Science Communication Across Ideologies

by Abiageal Ketchersid, Marine Biology Undergraduate, Florida Southern College

SICB 2023 Program Cover

At the 2023 SICB Annual Conference in Austin, TX a Public Affairs Committee (PAC) workshop titled “communicating science across the ideological spectrum” took place chaired by Dr. Phoebe Edwards from the University of Toronto. The panel was made up of Dr. Sarah McAnulty, Dr. Natalia Taft, Dr. Noah Bressman, and Dr. Nic Bennett.

This panel focused on discussing and practicing different strategies for communicating and working with those who think about things from different viewpoints ideologically, have different backgrounds, or may have some level of distrust or disbelief in science. Each panelist took the time to chat about their own experiences with science communication and then give advice on communicating with broad audiences.

Sarah McAnulty’s Website

Dr. Sarah McAnulty is a squid biologist and an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Connecticut. She is also the founder and executive director of the non-profit Skype-A-Scientist, a program that connects scientists to groups around the world and gives them the opportunity to get to know a scientist and ask them questions about their field. She also created and runs the Squid Facts Project which is a fun way of engaging in science communication where people can text the hotline number for squid facts.

Dr. McAnulty explained that one possible roadmap to successful communication was this simple three-step plan.

Step 1: Agree

Step 2: Establish Common Ground

Step 3:  Empathize

She went on to explain how a potential way to successfully communicate could include starting with an agreement to some part of what they had said, even if it’s just something small. After that try to establish common ground with them and follow that up by finding something to empathize with them on before ending the conversation by going back to that initial agreement with them.

She pointed out some common mistakes when it comes to science communication including:

  • Bombarding them with a lot of information at once instead of increments.
  • Starting the conversation with a low patience level.
  • Making assumptions (even unconsciously) about intelligence.
  • Relying on shame.

Dr. McAnulty also discussed how scientific communication with broader audiences is often a risk, but also pointed out that it is a very important one.

Connect with Dr. Sarah McAnulty and her science communication via Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube with the links below or via her website in the image above.




The Squid Squad

See a YouTube on Sarah

Link to Dr. Bressman’s website

Dr. Noah Bressman is an Assistant Professor at Salisbury University, and he is also an artist, a competitive fisherman, and a scientific blogger. Dr. Bressman talked about the difficulties he faced when working with fishermen who were warry of scientists and how he overcame that and not only shared scientific information with them but gained their trust and even made friends.

Dr. Bressman talked about how the process is long and the progress is incremental, and suggested two key points for success:

  • Finding common ground and starting there before any political discussions
  • Focusing more on the similarities between you and who you are speaking to, as opposed to the differences.

He also pointed out that many scientists join the field for the same reason that others may ignore it. Scientists themselves often mistrust science, whether that’s because of outdated research, a lack of research, or some other reason. Two other factors he emphasized the importance of were empathizing with your audience, and finding a way to explain science that doesn’t use terms they’ve never heard but also does not come across as belittling.  One way Dr. Bressman suggested for going about this was by comparing it to something similar that they would be more familiar with.

The example he used was in regard to someone asking why science can sometimes change over time, and proposed answering the question was by comparing scientists to detectives. Detectives collect clues and then piece them together, and while they do you get it right some of the time, other times they have to go back and collect more information so they can try to piece those clues back together the right way.

Connect with Dr. Noah Bressman with the links below or via his website in the image above.

Dr. Natalia Taft on LinkedIn.

Dr. Natalia Taft is an Alderwoman in Racine, Wisconsin as well as an Associate Professor at University of Wisconsin-Parkside, which is a primarily undergraduate institution. Dr. Taft spoke about her own experiences in science and science communication as not just a scientist and p but also as a mom and a member of her city’s municipal council. She discussed how all these things can not only affect each other but also one’s ability to be an effective science communicator.

One important point Dr. Taft made is that depending on one’s current position or point in life, science communication can be risky. She discussed how running for a governmental position as a scientist has many pros and cons that should be weighed and how the weight of each of those things could be different between people.

