BIMS feature-A Journey to Greatness; from medical doctor to a marine scientist

by Frank Mirobo, BIMS member and WIO-ECSN Secretary-General (Tanzania) and a Co-founder of SOAHub in Zanzibar. 

Frank Mirobo

My name is Frank Mirobo, a young passionate, dedicated, enthusiastic , Black marine researcher from Tanzania. I currently serve as a Secretary General of the Western Indian Ocean Early Career Scientist Network (WIO-ECSN) a youth network affiliated under Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) In the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) region. Moreover, I am a Co-coordinator of the UN Ocean Decade Booklet in Africa, co-founder of Sustainable Ocean Alliance hub in Zanzibar-Tanzania, Climate change advocate, science communicator, author, editor and a marine sciences blogger.

How did all this come to exist, believe me as Kurt Vonnegut says, “Science is magic that works.” My journey to become a young Black marine scientist came about when I wasn’t selected for medical schools after completing high school back in 2014.

At that time I didn’t have so many options of which other career I could pursue and get engaged in. I grew up in a family of medical professionals (my father being one of the great surgeons and my mom a nurse) where I was so inspired to become a medical doctor, a work of my late father Dr. Mirobo.

Nature selected me otherwise to pursue a career of biological sciences where at that point in time I knew nothing about the course or what I would become after I completed the program. “Would I be a school teacher or a biologist? What does a biologist do and how would I fit in in the world employment opportunities?

Those where some of the questions that were rotating in my mind as I saw the degree program I was placed in after being dropped off from medical schools due to over application. It was confusing as to what I would become after completing the degree program (Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Dodoma-Tanzania).

Frank at different field sites collecting marine data and awareness to coastal communities.

Coming from the third world countries, most of us at that time didn’t have exposure as to what the role of biologists was in nature and what we only knew was that they are people who studied biology. ” Where do they work or what is their application in real life and what do they contribute in nature?” was a struggle to answer at that time. I reached out to some of my friends who were selected together in that degree program, but all of them were not familiar with the program either. “What mess am getting myself into?” was another question in my mind!

My mother knew my passion way back and she always wanted me to be the next version of my daddy in the family. She suggested taking me to one of the private universities to pursue my dream of becoming a medical doctor. But I turned down the offer as she was supposed to pay the university fees from her own pocket for 5 years while in the Government University where I was selected, I got 83% of the loan to pursue BSc Biology. I didn’t have other options. Either I studied the selected course or I stayed home to wait and then apply the next year again for medical schools.

That was a turning point in my life as I personally didn’t want to put my mom in the same situation of covering my university expenses as she has been doing so for my secondary and high school already. I took the course and it’s where everything changed to the greatness that works for me today.

What made me study Marine science?

In my freshmen year at the University of Dodoma, I was trying to figure out what the course was really all about and what the future would be. As I was introduced to different courses of biology, my interest grew in the area of aquatic sciences . That’s where I met Dr. Mariam ndwata and Dr. Yussuf Salum Who introduced me to the course and started to plant the seeds that today have grown up.

Frank & Dr. Salum attending the 10th WIOMSA symposium

After class, both spent their free time to inspire us on how much potential the program had and what we might become if we focused in the area of aquatic sciences. My curiosity made me always find time to talk with them and learn something about the path they had taken to become who they are today. It was inspiring and started giving me hope as to the great future ahead.  

In my sophomore year, I met Dr. Asiya Nchimbi, who just completed her masters at that time , and she had a lot to offer in terms of fresh experiences in the field and opportunities. Later, I met Dr. Salum Hamed in one of the courses (Aquaculture), who had just completed his PhD on marine sciences, and who took me through the journey of becoming a passionate, and dedicated marine researcher. He became my mentor and supervisor in my third year’s special project together with Dr. Narriman Jiddawi (hidden icon in WIO region) from the Institute of Marine Sciences Zanzibar, under the University of Dar es salaam. Both had a lot to offer as to who I am today.

It’s because of their great supervision I was selected as a first undergraduate student from my university to present my third year project at the WIOMSA international symposium in 2017. No undergraduate student at that time had done it in Tanzanian Universities. The history was made!

The exposure I received at that early stage in my career growth, made me always want more and inspired me to be a driver of change in my own community. It’s through these different people that I aspired to become a marine scientist and I don’t regret any points along this journey.

What is so special about Marine sciences?

Marine science it’s a new frontier to Black communities across Africa. We were living in the era where most of the senior marine researchers were not people of color and all the great names in the field belonged to no Black people at that time. Marine sciences is pretty a unique career, interesting, and there are a lot of aspects to still be explored. The field enables us to explore the unseen and the unusual. Swimming with sharks and whales was not something usual for human kind at one time.

Frank(far right) & other officials at the official UN booklet launch.

As a young Black marine researcher this career has made me conquer my fear and connect with different people across the globe. Marine sciences has broken barriers and open doors that I have never thought at my younger age that I would be able to get involved with.

Through the youth network (WIO-ECSN) I have been able to grow my career and connect with people of different specializations in the field. As a person passionate on fisheries, aquaculture, climate change, marine policy, marine debris and conservation of endangered marine megafaunas, I have experienced how our ocean is destroyed and how crucial it is to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.

At my young age am working as a secretary general of one of the great youth network in the 10 WIO countries in the region. It’s because of this I was selected by the IOC UNESCO Africa and my network to Co-Coordinate the United Nations Ocean Decade Booklet for the African continent ( ) which to me it’s a huge gain as only senior researchers tend to do this kind of work due to the fact that they have more experience in the field. Together with my colleagues in our network, we have been working and continue working tirelessly to implement the UN Ocean Decade agenda 2030 “The science we need for the ocean we want in Africa”.

As a science communicator and climate change activist, I use my social media platforms to inspire, connect and provide knowledge to different groups of people in the region. It’s through this that I established an outreach program to secondary students in my community in Zanzibar in order to tackle the challenges of ocean literacy to Black communities in the coastal areas.

This provides them with essential knowledge that will enable them to directly engage in the conservations, initiatives and protect the future of our ocean in our country.  It’s very fun and I enjoy my time with the younger generation as they are eager to learn and they are the agents of change.

Going out in the field is the most interesting part of the program. You can see how these young Black kids have energy to learn and provide solutions to better management of the Marine ecosystem. This gives me courage as a young Black researcher to do more as my community expects a lot from me and hence this is right the time.

Outreach program; A field practical for secondary students on the important Marine ecosystems in Zanzibar Tanzania.

Being a focal point in the region has made me learn that every person has something to contribute no matter how small it can be. The togetherness and readiness to working with different groups of people has made me connect with various people and make an impact in my region.

Throughout my career growth, I have been improving my knowledge on different aspects of Marine sciences through training, workshops, webinars, presentation and actual field visits.

