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Marine Educator Conference Highlights: Glowing jellyfish, bad petitions, lost sharks & affordable VR

Last week, I attended the National Marine Educators Association (NMEA) Conference in sunny and stormy Orlando, Florida. The conference hosted hundreds of informal educators, formal educators, government agencies and marine scientists to promote the sharing of best practices in marine science education. Here are some highlights:


The Ocean Pharmacy Made Possible by Jellyfish

The jellyfish that gave us green fluorescent protein (GFP), (Credit: OpenCage.info CC-BY-SA)

This jellyfish (Aequorea victoria) is the source for green fluorescent protein (GFP), a protein that allows scientist to visualize details at a cellular level. (Credit: OpenCage.info CC-BY-SA)

Bioprospecting is the chemical exploration of living things on Earth that produce compounds that could have human applications such as anti-cancer drugs, painkillers, and more. The ocean has become one of the main areas of pharmaceutical interest due to its dizzying biodiversity and relative ease of traveling to and collecting life (at least for shallow water species). Sessile or non-moving organisms such as sponges and sea squirts are often targeted because they have developed chemical defenses against predators in lieu of escaping via mobility.  To study new compounds or proteins, green fluorescent protein (GFP)–previously on oceanbites, here–which comes from the jellyfish species Aequorea victoria  can be used. GFP is particularly useful in science because it can be used to visualize genes and proteins of interest at a cellular level. In fact, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to scientists for the discovery and development of GFP as a molecular marker in 2008. In a bioprospecting application, the DNA of GFP can be attached to the end of a gene (portion of DNA sequence that codes for a protein) that is of interest. Then every time the protein is produced, it will fluoresce or glow under a black light. This visualization makes it easier to identify, purify, then test this protein of interest in clinical trials. Want to try it yourself (or with students)? You can! There is a kit you can buy for a visual lab experience that I hope to get my hands on one day. And best of all, it gets you and/or your students thinking of what it takes to get a drug to market.


The Danger of Bad Petitions

Shark & clipboard credits: Unbox Science (CC0) and modified by Megan Chen

Shark & clipboard credits: Unbox Science (CC0), modified by Megan Chen

There was an impressive list of shark experts in a rolling panel format (only two speakers and a moderator on the stage throughout the panel, and after a few questions, one speaker leaves and another comes up—brilliant!). David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) warned us of the dangers of bad petitions. If you’re going to create or sign a petition, make sure you do your research. Many petitions address issues that do not actually exist.  For example, shark finning is already banned in several countries including the U.S. and Canada, so signing a petition to ban shark finning in these countries won’t do much good.  The importation and sale of shark products is a different matter.  Furthermore, before you sign or make a petition, make sure it not only addresses an existing issue, but also it needs to be as specific as possible with a concrete solution or outcome you hope to achieve.  ‘Pointless’ petitions flood the Internet, diluting the attention on carefully thought-out petitions that have more of a chance to elicit change.


Importance of Understanding ‘Lost’ Sharks

Ninja lanternshark (Etmopterus benchleyi). Image as published in: Vásquez, V.E., Ebert, D.A. & Long, D.J. (2015). "Etmopterus benchleyi n. sp., a new lanternshark (Squaliformes: Etmopteridae) from the central eastern Pacific Ocean" (PDF). Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, 17: 43–55. Retrieved 25 December 2015. (CC-BY)

Ninja lanternshark (Etmopterus benchleyi). Image as published in: Vásquez, V.E., Ebert, D.A. & Long, D.J. (2015). “Etmopterus benchleyi n. sp., a new lanternshark (Squaliformes: Etmopteridae) from the central eastern Pacific Ocean”. Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, 17: 43–55. Retrieved 25 December 2015. (CC-BY)

Vicky Vasquez was another speaker on the rolling panel. She is known for describing a new species of shark, and naming it the Ninja Lanternshark (after consulting with her young cousins, of course). Ninja because of its black colouration—its prey won’t see it coming, and lanternshark because it belongs to a group of sharks that possess bioluminescent organs. Interestingly, its scientific name, Etmopterus benchleyi is a nod to Peter Benchley, the author and film adaptation cowriter of Jaws. Although known primarily for Jaws, he became a committed shark advocate due to the fear and demonization of sharks that unintentionally resulted from his work. While the great white shark is a wonderful gateway species that get many people excited, Vicky made the case that we should get to know and care about the ‘lost sharks’, or lesser-known shark species.  (Her reasoning was one of the motivating factors for giving the ninja lanternshark such a kickass name). Why? Well, there are over 400 species of sharks around 25% of which are threatened in some way. However, not all of these sharks are apex predators. In fact, sharks have diverse ecological roles in their respective ecosystems that are also important to appreciate and understand. To start learning about some of these ‘lost sharks’, check out #FlatSharkFriday (includes rays and skates) on Twitter!


Affordable Virtual Reality

Proud owner of a pair of cardboard virtual reality goggles (Photo Credit: Megan Chen)

Proud owner of a pair of cardboard virtual reality goggles (Photo Credit: Megan Chen)

In this session, participants not only played around with virtual reality tours, but we walked away with our very own pair of cardboard virtual reality goggles–thank you Delaware Sea Grant! These goggles work with any smart phone, and with certain apps such as RoundMe, you can take virtual tours of landscapes with curious penguins or of a scientific core drilling ship (search DESea in the app)! A neat feature is the ability navigate to other rooms by staring at a bubble icon. And from an educational standpoint, if you are creating these virtual tours, you can embed videos into the tours as well!


Aside from the sessions, I was able to meet many capable and amazing people that are working within the field marine education—it reminded me of why I do the work I do, and that there is a great support network for marine educators.

Conference aside, my fieldtrip highlight was spending the night at Cape Canaveral, watching loggerhead sea turtles haul themselves up on the beach to lay their eggs, and the sand that twinkled with bioluminescence if you ran your hand over it or moon-walked through it…“just like Tinkerbell” a park ranger commented. He was right, it was magical.


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