As a woman in STEM, running for a government position is something that runs the risk of getting labeled as “too feminist” or “too activist.” Depending on the security of any other positions being held or the ability to shoulder the potential of current or future employers attaching that label to you, this may be a form of scientific outreach and communication that may be outside of your ability.

Connect with Dr. Natalia Taft via the links below, or via her LinkedIn from the image above.

Link to Nic Bennett’s website.

Nic Bennett, M.A. is a Graduate Research Assistant and doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at Austin who studies belonging and inclusion in science communication. They discussed how where you grow up and where you are now can affect not just your own perspective, but also how you perceive others and the opportunities for science communication that are available.

They discussed how important it is to educate in increments, not all at once. Bennett also suggested that you should ease your way into trying to change people’s minds with science communication and start with people you know, especially since statistically more likely to affect their opinion.

Another subject they covered was dealing with polarized environments and opinions, and how throwing information at someone who has no interest in it will not work. Interestingly, they talked about how it’s not just that deep ideology sometimes cannot be changed, but that throwing the information at someone anyways can sometimes have a boomerang effect and cause deeper entrapment in their current ideology.

Bennett finished their time by having us do an exercise where one person was chosen to rant about something trivial for sixty seconds and then the rest of reflected on their rant without negativity. This exercise was about being seen and heard and creating a feeling catharsis not just from the ranting but also that the others present validated them and allowed them to be upset about something small, which they pointed out was something scientists are not always given the opportunity to do.

Not only was it an interesting exercise, but everyone in the workshop was engaged and enjoyed it.

Connect with Dr. Nic Bennett with the links below or at their web linked in the image above.

SICB homepage

The workshop ended with a brief Q&A session and some final suggestions for ways to introduce science communication effectively such as drawing them in with something else like art or maybe a car that says, “Text the Squid Fact Hotline “SQUID” at 1-833-SCI-TEXT (1-833-724-839)!” across the rear windshield of a car. Stoke their confusion and their curiosity first so that they want to hear what you have to say next.

Connect with ICB blogger Abiageal Ketchersid via Twitter.

Another Resource

Protecting Trans Scientists in the Field Sciences

By Magnum participant Juliette Rault-Wang

A transgender pride flag (

March is a month of beginnings and growth. As spring rolls around, we see changes in the environment: the weather becomes warmer, plants flourish, and animals become lively. In addition, springtime allows us to reflect on areas of growth within our social environments. 

Since 2009, March 31st has been celebrated as the International Day of Transgender Visibility. Founded by trans activist Rachel Crandall Crocker, this day plays a role in raising awareness of the difficulties faced by transgender people. For those unfamiliar with the demographic, trans people identify with a gender differing from the one assigned at birth. Gender differs from biological sex since it is a fluid spectrum and relates to aspects of one’s identity. In other words, gender transcends biological sex and relates to how one self-identifies. 

For cisgender people (someone whose gender identity corresponds to the sex assigned at birth), it can be easy to take gender-related privileges for granted, making it difficult to recognize the difficulties faced by trans colleagues. For instance, in the lab and field, transgender scientists can face inequalities and barriers to success that aren’t always intuitive to their cisgender peers. 

At the SICB 2023 annual conference in Austin, TX, Dr. Shayle Matsuda gave a presentation titled “Centering transgender and gender non-conforming experience, access, & safety in ecological fieldwork,” which discusses this topic in detail. Shayle is a marine biologist and activist who works at the world-renowned Shedd Aquarium as a postdoctoral fellow, where he studies the effects of climate change on coral ecology. In addition, he does plenty of important work in science communication and advocacy for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in STEM. Overall, he is an accomplished individual in all aspects, and his talk provided valuable insight to field safety and considerations for trans and gender non-conforming scientists. 

