The Thoughtful Animal

Here at The Thoughtful Animal, we are conducting series of seven-question interviews with people who are doing or have done animal research of all kinds – biomedical, behavioral, cognitive, and so forth. Interested in how animal research is conducted, or why animal research is important? Think you might want to do some animal research of your own someday? This is the interview series for you.

Andrew Thaler (twitter, blog) is pursuing a doctorate in the marine biology at the Duke University Marine Lab. He is especially interested in population genetics in hydrothermal vent communities. He is the founding contributor to the Southern Fried Science blog, and is community manager of the Southern Fried Science Network, otherwise known as The Gam.

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(In an entirely unplanned turn of events, Andrew was also interviewed earlier this week by Bora at scienceblogging.org)

So jump behind the fold for the interview, and enjoy!

1. To start out, could you tell my readers something about yourself? Could you tell us a little about your academic and/or scientific career trajectories?

I’m a candidate for Ph.D. studying population structure and connectivity of deep-sea hydrothermal vent endemic invertebrates in the Western Pacific. I’m interested in how isolation and gene flow affect marine populations at local and global scales. My primary focus is in the connectivity of deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems and understanding how patterns of connectivity or isolation effect the ability of vent organisms to re-colonize vents after catastrophic disturbance.

2. Some people decide that they want to work with animals, and then find a particular research program they like. Others are interested in a particular empirical question, and discover that animal research is one of the best ways to approach that question. Why did you decide to become involved in animal research?

My research focuses specifically on how populations are connected at local and global scales, so there’s no way to address those questions without working with animals. That’s not entirely true, I also use the data I’ve collected to model catastrophic disturbance within populations – it’s much more practical than actually wiping out an entire habitat to see how it affects gene flow.

3. What have been some of the most interesting or challenging projects you’ve worked on, in the course of your animal research?

My work is in the deep sea, so really the biggest challenge is always getting there. My research sites are about 2000 meter underwater, so ROV’s or submersibles are necessary, which are very expensive options. I also work in Papua New Guinea, so even traveling to the field site requires months and months of planning.

4. You mention that you’re investigating in gene flow among deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems, but what made you interested in marine biology, broadly speaking, in the first place? How did you wind up doing the very specific research you’re doing? (I imagine most kids’ romantic notions of marine biology do not involve population genetics and deep-sea vents)

I was introduced to marine biology when I was very young, so I don’t remember ever not planning on a career in marine science. The deep sea was always fascinating – it’s so big and so unknown. I guess I ended up in deep sea biology because I like to explore. Population genetics didn’t happen until my second year of graduate school. I was originally working on deep-sea mycology when an opportunity opened up for me to go out to Papua New Guinea and work on the hydrothermal vents there. For studying connectivity between habitats that are patchy, ephemeral, and very difficult to sample, there really isn’t a better tool.

5. What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist who would like to become involved in animal research?

Ask interesting questions. People often get annoyed with the Southern Fried Science team because we make fun of marine mammals more often than we should, but the reality is that many people want to get into marine biology not because they’re interested in the science, but because they want to work with cute, charismatic animals. That’s not a bad place to start but if you want to be serious about marine biology, you need a desire to figure out how marine systems work and how your study species fits into the broader context of the ocean.

6. Speaking of charismatic megafauna, following the incident involving the orca Tillikum at Sea World Orlando, there was some discussion of the ethics of keeping animals in marine parks and aquaria more broadly, but specifically with respect to cetaceans and other large marine mammals. Those who support the captivity of these animals point out the benefits of increased awareness and public education, but can that outweigh the potential negative effects? What is your position on the issue?

I’m torn on this issue. On one hand big, intelligent animals need lots of room and lots of stimulation. Keeping them trapped in tank is definitely not good for them. On the other hand, we learn a lot about marine mammal behavior, physiology, and health care from captive animals, which means when a wild animal is injured, we know how to treat their injuries and we have the facilities to take care of them. I don’t buy the education argument – seeing dolphins do tricks in tanks just makes people want to see more dolphins do tricks in tanks. So really, it comes down to the facility – if their goal is conservation, they uses the opportunity to learn as much as they can, and they maintain an active rescue and rehabilitation program, great. If they just want to put on a show, then what’s the point?

7. How does your blogging (and administration of the Southern Fried Science Network) complement your research activities? Has your blogging helped shape or guide your research thinking, or vice versa?

I blog quite a bit about population and conservation genetics. I never blog directly about my research, but I do write about the concepts that go into that research. Having to explain how pop. gen works to a non-genetics audience helps me understand all these concepts and, more importantly, communicate them clearly.

Thanks for your time, Andrew! I hope my readers find your thoughts and experiences and interesting as I have.