Were you ever told when you were little that your dream of becoming "x" would probably not come true? That's sort of what happened to today's scientist, Misty Paig-Tran! When she was little mentors and teachers told her that science was just not for girls. Ugh.
But now, the assistant professor and marine biologist is breaking glass ceilings and wanting to be an inspiration for the younger generations by showing that you CAN be a scientist if you want to be- no matter your background or gender. That's the kind of spirit we here at TFUI like to shine a spotlight on... so please join us in welcoming Misty Paig-Tran and dive on in to her amazing interview with TFUI! (Seriously, you won't believe what she's doing in the next picture...)
The Fins United Initiative: A big thanks for letting us interview you Misty. First off, what drew you to marine biology?
Misty Paig-Tran: I grew up in Southern California so I spent a good amount of time in and around the ocean. However, when I was little I thought for sure I wanted to be a rocket scientist. It wasn’t until high school when I saw a documentary on bioluminescence that I decided I wanted to become a marine biologist.
TFUI: Why was that?
MPT: The idea of lights in the deep sea completely captivated me. However, when I was enrolled in my undergrad, I quickly realized that I am a bit claustrophobic and did not want to go in a deep sea submersible, even though I still
dream of it often. Instead I joined a shark lab and began my career as an ichthyologist (person who studies fishes).
TFUI: What is your day-to- day like as an ichthyologist?
MPT: My day-to- day schedule is best described as unpredictable. Some days I am in the classroom teaching courses like marine ecology, ichthyology, field marine biology, biomechanics, and human anatomy. Other days I am either in the lab performing experiments with my graduate and undergraduate students or we are in the field sampling fish or other sea critters. Something that I was not aware of before I entered academia is how much of a professor’s time is actually spent writing grants to help fund our research.
TFUI: How so?
MPT: So for example: this week I will be in the lab one day, will be writing a grant proposal two days, will be writing a research paper for publication one day, and will be out on a boat sampling fish one day. In between I will be grading papers and mentoring students. It is basically crazy every day, but I never get bored.
TFUI: Wow! Can you tell us a little bit about the research you and your students currently do?
MPT: My research lab is bound by the theme of bioinspiration and biomechanics.
TFUI: And what is that, for TFUI readers who don't know?
MPT: What that actually means is I study how marine organisms (especially sharks and rays) do what they do. For example, I have an interest in how bus-sized fish (manta rays, whale sharks) eat teeny tiny plankton the size of your pencil eraser. To understand this, I start with live video and then eventually work up to creating physical, 3D printed models of their filters to explore how they work. This helps me to develop new products for human use based on nature – which really is the best inspiration. Right now some of the projects in my laboratory include: 1) building a new and better armor based on small catfishes that can withstand piranha bites, 2) creating new applications for fish bone as a potential bone graft for humans that would not require the recipient to take immunosuppressant medications following transplantation and that would allow patients to heal faster, 3) new digging devices based on how sand crabs dig, 4) insights into how walruses use their tusks, 5) bite forces in squids, and of course 6) building new high efficiency, non-clogging filtration devices based on manta rays (my personal favorite because this is an offshoot from my Ph.D work).
TFUI: This seems like all fascinating stuff! But I'm sure many are wondering: why is your research important?
MPT: The most obvious answer to this is that my research uses nature as inspiration to build new applications for human use. However, it is so important for many other reasons beyond applications to humans. Some of my work has direct applications to conservation. For example, I noted that devil rays (relatives of mantas) have very different shapes of their filters depending on the species. My observations can now be used in Asian markets to identify which rays are being killed for their filters without having to have the whole fish for identification purposes. I have an interest in evolution as well and I always tell my students that nothing in biology makes sense without the context of evolution.
TFUI: And what do you hope others can take away from your experiences?
MPT: I want to inspire the next generation of future scientists. When I was little, by parents told me I could do anything I wanted and I did just that. But many teachers and other mentors tried to tell me science is not for girls or that if I was going to do science, it should be as a nurse.
TFUI: Ouch! Sounds like a lot of other women's experiences when growing up!
MPT: Thank goodness my parents did not let me give up on my dreams. I’ve known others that have been discouraged because they are English as second language speaking students, or come from a less than affluent background. But I am here to tell you that is simply NOT the case. You, all of you, can do science and should do science in some form, even if it isn’t your career. Science is universal. Anyone can do science. If anyone tells you that you can’t please remember that I am proof that you can. We all are living on this big blue planet, so we all need to pitch in and have an understanding and appreciation for how our world works and protect the precious life living on it.