Frank with global colleagues spreading awareness on protecting Deep Sea in Lisbon 2022

I have been also involved in a Marine policy brief in which I have been on the frontline to raise awareness on the “Deep Sea Mining in Africa. Together with my colleagues, we produced a policy brief that addresses the need of investing in first understanding the process and its impact to the coastal communities before the startup of the process of deep sea mining in African waters. Africa as a continent has been seen to be silent when it comes to the agenda of deep sea mining despite the fact that it’s a world hot spot in terms of exploitation and marine resources.

If I am asked to explain how wonderfully the Marine sciences has changed my life, I will spend a million days trying to explain how amazing the field is. I am still a junior researcher and there a so many stories to be told, as well as opportunities that will allow the people of color to explore and protect the ocean. I always believe that everything that is meant to happen in your life will happen according to GOD’s plans.

Today, I encourage all the Black enthusiastic youth out there to keep going and pushing for what they believe is meant for them. Nature selected me to be in the Marine sciences. I have given it all knowing that this is what is meant for my greatness and therefore I have to offer the best in me.

I don’t regret the choices I made but rather I cherish them every single day of my life as they have brought the greatness out in me. I always remain thankful to those who inspired me to get into the field as they saw a potential in me and there is so much potential in the field of Aquatic sciences.

Always remember “Black is Magic and it’s meant to be cherished”, being a person of color doesn’t mean you are not meant for greatness in this field. You are great already. Don’t hold your fears in front of you but rather work to remove them.

Frank Mirobo

As the sun sets, let us keep in mind we have potential. We are powerful and magnificent, and the Ocean sciences belong to every one of us. Let us keep up the good work. If I went through this journey of hardship and still find my greatness and deliver the work, hence you other Black young geniuses out there can do better and even better than me no matter what career struggles and choices you have made. “Just conquer what you fear the most” and let the journey to greatness begin.

Frank pictured here with BIMS founder and C.E.O. , Tiara Moore

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Connect with me through

Facebook: @Frank Mirobo

LinkedIn: @frank mirobo

Mr. Frank Mirobo

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via Twitter BlackinMarSci and

Art in Bio features Undergraduate student Kathleen Lu

by Kaitlyn M. Murphy, Ph.D. Candidate at Auburn University, Janzen Lab Alum , Warner & Mendonca Labs

This year’s SICB in Austin, TX was chockfull of integrative and premier research that built on new and continuing concepts in biology subfields. When perusing one of the afternoon poster sessions during the meeting, I came across Ms. Kathleen Lu’s work from Binghamton University entitled “Impact of art on public perception and student comprehension of disease ecology research.”

For this project, Kathleen and her co-authors developed an art exhibit on teaching disease ecology where two studies allowed 1) visitors to report their interest in science and research before and after viewing the exhibit and 2) upper-level undergraduate students in STEM to explore the art exhibit as a teaching method and evaluate their topic comprehension. For the latter experiment, students were divided into three groups: (A) only art exhibit engagement, (B) read only the abstracts of papers and not visiting the exhibit, or (C) neither method used.

Art by Ben McLauchlin utilized in Ms. Lu’s research.

“The art show featured in my poster was actually the (art)work of another undergraduate in the lab, Ben McLauchlin… it was physical paintings and digital graphics. He also utilized 3D sculptures, videos of trematode movement, and an aquarium containing live tadpoles. From that, we saw that engaging with science-art improved perceptions/interest in research for 2 groups of participants (backgrounds of non-STEM and general-STEM). However, the non-STEM group exhibited the most improvement. So we noticed that audience background played a big role in how this alternative science communication method affected them,” says Kathleen. “When we later invited only upper-level ecology students, we found that students that read the abstracts had better short-term comprehension than those who viewed the art exhibit. We think that this is because art naturally targets the affective, or emotional, side of learning rather than the cognitive.”

Art by Ben McLauchlin utilized in Ms. Lu’s research.

After speaking with Kathleen about the findings from the study, I wanted to know more about how the project was developed and where these ideas for integrating art and science stemmed from. “I’ve loved drawing since I was a kid. When I started college, I stopped consistently engaging with my hobbies. It was hard to feel motivated to be creative when I always had a homework assignment to do or an exam I had to study for. In the meantime, I did 2 poster presentations in my sophomore-junior years, and designing + presenting the posters were some of my favorite parts about the whole scientific process,” Kathleen says. “A while back, I received an email about how the Hua Lab was looking for an illustrator for a graphic novel about ecology. I immediately signed up; it sounded like a way for me to combine my interest in science and art. That really kickstarted my interest in science communication!”

Kathleen and co-authors are planning another art show to expand their study. “In the next art show that I’m contributing to, I’m planning on doing everything in canvas and acrylic paint. It’s also going to be a little different from the last one in that we’re also investigating how the experiences of the various artists and how their experience affects the final art show,” Kathleen says. “There will also be more artists involved than in the last art show and different mediums. Additionally, we’re planning on holding it in 2 different locations (Madison, WI & Binghamton, NY) so there’s more opportunity to compare the effects of audience backgrounds. So far we’ve only done visual art, but I think it would be cool to experiment with stuff like poetry or music!”

When asked about whether science and art relate, Kathleen says “Before getting involved in research, I probably would’ve said science and art are totally opposite fields with almost nothing in common. I would have said that science is about hard facts and logic, and art is about imagination and emotions. Right vs. left side of the brain, etc. But I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of intersectionality. I think science – especially biology – serves as a great inspiration for art. And art is a really good way to catch people’s attention and make research more compelling to outsiders.”  Like many others at this year’s SICB, Kathleen noticed that “…there were a bunch of posters at SICB that I was drawn to by their clever, eye-catching designs! My lab has been seeing that using art in education is great for improving engagement with research. So I definitely recommend that more scientists engage in creativity. I think that doing both science and art require patience, creativity, and attention to detail. Maybe that’s why I enjoy both?”

Another co-author on this project, Ms. Kyra Ricci from the University of Wisconsin – Madison gave a talk entitled “Communicating disease ecology through art: an empirical investigation.” Kyra and colleagues designed a graphic novel on using art to engage 3rd grade students. “In the graphic novel (which Kyra mentioned in her talk), our team used digital illustration programs like Krita and Adobe InDesign. Kyra just had a manuscript about this project get accepted into the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. It is in their 2023 Special Issue on Science Literacy!” adds Kathleen. To read out more about this interesting work, check out this link!

Also , another Art/Sci related resource

This book is a portal into this new understanding about how the arts and aesthetics can help us transform traditional medicine, build healthier communities, and mend an aching planet.

Featuring conversations with artists such as David Byrne, Renée Fleming, and evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, Your Brain On Art is an authoritative guide neuroaesthetics. The book weaves a tapestry of breakthrough research, insights from multidisciplinary pioneers, and compelling stories from people who are using the arts to enhance their lives.



Connect with Kaitlynn


Cuddling up to science with the dwarf cuttlefish

by Brent Foster, Whitney Laboratory, University of Florida

Finding a scientific niche may be a bit like trying to spot a camouflaged dwarf cuttlefish in a saltwater tank. At first, all you can see are rocks and bobbing tendrils of orange finger corals. But if you wait patiently, you might suddenly see the rock morph into something alive and fluttering.

