Yes, I am a marine biologist. But, before you get all doe-eyed, thinking about swimming with dolphins, or saving the whales, I need to explain that there are two very different kinds of marine biologists in the world, one kind triumphantly leaps off of boats wearing stylish wetsuits to study highly intelligent and beautiful marine mammals, these are the dolphin huggers, while the other kind of marine biologist studies the less popular animals in the ocean, things like worms and slugs, or in my case, shrimp.
And to be precise, I don’t study just any shrimp. My career choice was to study sick shrimp, shrimp laden with bacteria. While my dolphin-hugging colleagues are inundated with students they travel the world giving invited seminars to large enthusiastic audiences and seem to get research support with the flick of pen, I on the other hand am basically the proctologist of the marine biology world in terms of popularity. And like all proctologists, my expertise is entirely unappreciated. To be a successful shrimp biologist requires a commitment to working in obscurity and a passion for trying to understand aspects of our natural world that most people don’t find the least bit interesting.
In high school, I would certainly be labeled a geek or nerd, and I realized a long time ago that I would never be the most popular person, or even scientist for that matter, in the room. But all that changed a couple of years ago when something extraordinary happened. It was as if the marine biology gods looked down on me and smiled, and for a short time I was granted dolphin-hugger status. Unbeknownst to me, someone lifted a video of a sick shrimp exercising from my nerdy faculty webpage and posted it on YouTube.
Within days, millions of people around the world became fascinated by a shrimp running on a treadmill and for the first time in my career my phone started ringing, news organizations wanted to know about my research, I was being invited to give seminars and even appeared on television. One day I found myself standing in Rockefeller Center, about to head into Studio 1A to make an appearance on the Today Show, a shrimp treadmill in one arm, bag of shrimp in the other, and I realized I had made it, I had reached the status of a dolphin hugger. My mother would finally be able to tell her friends with pride that yes, her son studies shrimp.
But as you well know from any teen coming-of-age movie, things always turn ugly when the geeky unpopular kid tries to hang with the in-crowd. Prom night, as it were for me, when everything came crashing down, was in Washington DC and came in the form of a congressional wastebook report that erroneously suggested that obscure, non-dolphin-hugging, science is unimportant.
The report said that I had wasted millions of taxpayer dollars running shrimp on a treadmill. My research became the equivalent of Patrick Dempsey dancing the African Anteater Ritual in the movie Can’t Buy Me Love, and I was accused of wasting $3 million tax dollars to buy scientific popularity.
And of course, all the “popular kids” wanted to take their shot at sending the geek back to the minor leagues: Mike Huckabee did an entire segment on Fox News about how soldiers could not get the equipment they needed to keep them safe in battle because of shrimp treadmill studies, AARP put out a nationally distributed commercial suggesting that congress had sacrificed healthcare for the elderly because of useless shrimp treadmill research, Representative John Culberson’s (R-TX), chair the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science told Science magazine that he hopes to never see funding for shrimp on a treadmill research again, and Forbes.com listed shrimp treadmill studies as one of the top ten sources of wasteful government spending for the year.
It is important to note that shrimp research has never been a high priority budget item in congress, even though shellfish are a multi-billion dollar industry and I do science on a shoestring budget in labs that are usually hidden in the basement of some obscure science building. In fact, I build most of my research equipment from spare parts: my lab is full of homemade devises like thermocouples to take the temperatures of sick shrimp, tiny transducers to measure shrimp heart rates and miniscule syringes to try, as difficult as it may be, to get blood samples from ailing shrimp.
So the fact that I was being chastised for using a small homemade shrimp treadmill built from a truck inner tube and skateboard bearings was, in my mind, a high price to pay for popularity. And while the narrative that millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted running shrimp on treadmills is a compelling story if you are trying to win the fiscal responsibility vote, it is a far cry from the truth, and entirely misrepresents how science is funded through a rigorous peer-review process that occurs for all Federally funded granting agency like the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health.
I guess the moral of my story is that when you mix science and politics, it can be just as cliquey as high school, and if you disrupt the social order, you had better be ready for some lowbrow playground antics. Back in my lab, once again working in relative obscurity, I console myself with the thought that although shrimp research will most likely never again capture the nation’s imagination, understanding the health of marine organisms and the seafood we eat is critical for our country’s economy and safety, but of course, I am saying that from no-man’s-land in the lunchroom.
Editor’s note: This post has been edited to remove some language that was inappropriate; we apologize for causing offense.