TFUI: You can't see it right now, but I'm standing up and clapping. Wow, Misty. YES. I 100% agree with everything you just said-- and I hope people take that to heart! Now you are a professor-- what is the most rewarding thing about that?
MPT: I’d say there are two things that make being a professor amazing. 1) Watching a student fall in love with the subject matter being presented is just awesome. This semester I have several students enroll in my ichthyology course and tell me they really were not interested in fish and were hesitant to even take the course. Over just a few weeks those same students are the ones on the front lines when we catch fish. Several of those students have now said they now like fish as much as they liked dolphins before taking the class. One even told me she was afraid to touch a fish before the course but now she is routinely the student who stays through class until the bitter end to make sure she is getting as much time as possible exploring fishes.
2) Being a professor means you get to decide what research you conduct and how you explore questions. Many times I have seen something out in the field and thought “huh, I wonder how that works?” which has led to a full on project trying to figure that out. I am driven by my own curiosity, and that makes for the best kind of work. I get paid to answer the questions in my head.
TFUI: That sounds like not only do you enjoy your job but that you are making a difference in many people's lives! Speaking of people, do you think people in your state have a good relationship with the ocean environment? If not, what can be done to better it?
MPT: I live in California so for the most part we are fairly ocean minded. I think most people here have a healthy respect for the ocean and its inhabitants. Here in Southern California we have two really great “sharky” resources. We have Seal Beach also known as “stingray bay” that has 10,000 stingrays buried in the sand. So beachgoers become accustomed to being in close proximity to stingrays. We are also a nursery ground for baby white sharks.
These certainly get a lot of press, but it seems to be turning into a neat tourist destination. Even some of the whale-watching boats have started doing shark tours.
TFUI: Wow! That sounds great!
MPT: However I think overall the public is still very weary of sharks in general. I’d love for us to get to the point where instead of demonizing these amazing fishes, we start celebrating them for their important role in our fragile ecosystem.
TFUI: A-MEN. So as an ichthyologist, what is the most mind-blowing fish fact you know?
MPT: I post a fish fact a day on Twitter because there are so many awesome and amazing fish facts to be had. Probably one sharkophiles will enjoy is that a white shark bites with 1.8 tonnes of force. Ouch. Also some sharks don’t actually swim all that much. Instead they “walk” across the sand using their fins (called punting). My most popular fish fact posted to date was about fishes that have bright blue muscle.
TFUI: I saw that! That was SO COOL. And you share a lot of fish facts on Twitter! Why did you start sharing? What do you hope people come away with after reading those fish fact tweets?
MPT: I actually only started my daily “fish fact” in January 2018 in preparation for teaching ichthyology this semester. It was a way to engage my students in a different way by having them learn cool factoids on social media that we were not going to cover in class. It was also a way for me to reach out to engage the general public. I had originally thought I would focus on sharks and rays because that’s where most of my research interests lie, but I quickly found that there are just too many neat things about the 35,000 species of known fish to focus solely on a small group – even if they are the best group. I will likely open it up to marine bio facts come summer because there are so many neat things to talk about in our oceans. Maybe I will focus a week on sharks, rays, skates, and chimeras.
TFUI: We are GAME for that! So what’s next for you research-wise?
MPT: I am really in to walruses right now. The idea of an animal that weighs 3000lbs or more that can lift itself out of the water on two teeth is absolutely fascinating for me. As far as shark and ray research, I have started working on a project with megamouth sharks that I have been thinking about for the past few years. I am also really intrigued by angel sharks and have been talking with a collaborator to potentially start a project with these amazing “pancake” sharks. That’s a nickname I use with my three year old, nobody else calls them this, though I hope it becomes a thing.
TFUI: I can totally get down with calling angel sharks "pancake" sharks. I'm sure we can all make that a thing.
MPT: In the coming months I hope to publish a paper that I have been working on with my graduate student that (I think) is going to revolutionize water filtration based on manta rays. It is my hope that it will completely change how we provide clean water to developing nations.
TFUI: Can't wait to read all about it!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK misty FOR HER TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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