CuttleCam video; frameborder=”0″ width=”720″ height=”576″></iframe>

“You never really know where your life is gonna go,” said Tessa Montague, a post-doc who studies cuttlefish camouflage behavior in the Axel lab at Columbia University. Tessa’s path of self-discovery did not start with a personal aquarium or with a burning curiosity. In fact, she didn’t grow up wanting to be a scientist at all. Not at first, anyway. As a kid, she had dreams of becoming a CIA agent and even kick-boxed her way to a blackbelt.

“This wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out plan,” she said with a chuckle. “But I knew I wanted to go to a good university and probably study science.” She described her time during a summer research program as just an opportunity for another line in her CV. But one day everything changed when she cracked open the top of a chicken egg and zoomed in with a microscope to see an embryo with a tiny little heart beating.

“That just blew my mind,” Tessa said. “And I realized, I think I want to be a scientist.”

She dabbled in a number of animals and projects, from a Master’s thesis in Drosophila embryonic development to PhD rotations with zebrafish development, mouse neuroscience, even yeast transcriptional dynamics. She loved the nuance and idiosyncrasy of each new organism as she developed quirky skills that only scientists can truly appreciate—she proudly told me “I was really good at dissecting fly guts,” a brag you don’t hear too often.

Mice, however, proved too much. Her first experience trying to inject a mouse ended in a bleeding finger, a flying mouse, a ducking post-doc, and shouting all around. All in all, not a natural fit.

But what would be a natural fit after her graduate degree?

“During my PhD, I was thinking about the future and what I wanted to study in my post-doc,” Tessa said. By this point she realized how competitive and terrifying the world of academia could be. But what got Tessa excited and inspired were talks where scientists asked big new questions in new model organisms. “Somehow if I imagined creating my own niche by studying a weird question in a weird system, I felt comfort and excitement rather than fear,” she said.

Then, at the MBL embryology course in Woods Hole, Tessa was introduced to cephalopods and their crazy biology—massive brains, blue blood, three hearts. Oh, and a way of representing the visual world on their skin. She was particularly drawn towards the dwarf cuttlefish.

“It was literally like my whole life flashed before me,” Tessa said. “It’s not that often you get that moment, but everything clicked.” She shared her epiphany with her PhD advisor, who tempered her excitement by reminding her that she should really start with a question and not with an organism. The problem—or perhaps advantage—was that there were so many unanswered questions. Finally, Tessa came up with the idea to use the dwarf cuttlefish’s neurally-controlled camouflage ability to understand how the brain internally processes and perceives the visual world. She just had to choose a lab with the creativity and expertise to help her answer her research question. So she weighed her options.

Option 1: Find a cephalopod lab. They’d have experience raising the animals and designing cephalopod behavioral experiments. But they might not necessarily have expertise in systems neuroscience.

Option 2: Find a systems or molecular neuroscience lab and bring the cephalopods to them. Sure, she’d have to figure out how to keep the animals alive, but the lab would have the resources to develop transgenic animals and the expertise to interpret neural imaging data.

In the end, Tessa chose to take her project to Richard Axel’s lab at Columbia University, which studies olfaction in mice and Drosophila. On the surface, mouse and fruit fly olfaction don’t have much in common with cuttlefish camouflage. But Tessa and her colleagues in the lab share the same fundamental research question: How do animals create an internal representation of the sensory world?

Getting the project started has been bumpy. It took months to get the saltwater system to a point where it could support marine life. And when the cuttlefish finally arrived, they were sickly little animals that wouldn’t eat, let alone camouflage.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, what if this project completely collapses?’” Tessa recalled. “We’re just putting the animals in the tank and frantically saying, ‘Please do something magical for us!’”

Keeping cuttlefish alive is a chore. They eat and poop a lot, and they’re extremely sensitive to changes in water quality. To feed baby cuttlefish, a lab tech has to count out every single tiny shrimp to make sure the babies are not over- or underfed. And not just for one animal—currently, the facility at Columbia University holds over 200 cuttlefish.

The research can be just as rocky. Tessa’s end goal is to manipulate the dwarf cuttlefish genome and record neural activity during camouflaging. Never mind that no one had sequenced the cuttlefish genome and that virtually zero transgenic tools have been adapted for cephalopods. All of that takes time, setbacks, and a firm determination to see things through.

cuttlefish from

Once armed with a sequenced genome, an assembled transcriptome, and ATAC-seq data to identify candidate cuttlefish promoters, Tessa is poised to use the meganuclease, I-SceI, to integrate GCaMP and other fluorescent proteins to make the first transgenic cuttlefish.

“Every time I say what method I’m using to make transgenics, someone says, ‘Have you thought about this?’ and then I have this moment when I think, ‘Well, maybe I should try that,’” Tessa said. Choosing the right method to develop tools for a non-model organism requires a certain type of balancing act. At what point do you decide to move on versus give something another chance?

“We don’t have a transgenic cuttlefish yet,” Tessa is quick to say. And with a progeny rate of between 10–50 embryos per spawn, cuttlefish aren’t all that prolific. They also seem pretty sensitive to injections, with a final survival rate approaching 25%.

“It is brutal,” said Tessa. “These embryos test my optimism and hope. They’re just fighting me. But I’m fighting back.”

Studying cuttlefish camouflage has its bright spots, too. At the 2023 SICB conference in Austin, Tessa presented the “highlights reel” of some of her cuttlefish behavioral experiments. Using a digital display that does not emit light, she showed that cuttlefish can camouflage to artificial stimuli. In another experiment mimicking conditions for imaging a cuttlefish brain with a microscope, Tessa demonstrated that a cuttlefish with its head in a harness can camouflage when walking along a fabric treadmill that changes color.

video: treadmill-camouflage-10pfs-edit-smaller

“This has been very encouraging,” she said. That kind of optimism and determination can temper the challenges of scientific research, especially with an animal as bizarre as the dwarf cuttlefish.

Tessa is no slouch when it comes to sharing her research. She created Cuttlebase, a website for public outreach that also shares some of the scientific tools she’s helped develop. Her own personal website hosts a CuttleCam livestream where anyone can play “Where’s Waldo?” and practice identifying interesting cuttlefish behavior, inspiring oohs and awes from viewers all around the world.

Tessa is also quick to admit how humbling it is to work with these amazing animals. In a recent tweet that may well stand as a symbol for biology researchers everywhere, she shared a short video of a dwarf cuttlefish rippling with bands of light and dark.

“I’m learning to speak cuttlefish,” she tweeted, “but I still don’t know what these skin waves mean . . . Any ideas?”

connect with Tessa via Twitter

And see

Connect with ICB blogger Brent Foster


Lunar lessons from Platynereis: what can marine worms teach us about our relationship with the moon?

by Joseph Mack, PhD Candidate, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park

When I wake up in the morning, I make a conscious effort to raise my blinds. Letting natural sunlight pour into my apartment has become a helpful ritual to increase my energy and motivation in the later stages of graduate school. When I do this, I am tapping into a primordial endogenous rhythm that shared by most life on Earth.