So, what are some of these points? Some key aspects are preparation and safety in the field, which are vital for successful fieldwork. For all scientists, it’s always good to know the following:

1) Where the nearest, safest gender-neutral bathrooms are

2) Where the nearest, safest medical facilities are

3) Potential environmental risks, such as danger from other people

However, these may be difficult for trans scientists to address. For instance, some states and countries are strict with transgender bathroom policies (and tolerance of trans people in general). So, it’s important to be familiar with policies and social environments before working in certain locations. Faculty at graduate schools can use their power to research the sites ahead of time, select safe field locations, and provide plenty of time for bathroom breaks for their students. If possible, sites with safe, gender-neutral bathrooms are ideal.

A gender neutral restroom (

In addition, it’s crucial to be aware of nearby medical facilities in case of emergencies. Not all hospitals and clinics are trans-friendly, so this is something to be mindful of when entering the field. This also applies to everyone: for safety, research your field locations ahead of time!

Awareness of environmental risks is also key. Often, the real danger doesn’t come from the field, but from other people. Violence against trans people is sadly an ongoing issue, and trans scientists must be extra vigilant of their surroundings and practice situational awareness. To prepare for this, faculty can hold sessions for their students that practice these skills. In addition, everyone should be aware of how they may contribute to an unsafe environment. For instance, it may be easy to overlook how microaggressions, misgendering, and joking about identities may affect others. You never know who’s in the room, so it’s important to be aware of language. In addition, trans people may present their identities differently in various situations, and they never owe you an explanation of their identity. Since gender and identity are so variable, it’s best to always be respectful of everyone.

Finally, those with power can take measures to make traveling a smoother and safer experience for all involved. When traveling abroad, purchasing TSA pre-check and having pre-arranged housing can help avoid needless conflict and discomfort for trans scientists. Implementing respectful workplace policies, situational awareness training, and inclusivity when advertising research positions make fieldwork for trans scientists healthier and more accessible. Plus, safer fieldwork practices tend to help everyone, making them great to have in place!

About the author: 
Juliette Rault-Wang is a fourth-year BA Biology candidate at Scripps College. Her research interests include animal behavior and muscle physiology, specifically with a focus on the effects of exercise on the properties of titin, a muscle protein. She is broadly interested in education and making science more accessible. You can find her at

ICB’s Art in Bio -features 2 artists

With all the many hardships that persist, we want to take time to focus on the beauty that is still being created. We also recognize that with the increasing recognition of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) rather than only STEM, it’s important to highlight some of the scientists/ biologists , and those who create science related art, who not only follow our journals via our social media accounts or subscribe to The Journal Of Integrative and Comparative Biology and our sibling journal The Journal of Integrative Organismal Biology, but also a few of our journal volunteers(Assistant Editors and social media outreach associates).

Our Art in Bio blogs feature artwork along with the artist’s thoughts on how their art influences biology and vice versa.

The ‘ribbiting’ work of Korin Jones

by Kaitlyn M. Murphy (@KMurphyau, Ph.D. Candidate @AuburnU, Janzen Lab Alum | Warner & Mendonca Labs ) & Jacek Matysiak

“Where did you get that shirt? It is so cool!” “Thanks, I made it!”

This was one of the first conversations I ever had with Ph.D. Candidate Korin Jones. Korin is a graduate student under Dr. Lisa Belden at Virginia Tech. He is not only a skilled scientist, but a very talented artist who uses his designs to explain his research.  After finishing his undergraduate degree at Emory and Henry University, Korin then spent 5 years in China teaching English to high school students before starting graduate school. His dissertation work focus on colonization and development of amphibian microbiomes. He is especially interested in priority effects, or how the succession of microbes during early microbiome development can influence abundance and diversity of community structuring over time. For amphibians, these changes may also serve as important benchmarks for life stages (i.e., metamorphosis).

Icon created by Korin Jones to represent his PhD work. He studies priority effects in amphibians.

Korin’s passion for art began as a necessity for images of his study system during presentations and talks. Because he couldn’t find what he wanted online, he started making his own designs. One of his colleagues suggested a conceptual figure for a manuscript and this led to downloading Inkscape, which he does a lot of his work in today. “I would describe my style as unique. I utilize a lot of digital work because it’s easier for me, “ he says. “Pixel art is something I’ve been getting more into. I like making GIFs.”

