Integrating Research and Outreach Through Massive Ocean Animals

With 5 stunning Duke University undergraduates, I am participating in an experiment, one in which science outreach and research aren’t seen as separate spheres.

“Time to put away the research and do some outreach.”

“I don’t have time for outreach because I’m doing research.”

Instead, I believe that effective science communication, from the scientists themselves, must be based on a model with better integration between research and outreach. And importantly, we must teach these models to our students.

At the beginning of the summer, I knew I wanted to try something new.  I wrote this in my lab notebook during that time.

1 part research,

1 part social media outreach,

and 4 parts massive ocean animals

This essentially was a recipe for my own research.  Could this work for a course or independent study?  My recipe needed specifics.  I came up withthis.

For an entire semester, 5 undergraduates would explore and collect data on the body size of various ocean giants ranging from the giant squid and blue whale to the oarfish and leatherback turtle.  Each student would focus on a few specific animals and collecting data from scientific literature, contacts at museums, public media, fisheries services, and other archival information.  The quantitative data would placed in a database to be analyzed for measurement bias, age patterns, geographic variation, sex differences, etc.

The students would become experts on their individual animals.  Part of that coming about by searching the literature for body size data.  Part coming from sharing that knowledge with the public. I would ask each student to contribute blog posts to and that would serve as our core ofoutreach. I would require each student to engage the science community and public via Twitter.  Each week there would be a Twitter assignment.

And now three weeks in the semester, I am happy with the progress.  I lucked out with a great set of students.  They generated some amazing posts at which I will begin to syndicate here at DSN. The engagement on Twitter has been amazing.   Already, I have seen other scientists engage my students. One of these, led to a lead that turned about over 20,000 lines of body size data!  The first Twitter assignment, to generate LOLCat memes about your animal, is occurring right now at  the hashtag #sizingoceangiants.

My students are both collecting some serious data and producing some serious outreach.  I suspect none of them knew exactly what they are getting into.  Last week we discussed how food availability impacts the body size of mammals and molluscs.  We followed up that conversation with some basic rules of internet memes and LOLCats.  I think the students are finding the tasks challenging. One of the students generated the below based on the Bad Luck Brian meme.


Dr. M (1801 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.

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