Many of us know that solar input is critical to maintain the molecular feedback loops that trigger periodic shifts between rest and activity in animals. At this year’s SICB conference, I was surprised to learn that many animals also rely on moonlight to maintain periodic behaviors. For example, corals and crabs rely on information from both the sun and the moon to precisely coordinate migrations and spawning events.

Dr. Kristin Tessmar-Raible

While much is known about the molecular basis of sun-modulated behaviors, much less is known about the molecular mechanisms that control moon-modulated behaviors. In her talk at the neuroethology and gene editing symposium, Dr. Kristin Tessmar-Raible presented research describing molecular mechanisms that explain moon-controlled behaviors in the marine annelid Platynereis dumerilii. Recently published with colleagues in the journal PNAS, her research reminded me of the important lessons that we can learn from fundamental research on invertebrates and challenges us to reflect on our own neglected relationship with moonlight.

As an understudied invertebrate phylum, annelid worms are often overlooked as models for molecular behavioral studies. However, the small bristle worm Platynereis dumerilii has risen above its segmented relatives to become a prominent model for neuroscience, development, and behavior. Like all great model organisms, P. dumerilii has a wealth of molecular tools available and can be raised in laboratory cultures. However, part of what makes P. dumerilii such an exceptional model is its relationship with the moon.

An adult Platynereis dumerilii worm.
Playnereis dumerilii worms in a culture tank.

In an elegant recapitulation of August Krogh’s principle that there is an ideal model species for every biological question, P. dumerilii is the only organism with prominent moon-controlled behaviors that can be investigated at molecular and functional levels in the lab.

In the wild, at times when the night is darkest, P. dumerilii adults are compelled toward a dramatic transformation. In a process known as epitoky, these worms lose their guts, develop bulbous eyes, and fill their coelom with gametes. Males and females then swim up of from the bottom before bursting in the water column to release sperm and eggs in an explosive and fatal ritual. But how do P. dumerilii worms know to precisely coordinate this swarming event as lunar input changes throughout the month?

Female (top) and male (bottom) Platynereis dumerilii epitokes.

Using lab grown worms, artificial moonlight, knockdown mutants, and immunohistochemistry, Dr. Tessmar-Raible and her colleagues demonstrated that the synchronized swarming observed in P. dumerilii originates from a plastic molecular circuit that is modulated by moonlight. Most annelids and invertebrates are inaccessible to genetic manipulation and visualization techniques, making functional research in P. dumerilii particularly valuable to invertebrate biology.

As their research progresses, Dr. Tessmar-Raible and her colleagues continue to apply new techniques to P. dumerilii. In an upcoming issue of the ICB journal, she will be one of the senior authors on a paper describing a combinatorial technique to simultaneously visualize gene expression, protein localization, and cell proliferation in P. dumerilii. This will be helpful for future lunar research, where Dr. Tessmar-Raible plans to tackle the mechanisms that enable the wormsto sustain an endogenous monthly rhythm in addition to their daily and nightly rhythms.

Although it may seem unlikely that chronobiological research in a small annelid worm like P. dumerilii would have human applications, Dr. Tessmar-Raible and her colleagues see profound lessons from their research. The moon has long been thought to hold a mystical influence over human mood, health, and behavior. Lycanthropy has yet to be scientifically verified, but recent peer-reviewed studies have linked lunar cycles to periodic fluctuations in sleep, menstruation, and bipolar mood disorder.

Platynereis dumerilii relies on the moon to reproduce and persist as a species. Perhaps we also need moonlight to maintain healthy, restful, and balanced lives. As the night sky becomes saturated with artificial light and our nights are spent indoors with screens, we risk becoming blind to the potential benefits of natural moonlight. The study of moon-controlled behavior in a diverse array of organisms, including evolutionarily distant invertebrate models, is thus invaluable, ultimately reminding us of the lunar luminosity that guided our ancestors through the rhythm of life. Is anyone up for some moon-bathing?

A video demonstrating swarming behavior in P. dumerilii. From Zurl et al. 2022.

If you would like to learn more about Platynereis dumerilii, moon-controlled biology, and/or Dr. Tessmar-Raible’s research, please refer to the following papers:

Casiraghi, L. et al. Moonstruck sleep: Synchronization of human sleep with the moon cycle under field conditions. Sci. Adv. 7, eabe0465 (2021).

Ćorić, A., Stockinger, A.W., Schaffer, P., Rokvić, D., Tessmar-Raible, K., Raible, F., 2023. A fast and versatile method for simultaneous HCR, immunohistochemistry and EdU labeling (SHInE). Integrative and Comparative Biology icad007. Häfker, N. S. et al. Rhythms and Clocks in Marine Organisms. Annual Review of Marine Science 15, 509–538 (2023).

Özpolat, B. D. et al. The Nereid on the rise: Platynereis as a model system. EvoDevo 12, 10 (2021).

Poehn, B. et al. A Cryptochrome adopts distinct moon- and sunlight states and functions as sun- versus moonlight interpreter in monthly oscillator entrainment. Nat Commun 13, 5220 (2022).

Zurl, M. et al. Two light sensors decode moonlight versus sunlight to adjust a plastic circadian/circalunidian clock to moon phase. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119, e2115725119 (2022).

All images were provided by Dr. Kristin Tessmar-Raible.

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Twitter- @MaxPerutzLabs

Blog by Joseph Mack, PhD Candidate, Biological Sciences, University of Maryland

Joseph Mack

What does allyship look like? A Book review: Minorities in Shark Sciences Diverse Voices in Shark Research

by Jordyn Neal of Dr. Misty Paig-Tran’s FABB (Functional Anatomy, Biomechanics, and Biomaterials) Lab

“There is a lack of diversity in science due to systemic obstacles which have excluded and continue to exclude BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) scientists and scientists from other marginalized communities”

p177 from the book

As somebody who isn’t a part of the BIPOC or LGBTQ+ community, I had a difficult time writing this blog. Not solely because I am not a part of a marginalized community, but because of the weight and message behind the book. This book explores everything shark while simultaneously showcasing the work done by the BIPOC and LGTBTQ+ community around the world, highlighting new and important research in shark science and conservation.

After MISS partnered with National Geographic for SharkFest, Jasmin Graham, CEO of MISS (Minorities in Shark Science), explained that they “ hard to increase accessibility for minorities to enter the field of shark science. Representation in the media is vitally important for encouraging young people to pursue STEM careers.”

Representation of minority voices in science is crucial for bringing to light the lack of diversity in marine science. Jasmin also discusses increasing accessibility, and this book did just that. It was written in a way that was approachable to a lay audience, but as someone with a STEM and shark science background, it also grasped and held my attention throughout the entire book.

