Many scientists know the struggle of having to explain their research to non-scientists, and let’s be honest - some of us are better at it than others. We all know how it feels when a friend, a relative or a complete unknown inquires about the nature of our professional activity.
We also know that we are only given one shot to tell the story right, and it has to be captivating and meaningful, or we loose the listener’s attention in one second.
After all, who wants to listen to the details of our last failed overnight experiment in the lab? Or the –only exciting to us- new methodology we are applying and how our last result (mysteriously) doesn’t seem to be reproducible? Not even our grandma!
In a sense, I am lucky to work in a field that most people can easily connect to, “Evolutionary Biology of Marine Invertebrates”, or just “Marine Biology” for friends and family. However, past the excitement of listening to adventurous fieldwork stories, encounters with wild marine creatures and dives in dream locations, comes the one question that people can’t help but ask: ‘so … what is your work good for?’ That’s when I regret I don’t work in cancer research where obviously nobody doubts about the usefulness of it!
WHY STUDY BONELESS ANIMALS?
It can be somewhat challenging to convince the novice of the importance of evolutionary biology because it has no direct application to our everyday life. My colleagues and I do not develop new technologies or improve human health. What we do is more basic, yet important: we try to understand the world around us, how it evolves in time and space, how we evolved with it and how all living things connect to each other from a biological and genetic point of view.
I focus on marine invertebrates (i.e. boneless animals) because they have been around for a very long time and thus are deeply connected and very well adapted to their environment. By studying these animals, we are provided with valuable insights on species evolution processes and… didn’t we all come from the oceans at first?
Marine invertebrates play essential roles in the various marine ecosystems available out there. They can actually be an ecosystem by themselves, like coral reefs, which create shelter, protection and nutrition for tons of other animals (including us humans!). They can also function as “ocean cleaners”, such as mussels, oysters and clams, which are constantly filtering the water. By using next generation sequencing tools, I seek into well-hidden genetic signatures of the past history of these species. Getting to know how they shaped the environment and how changes in the environment affected them, allows us to infer on how actual or future environmental changes will affect the fragile marine biodiversity. But most importantly, it will help us to better protect it!
TRANSFORMING RESEARCH INTO DESIGN!
So let’s go back to the difficult task of explaining research to the public. In my collaboration with my designer, I experience something unique. Helmer listens carefully while I explain my research to him over and over again. I quickly realized he had a very special way to interpret was he was hearing: he visualizes my research in terms of shapes, colors and assemblages that he can relate to. I feel like he is translating my words and sentences into design, fabric and texture. Boneless animals became a fluid piece of fabric wrapped around a body, coral reefs were converted into colorful stacked pieces of embroideries and phylogenetic relationships became an accumulation of patterns and interconnected glass tubes – a whole new world!
And then I started dreaming… Next time someone asks me what my research is about and what it is good for, maybe a bright and colorful garment –a beautiful piece of art could help me explain it in a very intuitive way!
Luxuriant underwater landscape of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Infinite species of marine invertebrates interact together and share space: starfishes, brittle stars, sea urchins anthozoans, sponges, tunicates and annelids.