31 July 2015

Connections in my scientific career

If you’ve never seen the television series Connections by James Burke, you are missing out. Whereas most histories of science emphasize a “march of progress,” Burke’s series emphasized contingencies: you couldn’t have this if there hadn’t been that, and how those this and that were related were not obvious or predictable. In episode 9, “Countdown,” for instance, Burke connects the divorce of Henry VIII to the invention of television.

I got thinking about this with the publication of my most recent paper, which was nexus point between a couple of different research projects. I’ve joked with people that I have “science ADD,” but there are relationships between my projects. They just might not be obvious to people who are not me.

As an undergraduate, I worked on a project about walking by octopuses. This got me interested in locomotion, and I looked for a related project for graduate school. This led me to do a doctoral project on sand crab digging.

Sand crabs dig with their legs, so this led me into looking at the leg motor neurons of crustaceans. I’d found a discrepancy between the description of leg motor neurons in spiny lobsters and everything else that had been looked at. I wrote a post-doctoral fellowship proposal to study that, and got it. I went to work with David Macmillan in Australia for a post-doc.

David’s students had some projects on crayfish escape responses going on while I was there. Meanwhile, spiny lobsters were hard to get and hard to work with, I moved to working with slipper lobsters. I remember standing in David’s office, chatting about trying to get as much use out of the slipper lobsters as possible (they weren’t super cheap), and saying something like, “We’ll do some sections of the abdominal nerve cord, just to look at the giant interneurons and see that they’re there.”

Except they weren’t there.

Discovering that some species were missing a major set of very well-studied neurons was a completely unplanned observation.

That led me to working on the escape response in crustaceans. Because I was seeing substantial differences between species, I thought I needed to see how those neurons developed; take an “evo devo” approach to the problem.

I got very interested in marbled crayfish as a developmental model for the escape neurons from chatting Steffen Harzsch at the Neuroethology congress. I got some marbled crayfish for my lab, fully intending to start working them up as an experimental model. I started the Marmorkrebs.org website.

While I was thing about things to post on the Marmorkrebs blog, it became obvious that there were quite a few Marmorkrebs in the pet trade in the U.S.. Those crayfish were a potential problem if they got loose. This led me to doing research on the pet trade, and about the same time started doing species distribution models. All of this led me to be co-author on a forthcoming book on crayfish (out next week!).

I was also looking for a way to get the relatives of marbled crayfish in my lab. That led me to participate in the #SciFund Challenge, which became a scientific experiment in its own right.

Meanwhile, I was still plugging away on the escape response. I’d studied slipper lobsters, spiny lobsters, and had moved on to shrimp. While I was looking at the backfills of the shrimp, I saw things moving in the nervous system. And those moving things were parasites.

Finding parasites in the nervous system of shrimp was another completely unplanned observation. And before you know it, I’m helping Kelly Weinersmith co-organize a whole symposium on the subject at an international conference.

And the sand crabs? I still liked those guys, and recognized that we knew almost zero about most species. So with the incentive of finding a field project for an undergraduate student, I started collecting very basic natural history data for the ecology of the local sand crab species.

So you see, it all makes perfect sense. (Well, most of it does: there are a few papers that don’t fit neatly into that narrative.) But you are not likely to recognize the “this happened because of that” connections by skimming the titles of the papers.

The moral of the story? One is that it’s absolutely worth doing exploratory experiments and keeping your eyes open. I’ve had two findings (interneurons missing in slipper lobsters, parasites in shrimp) that came about not because there were hypothesis driven experiments, but that I got by happenstance, and those opened up whole new lines of research and resulted in multiple papers for me.

What a strange trip it’s been.

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