The book talked about a variety of topics that were thought-provoking and engaging. My favorite was how the book broke down, step by step, a sharks predation event from the physiology behind sensing its prey, the biomechanics involved in catching its prey, all the way to ingestion.

“This book offers diverse viewpoints from currently practicing shark scientists conducting groundbreaking research and whose work aims to promote ways of promoting shark conservation and research that is equitable and inclusive.”

Pxxi of the book

Each chapter brought different perspectives and voices. The main theme interwoven into the book, as the title suggests, “amplifies [the] often-forgotten voices” in STEM and combines science and BIPOC knowledge. An important topic discussed throughout the book is effective science communication and the perception of sharks.

As MISS expressed in Chapter 1 of Public Perceptions of Sharks, “several factors lead to a fear of sharks. Lack of knowledge. Lack of exposure to or familiarity with the ocean, and the portrayal of sharks in the media.” They discuss how building trust between the scientific community and the public can positively impact the way that as a society, we view sharks. If we can effectively communicate science and combine different cultures understandings, beliefs, and perspectives of sharks, then trust can be built within the community.

The conclusion of the book, written by Dr. David Shiffman, an Interdisciplinary Environmental Scientist, and other contributors, explained what allyship looks like. It introduces the “concept of being an ally, someone who tries to use their privilege to lower barriers and make their workplace, community, or field a more welcoming, inclusive, and safe place for everyone.”

David Shiffman via @WhySharksMatter. David is an interdisciplinary marine conservation biologist

Allyship, in practice, means speaking up “in support of the perspectives of those from marginalized communities and avoid speaking for them.” It entails equal opportunity and ensuring everyone around you “gets the same opportunities.” And it means listening to underrepresented voices and amplifying them.

Throughout the book, there is a hopeful and optimistic tone regarding the field of shark science moving forward. Minority voices have not been heard because they have been systematically excluded, but this book seeks to create a deeper understanding and appreciation for this misunderstood, “scary” creature while also giving minority voices in STEM a chance to be heard.

Connect with Jasmin via

@Elasmo_Gal of through @MISS_Elasmo

and buy

Connect with blogger Jordyn Neal

Jordyn Neal received a B.S. from Cal Poly Humboldt in Marine Biology and is a current M.S student at CSUF. Jordyn is in Dr. Misty Paig-Tran’s FABB (Functional Anatomy, Biomechanics, and Biomaterials) Lab, researching the filter morphology and filtration mechanism of the Megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios).

Twitter: @JordynNeal24

February BIMS guest post: What does being Black in Marine Sciences mean to me?

By Kolisa Yola Sinyanya, Ph.D. candidate , Department of Oceanography, University of Cape Town, member of Black in Marine Science Member

This year, the ICB blog and BIMS, Black in Marine Science, will continue to our collaboration by monthly highlight scientists from the BIMS organization. We hope this collaboration will further foster connecting a phenomenal network of colleagues in marine bio and inform our readers about BIMS research as well as their continued work to not only create a network but also a safe space for their members.

This month, BIMS member,  Kolisa Yola Sinyanya, shares with us:

Being a black person in marine sciences and particularly ocean sciences has allowed me to be powerful representation, to be a fierce black woman and most importantly to be an inspiring scientist on some of the most important and influential platforms known to man! 

My name is Kolisa Sinyanya, and I am an ocean scientist at one of the leading research institutions in Africa. As the University of Cape Town (UCT), we really must be modest about being the top research university both in South Africa and the entire Africa in order not to cause dismay. I am currently based in the Oceanography Department at UCT and this February of 2023 I’m due to submit my ground-breaking PhD thesis for examination. I am nervous about what comes next, but I am equally as excited about the end of this very exciting journey that has not only changed my thinking but has transformed me and my life entirely for the best.

My research is all about understanding how the ocean makes planet Earth habitable. Of course, we use high performance equipment and intricate biogeochemical techniques, but our results are most fascinating and have blown even my experienced team away. This research has additionally allowed me to express myself in ways that are rarely explored in the sciences. During my PhD I have had the pleasure of working with an amazing woman scientist, Professor Sarah Fawcett who has allowed me to be me. She has allowed me to just be!

What I mean by being just me is that I have applied my own way of thinking which involves a multitude of science communication into my research. This has been a great success and it opened so many platforms and opportunities for me to express myself as a first generation, as a black person in ocean sciences, as a black woman in ocean sciences and as a global ambassador for the geosciences at large. In fact, I ended 2022 with a Voice of the Year Award which was honoring me for my audible, unapologetic and inspiring voice in STEM and Black in Marine Science has been one of the many platforms that repeatedly ask me to use my voice in this marine sciences world.

For me, being black in marine sciences and particularly ocean sciences has come with so much positivity. I have had the opportunity to inspire others and change the spaces that I am part of. This is not very difficult for me because I am a vocal individual who is rarely afraid to say what I think. I have seen this work very well in the marine sciences spaces which are largely seeking transformation. This transformation can never be successful and applied correctly with influence when we do not have the necessary voices around the big tables. Of course, there are those few moments when we feel discriminated against, which my PhD fellowship Ocean Womxn invited me to blog about some of my experiences of being black in marine sciences (

These, however, do not limit who we are as both scientists and as black scientists. We always must be brutally honest about the distinctions because generally as scientists we should be receiving fair treatment and respect, however, we know that our skin colors do influence how we are perceived, treated and therefore how our research is viewed.

It is therefore extremely important to make all marine science spaces inclusive because when we diversify, we additionally widen our ideas, explore more all-encompassing ways of doing research and move away from research practices that are discriminating to others. In the past year, 2022 I was so fortunate to be invited by one of the most influential geochemistry entities in the world, the American Geophysical Union. According to them someone suggested my name and this led to them inviting me to be one of their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) global ambassadors where I am now the only African representative.

Even though we might have differing opinions about what inclusivity is and how it should be implemented, it is key to have people from minority backgrounds as part of the policy and decision making.

Kolisa Yola Sinyanya

As we all know, even in the publishing of scientific research we lack minority representatives. Some associations such as the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) have special programs and funds to address inclusivity related to publishing, and I personally have been one of the recipients of such awards. To further be part of the inclusivity and promote it I agreed to be one of the Superscientist characters ( with Dr Justin Yarrow. This is another brilliant way to introduce black scientists and scientists of colour to young kids in schools around the globe. Below is Nitro who is based on my life as a black woman ocean scientists.

Lastly, I must point out and brag about how my own host department at the University of Cape Town has made efforts to transforms the marine sciences spaces as best they can, especially in the past decade. Working together with the National Research Foundation, we have had diversity and inclusion workshops which are intended to create understanding amongst the students as well as the staff members. We had our first black staff member in 2020 and we see an increase of women marine scientists, there’s an increase in religious and cultural diversities and as a result, our department is constantly in the news due to our successes.

