Why I Use Instagram for Science Outreach

Lots of people have been asking for my response to the recent Science magazine opinion piece “Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach,” so here it is. I never felt like wildlife biology (my field of science) was for people like me. As a young girl, wildlife content was geared towards hunters or whimsical (e.g. unicorns, ponies). My first years in grad school, I came in as “me” with make-up on and business casual clothes – not even that fancy, but I increasingly felt like I didn’t belong. Almost no one wore make-up, and Chakos and field clothes (REI, Columbia) were worn even though people did not go to the field. It was implied that any moment I would spend on myself, doing things that were not related to science (e.g. putting on makeup, shopping) was a sign that I was not a serious scientist. It was made very clear to me that almost every waking moment should be spent on science. So I conformed. I limited my makeup and wore yoga pants to show I was so busy doing my research that I couldn’t possibly have the time to put on pants with a zipper (even though it took me longer to pick out a yoga pants outfit). But I felt awful. I felt sad. I didn’t feel like me. So then I rebelled. I honestly also had so much eyeshadow that I figured it would take me forever to get through it if I didn’t wear it every day, lol. So I started wearing it again. And I felt better. I felt like me and when I feel good, I am more productive. It’s kind of like when you dress up for a job interview in a suit, you start to feel more powerful. Clothes have meaning. I’ve been giving talks to classrooms for 8 years now. Every time I enter a classroom, including this last Friday, the students tell me they thought I was a student teacher or a mom. They are SHOCKED when I tell them I an the scientist. I first changed my handle to @FancyScientist for Twitter because the teachers I worked with kept calling me fancy and I felt it reflected my personality. I started doing #FancyFriday to show that I am not the only #FancyScientist. That there are lots of us out there – to show young girls that they don’t have to choose between liking fancy, frivolous things and liking serious things like science (and to show those in academia too). Because society often casts us into stereotypes, we feel like we have to choose one. It was never my intention to show one type of scientist, or to tell scientists that they have to be feminine or frilly. In fact I have gone out of my way to show diversity in people and diversity in fanciness. But I also get that Instagram can be TOXIC for women, scientists included. That we only post when we look and feel our best (myself included). Remember it’s a highlights real – and that we usually just show our best selves. In fact, for my body, I had to unfollow any account that made me feel like I needed to sculpt my abs and started following women who love their bodies. So today I’m showing my  unfancy self. And a reminder that science is for everyone!


The ABC’s of Elephant DNA

My previous blog brought up how difficult forest elephants are to see, and therefore study. Much of the research on forest elephants has actually been on their dung to obtain information about the elephant.

Forest elephants defecate roughly 17-20 times a day, making it an accessible source of information. Traditionally, dung has been used to study diet. Forest elephants consume hundreds of species of plants, either as fruits, bark, or leaves, and sorting through dung piles gives scientists’ detailed information on what they are eating. More recently, scientists have used dung to obtain DNA. But how do scientists get DNA from dung?

DNA is found in nearly every cell in an individual’s body. The best sources of DNA come from tissue and fluids. Scientists who study amphibians will often cut off a portion of an individual’s toes (“toe clipping”) to get a DNA sample. For many species (forest elephants included), sampling body parts simply will not work. Tissue can be accessed though from dead animals, which is important in forensics cases to combat poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Collecting blood, although less invasive than tissue collection, still requires capture, which is stressful, and for many species, anesthesia, which is costly, and a risk to the individual. Within the past few decades, methods have been developed that allow researchers to collect DNA samples without ever even coming into contact with the animal. This is called non-invasive genetic sampling and uses sources such as hair, feathers, shed skin, egg shells, and feces to obtain DNA. It is more difficult to obtain DNA from non-invasive samples than tissue or blood, but it is worth it because it has no impact on the animal you are studying.

For elephants, the best way to get DNA is from their dung (feces). As mentioned before, they defecate often, making it easier to collect a large number of samples. We obtain DNA from dung samples, but the DNA is not in the dung per say. Rather, the DNA is located in the cells that have been sloughed off onto the dung. When the dung passes through the intestines inside the elephant’s body, it scrapes along the walls. When the elephant defecates, some of these cells will be stuck to the dung bolus and fall off with it. That is why it is best to have fresh dung (we use look for dung that is 24 hours old or less). When scientists find fresh dung, they put a small portion of the dung inside a collection tube. It’s easy to tell fresh dung apart from older ones; it has a stronger smell, sheen around it, and is usually intact as a bolus (unless an animal stepped on it or went through it; insects can break it apart and red river hogs will go through it). For importation into the U.S., the sample needs to be boiled within the tube in a bath of hot water to make sure that any pathogens are killed. To preserve the DNA for long-term storage, a liquid buffer is added, turning it into “dung slurry.” These samples are stored in a cooler, dark area of the field station for the duration of the trip.

Once the samples make their way through customs and into the lab, they need to be turned from dung into just the DNA. This involves an extraction process that takes several hours. Briefly, the samples go through a series of steps that involve breaking open the cells (the DNA is inside the cell) and removing the parts of the cells and the sample that are not needed. The sample contains large non-DNA parts including grasses or seeds from fruits the elephant has eaten, and also insects that may have been on or inside the sample when it was collected. The extraction process removes all of this. People often think it’s gross to work with dung samples, but after extractions, you are only working with the DNA, which is basically colorless, odorless liquid that resembles water inside a tiny tube.

In my research, I was able to use dung to identify patterns of sociality in forest elephants. When I found more than one dung pile together and of the same freshness, the elephants were likely part of the same group. The DNA from the dung allowed me to uniquely identify each individual. Therefore, I could keep track of who was hanging out together without ever even seeing them. I found that forest elephants were mostly in groups of individuals of the same matriline (their mother’s ancestry), which is also seen in African savanna elephants. Also they have larger associations than what is observed just from their group sizes – a hidden social network.

The diagram above is a network of forest elephant associations collected from dung samples. Individuals (symbols) are connected to one another by lines if their dung samples were ever collected together. Darker lines mean they were collected together more often. The symbols are a circle if the elephant is a female, and a square if a male. Each color represents what matriline (mother’s ancestry) the elephant belongs to.

DNA is a powerful tool and allows you to answer questions about animals without ever even seeing them. Some of the ways that scientists use non-invasive DNA include species identifications (finding new species or detecting if a species is present in a certain area), population estimates, the connectivity of populations across the landscape (are animals moving between populations?), and inbreeding. These findings are not only important contributions to science, but often critical in the management and conservation of threatened species.

*This post was originally featured on the African Wildlife Foundation