My name is Chris Petranek and I study bumble bee physiology as a graduate student at the University of Wyoming.
Before I got here, my research was focused on conservation population biology of obscure bumble bee species in Mexico and Guatemala. Communicating the relevance of the science was not difficult, especially since it coincided with the popularity of “saving the bees”. While I think science motivated by an obvious benefit to society is fine, science for the sake of itself is incredibly important, as many game-changing discoveries were happenstance, e.g. penicillin, X-rays, and super glue. Research on creatures spanning the tree of life can provide apparently unlikely insight to myriad issues pressing mankind, even if the studies seem entirely trivial at face value.
Expensive studies on the eyelashes of mammals and insects conclude that these hairs deflect particles from being deposited on the surface of eyes and reduce evaporation from wet eyeballs. These studies have been denounced by legislators as “wasteful” spending of government money on science, yet the authors point out that solar panels worldwide could be made more efficient just by the addition of small hairs to their surfaces (1).
It is difficult to convey why apparently silly science experiments are worth the time and money, but I think to do so is an important part of effective science communication. Science can seem dry, uninteresting, and trivial but this isn’t the fault of the scientific endeavor at large. The responsibility of making science interesting again lies with scientists and science educators. Since I serve both of these roles, I am interested in being the best science communicator I can.
On an average day in the lab, I might be tying little weights to bumble bees, waxing bumble bees to remove their hair, or using expensive high-speed video equipment to film a bee flying in a plastic box. There is a chance this research could change the way we think about exercise physiology, insect locomotion, dispersal, and energy use, thermal dynamics, and/or aerodynamics in general. However, it is probably more likely it will simply tell us a few things we already knew about bumble bees. The prospect of monumental discovery portrays science as a noble and worthwhile endeavor, and the apparent uselessness of many experiments paints a picture of nerds wasting money. In reality, I think science can be both of these things but is most often a longstanding human occupation geared towards furthering our knowledge of the natural world, no matter how small those increments of information gain are.
Thus, science communication interests me because I can’t yet paint a picture of science (my work or in general) that inherently makes it seem interesting, dispels scrutiny, and doesn’t build it up so much as to instill disappointment. Even when discussing a basic research idea, I hope the audience I interact with at least is left with some appreciation for the virtue of finding things out.
Nobel prize winner Dr. Hu’s reflection on the wastefulness of his research (meta blogging?):
More u know pic:
Howdy, Internet! I'm Dan Albrecht-Mallinger, and I'll be taking the reins of the Science Communication Blog for the coming week. Most of my posts will be discussing public art, public science, and how scientists and non-scientists interact with these projects, but I'll use this first post to introduce myself.
I grew up in Indiana, and I have worked as a biologist in Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, the Bahamas, Argentina, and New Zealand. I completed a Masters in Biology at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014, where I studied conservation methods for the declining Golden-winged Warbler.
I'm entering my third year of doctoral work at the University of Wyoming. My research focuses forest birds in Panama, and how their populations will respond to the droughts that are predicted to occur in tropical forests with climate change. Previous research by my advisor Dr. Corey Tarwater and her collaborators found that the populations of several iconic Panamanian forest birds decline in dry years.
One drought response from this study is of particular interest to me: the alarmingly negative response of Blue-crowned and Red-capped Manakins.
Manakins are a family of small, colorful birds found only in Central and South America. They come in a wild variety of colors, but all manakins have two things in common. First, they dance; males gather in groups known as "leks", where they perform manic and hilarious acrobatics for visiting females.
Second, manakins eat fruit–lots and lots of fruit. Manakins are among the most abundant and voracious frugivores (that is, fruit-eating animals) in lowland rainforests. Plant species have co-evolved with manakins, often competing with one another for manakins' essential service of carrying seeds across the forest and…depositing them.
The possibility that these charming birds will suffer as climate change limits rainfall spells disaster not only for manakins, but also for the plants that rely on them to disperse their seeds.
To gain a better understanding of why these birds decline in dry years, I am studying changes in their abundance, behavior, and physical condition along a natural rainfall gradient in Panama. The Caribbean forest of Panamá receives twice as much annual precipitation as forests on the Pacific side.
By measuring changes in local abundance of manakins, the length of mating periods, and weight or metabolically stress from the Caribbean to the Pacific, this study will provide a model of how manakin populations will experience the droughts forecast for the coming century.
Tropical biology is a new topic for many audiences, and the climate change can be difficult to describe and discuss. My professional goal is to introduce these topics approachably, accurately, and humorously when possible, so that people can understand the strange wonder of tropical birds, and how they are responding to the warming globe.
Well, that's all I have for an introduction. I look forward to posting about public art/science in the coming days. For now, I'll leave you with a video of a bird on one of my study sites trying (and failing) to woo a female with his sweet moves.
So, you might ask yourself, how does one become a scientist? For me, it started with my passion and curiosity for our world's creatures. I have always loved animals, and I sought a career path where I could work with them. I graduated with a BS in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences from the Pennsylvania State University in 2012. Shortly after, I signed onto a project surveying frogs and salamanders in north-central Pennsylvanian State Forests. Growing up, I loved catching all sorts of amphibians, so I found such fulfillment getting paid to do my favorite childhood activity! During my time on this project, a paper was published, titled "Trends in Amphibian Occupancy in the United States", that opened my eyes to the plight of amphibians globally. Here it is if you want to check it out.
Essentially, amphibians are undergoing global population declines, and many species will become extinct if nothing is done to help them. I want to keep amphibians around so future generations can experience the same joys that I did growing up - whether that be catching bullfrogs in ponds or flipping rocks on the hunt for a slimy salamander. I determined that I can help the critters I love by pursuing a career researching them. My research endeavors are twofold: (1) to study the factors influencing regional amphibian population declines, and (2) to ensure that my research can be easily applied by managers for amphibian conservation efforts
I recently defended my MS thesis in Watershed Sciences from Murray State University, where I was working on a model predicting areas where an amphibian-killing fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), could be found in west-central Colorado. For the past four summers, I was based out of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where I was primarily working with Bd data from Arizona Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma mavortium nebulosum, top and right) and the Colorado state-endangered boreal toad (Anaxyrus boreas boreas). For my PhD, I will be studying the range of available resources and ability for amphibians to access those resources across spatial scales.
I decided to improve my scientific communication skills at the start of my PhD because I have been frequently approached and asked about my work. In most cases, people are curious and interested with what I do. However, I have been met with disgust enough times for it to bother me. I think amphibians are incredible, beautiful creatures that are severely misunderstood. Therefore, I want to learn the skills to effectively communicate both my research and how amazing amphibians are to even the greatest skeptic. With the right skill set, I hope to instill a sense of fascination and inspiration to help our semi-aquatic friends to as many people as possible.
Thank you, and please leave comments if you have any questions.
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