Connect with Kolisa Yola Sinyanya via

@Kolie_Yola on Twitter #MthathaBoffin

We end the post with celebrating Kolisa’s amazing accomplishments!

Quote This Woman+ Voice of the Year in STEM winner 2022

American Geophysical Union LANDinG Global Ambassador 2022/23

Association for the Sciences of Limnology&Oceanography Honoree

UCT Advancing Womxn in Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences Fellow

Falling Walls Cape Town finalist

Black Women In Science South Africa Fellow 2019

Inspiring Fifty South Africa nominee 2019TEDx Speaker

FameLab Cape Town Runner Up 2018

Connect with BIMS

Twitter: @BlackinMarSci and Instagram via blackinmarinescience

Dr. Sara Lipshutz: Breaking Binaries to Better Understand Reproductive Behaviors

By Abby Weber, PhD Student, Department of Evolution, Ecology, & Behavior, at the Anderson Evolutionary Biomechanics Lab of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Can sexual diversity be accurately captured by a male-female binary? Sara Lipshutz of Loyola University Chicago explored alternative models of animal sex in her talk “Multimodal models of animal sex: breaking binaries to better understand reproductive behaviors” at SICB 2023 as part of the Sexual Variation and Diversity symposium. Her co authors on this paper are J.F. McLaughlin, Kinsey M. Brock, Isabella Gates, Anisha Pethkar, Marcus Piattoni, and Alexi Rossi. Graphics in this blog were also created by J.F. McLaughlin!

Dr. Sara Lipshutz

Dr. Lipshutz’s talk advocated that biological sex is a construct that operates at multiple biological levels, meaning sexual diversity cannot be accurately captured by a male-female binary. Variation in gametes, genetics, anatomy, behavior, hormones, and brains are some of the characteristics she argues should be included when categorizing sexual differences in organisms. The graphic below demonstrates the diversity of gametic sex in the animal kingdom! Not every animal fits within an XX female XY male binary.

An example of diversity in gametic sex across the animal kingdom

A compelling example of an organism that does not fit into a male-female binary model is the Northern Jacana. Northern Jacanas phenotypically present in ways anatomically, behaviorally, and hormonally that are difficult to classify into two sex categories. ZW sex chromosome females can exist in two phenotypes, breeder or floater. Breeder females have large follicles and lay eggs daily, while floaters have small follicles and do not lay eggs. A massive contradiction to the traditional sex roles of the binary system is that female-female competition largely drives mating success in Northern Jacanas. Females mate with many males and males do 100% of parental care. Another example that falls outside of this binary is that ZZ sex chromosome males doing parental care have similar hormone levels to the breeding ZW females.

Northern Jacanas differences in neurology, behavior, hormones, genes, and anatomy are important characteristics to consider when discussing sex differences.

In this case, we still refer to them as female and male for ease of identification, but it is important to acknowledge the diversity present within and between gametic sexes. Attempting to fit these birds into a sex binary fails to capture the complexity of their sex characteristics. Jacanas are just one example of many that we can use to shift our way of thinking. Dr. Lipshutz suggests that instead of trying to fit organisms into two boxes we instead ask the following two questions: “What specifically are the sexual phenotypes?” and “Are these phenotypes discrete or continuous?” The graphic below demonstrates different models of sex characteristics: A) bimodal discrete, B) bimodal continuous, C) multimodal continuous, the model Dr. Lipshutz and colleagues are in favor of.

A. Bimodal discrete models of sex classify all characteristics as either male or female. B. Bimodal continuous models acknowledge that trait frequencies can fluctuate within the male-female binary C. Since multimodal continuous models consider the massive fluctuation in trait value and frequency, the inability to classify animals into a binary becomes more apparent. 

Dr. Lipshutz expressed that biologists must start using specific language when discussing sexual variation instead of defaulting to binaries that we as a society have an internalized bias toward. She argues that simplifying to teaching sex binaries in the classroom doesn’t prepare students to understand sexual diversity. Another point she raises is that if biologists perpetuate this binary thinking, then society might misconstrue our work to perpetuate and justify discrimination toward people who exist outside of sex binaries.

I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Lipshutz about this topic a little further:

Abby: What would you suggest to young biologists that want to start addressing how their biases might shape their work?

Dr. Lipshutz: “First ask yourself what your biases might be. When I started my graduate studies, I thought there was some objective point that I could reach where I would just know all the facts. Over time, I realized there is no objectivity in science. The field I work in, genetics, has a really harmful past that is full of bias. I’d say start off by recognizing there is no such thing as objectivity in your work.”

Abby: How do you think shifting to a multimodal model of describing sex variation in non-human research will affect the way we view sex and gender in humans?

Dr. Lipshutz: “I actually came at this article from a political place, which is scary because I’m supposed to be the objective and neutral scientist. I was really upset at some of these policies aimed at harming transgender people. A lot of people try to justify this hate with science. I felt like not enough scientists were speaking out. This article is a letter to other biologists about how we might expand our framework of sex, including what paradigms we uphold and for whose benefit. I’d also like to acknowledge Hans Lindahl and Alicia Weigel, who also spoke at the symposium. We need to hear more about the perspectives of intersex people!”

Connect with Dr. Lipshutz via:


Twitter: @jacanamama

Read Dr .Lipshutz’s previous ICB work:

Neuroendocrinology of Sex-Role Reversal 

Sara E LipshutzKimberly A Rosvall

Integrative and Comparative Biology, Volume 60, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 692–702,

Connect with writer, Abby Weber

Abby Weber


Twitter: @weberabbyt

Austin Bat Refuge: Conservation through Education in the Bat Capital of North America

by ICB blogger Etti Cooper , Bates College

I first met Dianne Odegard as she cradled a bat in her gloved hand, clad in a tank top displaying the logo for the Austin Bat Refuge (ABR). Odegard and her husband, Lee Mackenzie, co-founded the nonprofit organization in 2016, and now serve central Texas as bat rehabilitators, educators, and fierce advocates for these unfairly maligned creatures. Sable, her companion for the day, is a Northern yellow bat (Dasypterus intermedius). She came to ABR as a newborn and grew into an otherwise healthy adult who is unable to fly, for reasons that are unclear. “Her wings are gorgeous,” notes Odegard, as she gently extends Sable’s arm to show me the thin membrane that forms her left wing. She offers Sable a mealworm, which she gladly accepts. Sable will go home to a large flight cage in which she peacefully coexists with individuals of the eight other species that call Texas home. I can’t help but notice that this arrangement has worked out particularly well for her.

Dianne Odegard and Sable, the Northern yellow bat.

If bat education is needed anywhere in the United States, it is Austin, Texas. The Congress Avenue bridge in the heart of Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world, where 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) roost and raise their young. Thousands take flight nightly to forage for insects, and visitors from around the world gather at the bridge to watch. ABR charts the flight conditions on a daily basis: for example, on Tuesday, Jan 10, 2023, approximately 23,000 bats took flight at 6:20 pm! ABR tables at the Congress Avenue bridge every Friday and Saturday from late April through October to educate curious visitors about the extraordinary lives of these bats and how to keep themselves, and the bats, safe.

