Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Friday, November 30, 2012

SciFund Round 3: Jenn Hellmann

The SciFund challenge, a crowd funding experiment for science, is once again going strong this year. Since this blog started with my own SciFund campaign, it is only fitting that I use it to promote some of the fascinating research done by other students.

This funding cycle, there are three other students in my department at Ohio State who are sharing their science with the world and looking for members of the public to participate with them. One of these students in Jenn Hellman
Jenn looking for fish in all the wrong places.
Jenn's research centers around social networks in animals. Particularly, she observes the behavior of African Cichlid fish to better understand the interactions between individuals and groups. Why is this important? These relationships are complex, and the effects of how animals interact in a social network has massive influences on their evolution and ecology. 

Jenn is planning to use donation to fund an expedition to Lake Tanganyika, in East Africa, where she will be able to observe these animals in the wild. 

As part of her campaign, Jenn answered some questions about what she does, why she does it, and what makes her tick:

Tell us about yourself, where you are from, and where you see yourself going.
I'm a second year graduate student at The Ohio State University. I'm originally from Philadelphia, and I did my undergraduate at Messiah College. I took a year off before graduate school to work with kids and to travel, but I came to graduate school last year and I love it. I love being paid to do research and teach, and working in an environment where everyone is here to learn. Because of that, I would love to be able to work as a faculty member at a university eventually. 

Graduate student multitasking at its best.
How did you get involved in your research project?
I came to graduate school knowing that I wanted to do fish behavior, but I didn't know much more than that. I actually got into social networking by reading some of primate literature for a class. The article talked about how certain individuals in the group are responsible for maintaining group stability, and when you remove those individuals, the group gets really aggressive. Later, I was reading some articles about intergroup movement in colonies, and it just struck me that social networking is probably really important in this species too. Since some individuals have many more opportunities to interact with their peers than others, that probably has pretty significant effects on the decisions that they make. 

Why is your research important to you? Why should others fund it?
I think that sociality in general is fascinating and relevant. So many different species, from ants to humans, have evolved extremely complex social systems. Exploring the benefits of social networking can help us compare social systems between species and help us understand why they are so different. Why do ants live in huge colonies with one queen and many helpers, versus fish that cooperatively breed, versus primates that raise their offspring in groups? In all of these types of organisms, their social system is key to their survival and without it, they would not be successful in their environment. 

Exploring social networking is one of the best ways to understand social systems.  It tells us a lot about species: how they find mates, how they maintain social stability, and which individuals are most important in a group. It helps us understand how evolutionary pressures have caused species to adapt a certain way of living, and we can use this information for many things, such as improving conservation plans, anticipating how species will react to disturbances, and tracking the spread of diseases.

Do you have a favorite story that came from working on your research project?
I've had to learn how to SCUBA dive for this trip. The first practice dive that we took as a research group, I was using someone else's equipment and so my BCD (the vest that controls your buoyancy) was too big and the weights around my waist were too heavy. I spent about twenty minutes bobbing up and down between the surface and the bottom of the lake before I got out and fixed it. It was not my best practice dive! 

Why did you decide to particpate in the SciFund Challenge?
The purpose of SciFund is two-fold. First and most importantly, I want people to understand how science applies to their lives. There are all types of research happening that people don't know about and may not care about. I hope that SciFund can at least show people what type of research is out there, and make people interested in it. I think a lot of people see science as this unapproachable and hard-to-understand topic, but it's not if it presented in an understandable way. Second, I want to raise money to help fund my field season to Africa. My research is much more suited for field work than laboratory work (because of space constraints in the lab), but it's expensive to travel to Africa and I need some help!

What was the most difficult aspect of building your SciFund Proposal? What was your favorite? 
The most difficult was definitely the video. I also had to sit outside in 30 degree weather filming without a coat for about an hour, and then couldn't use the footage because of all the background noise. I've never done a video before (ironically, my brother was a film and sound production major), and I'm just lucky that there are programs out there that can help anyone make a movie. The best part was figuring out how to explain my project to the more general population, because it gave me the opportunity to really think about how it is so related to what we see in human society, even though they are 'just' fish. 

Tell us something random. Something funny. Something borrowed. Something blue.
Something random... okay, well a 'Philly cheesesteak' is not actually a Philly cheesesteak unless you are in Philly. You can call it a cheesesteak, but they are definitely not the same and not as good. Anyone from Philly will tell you that!

If you would like to donate to Jenn's SciFund campaign (I did!), go here.

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