm, Challenging the Conventional Narrative, Education, Natural ScienceJune 3, 2016

The impetus for this piece was an essay I wrote for iBiology a year or so ago discussing the importance of scientific discovery for a a general science audience (i.e., our science peers who are not in our respective field). I was excited to write the piece because a lot of the Science FRIEDay articles I write focus on relatively recent scientific discoveries, and this article is more of an opinion piece. So why is scientific discovery important for an audience of science peers who do not explicitly work in our specific field?

It is easy to marvel at the wonders that exist on our planet and in the surrounding universe, the known discoveries. As a natural scientist, I also appreciate the beauty in the hidden mysteries of the natural world, those processes, behaviors, and functions that we have yet to elucidate. The notion and concept of scientific discovery is romanticized as a purist’s deed. Edwin Hubble said it best, “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls that adventure Science.” A scientist’s basal desire is to further the state of knowledge, but equally we crave information about the fields of knowledge that are expanding around us, of which we are not explicitly involved. We aspire to understand the “99%”, at the very least surficially. The importance of this desire explains why scientific conferences play a major role in our profession, and journals such as Science and Nature are so popular. Yes, we as scientist want to share our new discoveries, but we are also equally as intrigued about what others have accomplished; we want to know how science is progressing outside of our bubble, especially those really groundbreaking feats. These coupled characteristics are a necessary component of science. Hearing and learning about the work of others fuels one’s own scientific passions to go and do more, and can often challenge an individual to think more creatively about their own research ideas and approaches. To a general audience of our scientific peers, sharing scientific discovery temporarily satiates the yearning that scientists have about the progression of knowledge, but also can serve as motivation and inspiration.

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