Despite Austin’s status as the “bat capital of North America,” the creatures’ public image can still be profoundly negative. Odegard notes that many people tend to worry about disease transmission, particularly rabies and COVID-19. While there still is no conclusive evidence that COVID-19 originated from bats, other pathogens can put other mammals, including humans, at risk. The solution? Use common sense. I recall a mantra that my father told me as a child: “don’t bother them, and they won’t bother you.” Odegard nods in agreement. She explains that if you see a bat that needs help, don’t touch it with bare hands. Instead, visit the guide on the ABR website to learn how to assist safely.

As I watch Sable munch on mealworms, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could be afraid of her. She reminds me of a Pomeranian dog if it were drawn by a cartoonist, with fluffy yellow fur, tiny, wide-set eyes, and a short snout that seems to wear a placid smile. She eats messily, licking her lips as she chews. Somehow, it’s cute when she does it. Odegard notes that bats are rarely considered “cute,” as the images that are most pervasive in pop culture show them with mouths agape, baring sharp teeth. Few people get to see bats in this context. I was struck by how mammalian they are: small and round and furry.

Sable, ready for her close-up.

Odegard is in a unique position: she wasn’t trained as a biologist, and yet her wealth of knowledge is undeniable after decades of experience as a rehabilitator and educator. She straddles the line between the general public and the scientific community, citing a fellow rehabilitator as well as Dr. Merlin Tuttle—perhaps the best known face of bat research—as mentors. She explains that Tuttle saved the Congress Avenue Bridge colony nearly single handedly: in the early 1980s when the newly remodeled bridge was beginning to attract the bats, Tuttle traveled to Austin to educate lawmakers and citizens on the inherent—and economic!—value of the urban colony.

He is also well known for his striking photographs of bats in flight as well as up-close and personal portraits. Odegard explains that these photos were also instrumental in shifting the public opinion of bats; instead of bared teeth, we were finally able to see bats as they truly are. And while the many species vary in appearance, there is a certain pervasive goofiness that unites them. Scientific research is undoubtedly important for conservation, but it can be inaccessible. Odegard’s work is an excellent example of powerful, citizen-driven conservation efforts. And Tuttle’s is a pertinent reminder to all scientists that educational outreach is worthy of our time and effort.

A Mexican free-tailed bat as photographed by Dr. Merlin Tuttle.

As our conversation began to wrap up, I asked Odegard what she would like the general public to know about bats. “I know it’s a big question,” I said. “You can take some time to think about it if you need to.” She didn’t. She explained that bats are beneficial to humans; they eat insects that are agricultural pests, disperse seeds, and some even pollinate flowers. “They are fascinating, they are absolutely safe to be around, but don’t touch!” she explains. “Bats have great intrinsic value.”

Donate to Austin Bat Refuge here, and apply to volunteer if you live in the Austin area. Find them on Twitter and Instagram at @AustinBatRefuge.

Read a free ICB bat read:

Bat Dentitions: A Model System for Studies at the Interface of Development, Biomechanics, and Evolution 

Sharlene E SantanaDavid M GrossnickleAlexa SadierEdward PattersonKaren E Sears 

Integrative and Comparative Biology, Volume 62, Issue 3, September 2022, Pages 762–773,

Trade-offs Influencing the Physiological Ecology of Hibernation in Temperate-Zone Bats 

Craig K R Willis 

Integrative and Comparative Biology, Volume 57, Issue 6, December 2017, Pages 1214–1224,

Wing-Beat Frequency and Its Acoustics in Birds and Bats 

Arjan BoonmanYossi YovelOfri Eitan

Integrative and Comparative Biology, Volume 60, Issue 5, November 2020, Pages 1080–1090,

Connect with sci comm blogger Etti Cooper who is interested in plasticity in thermal tolerance and metabolism in insects, reptiles, and fishes. Connect with her on Twitter at @EttiCooper. 

Art in Bio: Crocodiles and Ph.D. Candidate Kaitlin Barham

by Kaitlyn M. Murphy , Ph.D. Candidate, Auburn University

Since 2020, ICB has been celebrating the beauty being created no matter the turmoil in the world. Here’s our latest installment of Art in Bio.

When Ph.D. Candidate Kaitlin Barham was deciding on a career, she was between ‘art’ and ‘science’ when her school guidance counselor persuaded her to pick just one- or so she thought. I first saw Kaitlin’s work on the cover of Crikey! Magazine, a publication by the Australia Zoo.

@AustraliaZoo magazine

Kaitlin is a second year Ph.D. Candidate under Professor Craig Franklin at the University of Queensland studying estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) thermoregulatory behavior. Prof. Franklin’s lab partners with the Australia Zoo, where together they travel to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve in Northern Queensland and operate the world’s longest running survey of estuarine crocodiles. “I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember and while I chose to major in a scientific degree during undergrad, art is what kept me sane,” Kaitlin says.

Ph.D. Candidate Kaitlin Barham’s illustration of ‘Noel’.

The illustration on the cover of Crikey! Magazine depicts ‘Noel’, a crocodile that had been caught and was in the process of release. “We were on Rainbow Bend, which has these beautiful colors of red from falling leaves and blues and yellows. For just a moment Noel stayed on the surface of the water; which is slightly unusual because most of the time crocodiles will immediately submerge after release. I loved this image and decided to illustrate it.”

Kaitlin learned how to attach radio transmitters to crocodiles, which track an individual’s movement for many years.

“During my Ph.D., I realized there is a disconnect in what scientists do and what people see and understand that we do. I think that art is a way to bridge this gap,”

Kaitlin Barham

“When I’m not thinking about my Ph.D., in a way I still am when I’m drawing,” she adds. Kaitlin has traveled to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve three times over the course of the last two years and has learned how to attach transmitters to individual crocodiles to track their movements.

Using GPS systems, her lab and the Australia Zoo can record the locations of crocodiles over many years- creating a massive dataset on crocodilian behavior. Each time an individual is caught, scale and blood samples are collected to measure physiological attributes (e.g, hormone concentrations, immunology).

“I often use a tablet for sketching and have produced 3D models as well. I made a digital model for weighing crocodiles in our lab,” Kaitlin adds. “I think that science and art 100% work hand-in-hand. It provides an avenue to think about the same problem in two different ways.” Indeed, Kaitlin’s illustrations provide a unique and stunning perspective on these modern day dinosaurs.

Behavioral illustrations of estuarine crocodiles by Ph.D. Candidate, Kaitlin Barham.

“Scientists are pretty creative people. Not everyone is big on aesthetics, but everyone is creative,”

Kaitlin Barham

While she ‘chose’ science, Kaitlin has shown that these two often considered vastly different fields can work together to create informative and moving illustrations of our natural world. “Hand-in-hand”, Kaitlin Barham continues to bridge knowledge gaps using science and art.