GIF created by Korin Jones demonstrating results from his PhD work on chytrid fungus.

Korin wears and sells shirts and stickers with his designs on them. “We as scientists have a duty to convey information to people. People ask me what I do and I show them my art,” he explains. “I cover a water bottle in the stickers I’ve made and take it with me wherever I go. I use my art as a visual medium. It’s more memorable and easier to understand than jargon.” Korin graciously sent me a t-shirt in the mail with his amphibian designs on them and I have received many compliments! It’s a great conversation starter and a clever way to use artwork to get people to ask questions.

GIF created and utilized by Korin Jones to demonstrate experimental design.

“Science can be very linear, but most of the time it’s also very creative,” Korin adds. He encourages more scientists to engage in visual designs and icons for their research. “Combining art and science has helped me understand that ‘anyone can do it.’ I learned this skill and I can do it- so anyone can!” Korin’s artwork is both informative and inviting for audiences from all academic backgrounds. Be on the lookout for Korin’s art at the next SICB!

“Chytrid spirits” by Korin Jones.

Korin won the Best Student Poster Presentation at SICB 2021 for DEE. To check out more of his exciting research, see his ResearchGate profile at this link. He also recently published his work “Colonization order of bacterial isolates on treefrog embryos impacts microbiome structure in tadpoles” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Read all about it at this link!

Korin recently was awarded the Stengl-Wyer fellowship from the University of Texas – Austin to work with Drs. Nancy Moran and Jeffrey Barrick! If you’d like to connect with Korin, check out his twitter @KorinRex or reach him at his email:

Dublin’s Jacek Matysiak

contributed by Jacek Matysiak

I have always been a huge nature lover and this is exactly what brought me to do art. The sheer existence of all the wonderful animal and plant species made the natural world so exciting to me that I couldn’t resist my temptation to start putting my ideas on paper.

Speaking of the medium, it is important to highlight that I do primarily digital work and this has always been my favorite way of rendering work. My process starts by getting the idea of a composition. I always try to look out for incredible and dramatic landscapes, be it deep and lush woodlands, craggy hills or underwater kelp forest. To bring life into my worlds I always pick some characters and add them to either the center or the overall concept of the illustration.

I love digital art for its great flexibility and neatness, where you can just keep on correcting your mistakes, change colors and layers endlessly or keep on adding new elements with getting “your hands dirty” or overthrowing the entire concept. I would not call myself a realistic artist and I have never aspired to be one. I started doing art by doing fairly geometrical shapes but my work has evolved to be more fluidly and multidimensional over time.

I enjoy depicting both natural scenes or doing more abstract concepts, it really depends what I am in a mood for. Last year I have been doing a lot of underwater art but I would also feature a group of whale sharks gliding through the cloudy sky.

Art and science have a close connection and I think we can definitely get people more involved in complex topics by making an eye catching poster promoting an environmental event or featuring a captivating image on the cover of a specialist book, magazine or podcast avatar. I have worked with multiple organizations over the past few years hope to be involved in further endeavors in the near future.

Jacek: “I am a freelance illustrator and designer based in Dublin, Ireland. With a strong passion for nature I depict vivid and colorful landscapes in my work, focusing on a broad spectrum of animals including fishes, birds and land mammals.

I have primarily worked with environmental organizations to create book covers, editorial, posters, leaflets, banners and campaign illustrations.

Some of my clients include Oceana, Birdwatch Ireland, Irish Wildlife Trust, Stavanger University, Science Friday, Sciaena and Dublin Inquirer.”

connect with Jacek

for commissions contact:

Twitter :


Instagram at

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

connect with Frank via

Connect with me through

Facebook: @Frank Mirobo

LinkedIn: @frank mirobo

Mr. Frank Mirobo

connect with BIMS via

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.

connect with Kristin via

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