Hand-in-hand. The foot of captured estuarine crocodile resting on Kaitlin’s hand.

Kaitlin Barham is a scientific illustrator open to collaborations! To get in contact with Kaitlin regarding illustrative opportunities, contact her at Check out her description of recent work at as well!

If you’re interested in learning more about the impactful work of the Australia Zoo and Prof. Franklin’s lab at the University of Queensland please consider subscribing to Crikey! Magazine at All proceeds go directly to conservation initiatives by the zoo!

& check out this free ICB Croc read:

Alligators and Crocodiles Have High Paracellular Absorption of Nutrients, But Differ in Digestive Morphology and Physiology 

Christopher R. TracyTodd J. McWhorterC. M. GiengerJ. Matthias StarckPeter MedleyS. Charlie ManolisGrahame J. W. WebbKeith A. Christian

connect with blogger @KMurphyau

read these SICB journal articles on Crocs:

Crocodylian Snouts in Space and Time: Phylogenetic Approaches Toward Adaptive Radiation by Brochu

Effects of Incubation Temperature on Crocodiles and the Evolution of Reptilian Oviparity by Webb et al

IOB (our sibling open access journal)

Vertebrae-Based Body Length Estimation in Crocodylians and Its Implication for Sexual Maturity and the Maximum Sizes 

Masaya IijimaTai Kubo

Lessons from Life as a PSO – BIMS Guest Blog by Chelsea Crosby

Chelsea Crosby

Attention on the barge. Stand by. All clear for blast. All clear. All clear.

            These were not words I ever expected to live through in real life. And yet here I was, in a helicopter in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, circling an oil platform scheduled to be removed via explosion. Funny how life works.

            Let’s take a step back. How did I get here? I attended The Ohio State University for both my undergraduate (Animal Sciences) and graduate (Fisheries and Wildlife Science) degrees. After finishing school, my main priority was to obtain employment that would keep me outside, doing field work, as much as possible. Your girl was not built for a desk job.

            So, I found work as a Protected Species Observer (PSO) with NOAA’s Galveston Laboratory, specifically in their Platform Removal Observer Program (PROP). I found the job listing while doing a general online search for fisheries science jobs in my area. The job is a bit obscure; at its peak, our office only supported six observers. Additionally, we are hired by a contract company, which can change over time. All that being said to note that it is a niche corner of the marine science field, but definitely attainable if you know how to look. I was hired on by Riverside, but after my first year my contract was transferred to A.I.S. Observers, who still hold the contract for PROP at the time of this writing.

            The goal of PROP, as the title would suggest, is to minimize the impact that underwater explosives (used in platform removal) have on sea turtles and marine mammals living in the Gulf of Mexico. By federal regulation, oil platforms that are no longer in use are required to be decommissioned. This removal process involves severing the pilings from their base in the ocean floor, and then lifting the platform out of the sea. This can occur in a number of ways. There are less invasive ways to sever the pilings, such as blast sanding, but these processes tend to take longer, which ultimately costs more money. In contrast, explosives are quick and dirty, if not always so easy.

            PROP work begins with an intensive, 2-3 week training session. This includes information sessions on the relevant laws and regulations, sea turtle and marine mammal identification, GPS and GIS training, as well as a day spent getting your T-HUET (Tropical Helicopter Underwater Escape Training) certification. After passing a final test, we were able to deploy.

Chelsea Crosby at T-HUET Training

There was no such thing as a typical deployment. The longest I was offshore was about three weeks, the shortest was for about an hour and a half. We would either arrive to the work site via helicopter (my personal favorite) or crew boat. Upon arrival, we typically began surface monitoring. This meant circling the barge, scanning for any turtles or dolphins. This process was basically indefinite, a tiny purgatory spent waiting for the other mechanisms in the machine to be in place. Following surface monitoring, we would begin our aerial surveys. This meant circling the blast radius in a counterclockwise, spiraling motion for a prescribed amount of time (which depended on the charge weight and depth). We often failed in this mission. Aerial surveys provide a much more encompassing vantage point, and we found dolphins splashing and turtles diving all the time. Which meant we would abort the aerial survey, and resume surface monitoring, ideally locating the offending creature and watching it until it cleared our blast area.

Figure 2: Chelsea Crosby standing in front of a Helicopter

When we finally could complete surface and aerial monitoring for their assigned lengths with no sightings, we were able to call for the blast. I was almost always in the air when this took place. We’d back away and up a good distance, and I’d normally video the blast. I got some pretty cool shots. One time, we’d set a charge on a sub-sea well, so there was nothing to see at the surface, but when the blast went off a bolt of lightning flashed across the entire surface of the ocean. I didn’t capture that one, which I’ll always regret, but it was so illuminating. Imagine how many things we killed… Following the blast, it was our job to continue circling in the air, ensuring we had not taken any sea turtles or marine mammals, and providing a tally of the number of impacted fish. These were often Red Snapper, appearing like little pink gumdrops in an otherwise blue and green and brown sea.

Offshore Sunrise

Working as a PSO for so long taught me three major lessons. First, and I know this is cheesy, but it taught me leadership, and independence. PSOs are granted something called “All-Stop Authority” when aboard any vessel. This means that if anything occurs that we deem unsafe, we can call for the entire operation to shut down.

This amount of power is rarely afforded to women. I relished it. Prior to this experience, I was a generally agreeable person. And while I am not necessarily combatant now, I show no hesitation in expressing when something displeases or disappoints me. This confidence in communication has enabled me to have a more active say in my life, and I continue to apply this idea of All Stop Authority to my everyday interactions. I suggest you do too.

Offshore Weather

Second, it taught me to be calm, and to meditate. There is nothing quite like being in the middle of an ocean with nothing much going on around you but the weather and the waves. I spent up to twelve hours a day staring at the water. That takes a toll. That shapes a psyche. I found great peace in this practice and have noticed a stillness in my life overall that I attribute to this experience.

            Finally, and perhaps most importantly… working as a PSO was more a lesson in diplomacy than a lesson in scientific methods and conservation. Here I was, a young woman with her Master’s, attempting to explain the significance of incidental takes and minimum viable population thresholds to company men whose priorities were more shaped by bottom lines and efficiency and profitability. It was not always fun, friend. I was asked once, can’t you just grow more sea turtles in the lab? It was often suggested that I turn my back on potential turtle and dolphin sightings so that the blast schedule would not be delayed. I had never been challenged in this way. Fortunately, I am quite obstinate. Up to this point, I had worked with people who believed in the worthiness of science on face value alone. Here, my purpose was questioned in a way that made me quite uncomfortable. And yet, I am thankful for the experience. These interactions built a resolve and conviction in my character that I believe ultimately made me a stronger scientist. I believe in myself, my work, and our mission as scientists more than I ever have. I no longer work as a PSO, but I will carry the weight of that duty forever.

Contact info:

Twitter: @ChelseaHelene18


Chelsea Crosby