A.J. Turner is a PhD student in Prosanta Chakrabarty's Fish Lab at LSU. If you follow fish science on Twitter or Instagram, or if you follow us on Instagram, A.J.'s research might have caught your eye - it certainly caught ours. He posts stunning pictures of fish specimens, photos from the field and other visuals of his research in action. We've been enjoying his visual communication of science so much, we sat down with him to learn more about using Instagram for science communication.
College of Science: Tell us a bit about yourself!
A.J.: I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania called Lehighton that is situated amongst forested mountains and meandering streams. Growing up I always loved having various animals as pets, but one particular type of pet was always present in my “collection” – fishes.
It wasn’t until late in my undergraduate career at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania that I decided I wanted to study fishes and continue on to graduate school. I ended up going for a master’s in marine biology at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. When I wasn’t enjoying the beauty of this awesome coastal city, I was studying habitat use in sharks that reproduce by laying two eggs (mermaid’s purses) every 15 to 20 days.
Much of my research interest at that time and in my undergraduate studies focused solely on ecology, however, my desire for continued education lead to me incorporate evolution into my research. This brought me to LSU where I now study the ecology and evolution of some of the very fish species I used to keep as a kid – live-bearing fishes in the family Poeciliidae (e.g., guppies, mollies, swordtails, and platies.)
College of Science: Your Instagram is always full of informative and fascinating photos of fish specimens and fieldwork and other science-related posts. When did you start using Instagram for science communication? What motivates you to post science and research-related photos to your Instagram?
A.J.: I started using Instagram a little over six months ago. At first it was just an outlet away from Facebook and Twitter I could use to share some of my everyday adventures with family and friends who live elsewhere. Nowadays, I like to post pictures dealing with my research, duties as a curatorial assistant at the LSU Museum of Natural Science, or involvement at LSU outreach events. Over time I realized Instagram was a handy tool I could employ to familiarize the public, whether family, friends, or complete strangers, with my work and research activities as a Ph.D. student. I’m not always the best at self-promotion, which I feel is a characteristic of many introverted scientists, so Instagram is becoming a great medium for me to showcase and promote my work. As my career progresses, I fully intend to continue posting more research-related activities.
College of Science: How do you combine scientific research with photography? How did you get into photographing science-related objects/specimens?
A.J.: Initially, I never intended to combine my research with photography – I just happened to start taking pictures while I was working in the lab and they seemed cool enough to post. Other people also liked them, which caused me to recognize that Instagram would be the perfect platform for me to get myself and my science out there. Since it’s a visual medium, the picture usually does all of the science communication for me, which is quite contrary to life in academia where everything is explained in words. I like that visual communication concept very much, because sometimes I just want others to enjoy the beauty of a fish specimen or a field site. With that said, I do realize that providing more information via text is quite useful, so I’ll be adding more details alongside my pictures in the future.
College of Science: Can you tell us a bit about your own research?
A.J.: Broadly, my research interests center around understanding the mechanisms that generate biological diversity. Specifically, this involves looking at the relative roles that geological and ecological variables play in shaping variation in fishes both within and among species. For my dissertation, I’ll be working with a subfamily of fishes, Poeciliinae, that some people might know as mollies, guppies, swordtails, and platies – popular aquarium fishes that are quite colorful and give birth to young. These fishes live in a variety of environments, from brackish coastal waters to sulphur springs, and display an assortment of behaviors and life history strategies.
Additionally, these guys are SO easy to find and collect – one species, the sailfin molly, can be found in small ditches containing water on the side of the road right here in Louisiana. All of that combined provides a great natural laboratory that will allow me to look at genetic and morphological (shape) variation within and among a variety of species in an attempt to understand how they are influenced by the living and non-living environment.
College of Science: You seem to be passionate about science communication. How do you see your role, as a Ph.D. student, in communicating science?
A.J.: As a PhD student, I find it extremely important to get people hooked on science. I think now so more than ever it is crucial to provide widespread relevance of scientific research to society by getting the public involved. If you really sit down and think about it, everything we have in our society is the result of science in one way or another. A quote by Carl Sagan lays this out beautifully – “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” This is why I, as a PhD student, need to make a point to disseminate my research to other scientists and the public alike. Sparking interest in science and providing collective relevance will ensure that society will continue to support basic science in the immediate to long-term future.
College of Science: What are your favorite things to photograph?
A.J.: I love to photograph anything in the natural world - I’m always looking for new places to visit just so I can take a bunch of pictures.
College of Science: What do you do for fun, when you aren't conducting research in the lab or field?
A.J.: Since this is my first institution with Division I sports, I enjoy tailgating and attending football and basketball games – Geaux Tigers! When I’m not cheering on the Tigers, I like to try out new food recipes and restaurants or simply hang out with friends.
College of Science: Tell us something else we don't know about yourself, your research or your life as a PhD student!
A.J.: I enjoy keeping and breeding leopard geckos – I have 14 in total (yes, 14!), many of which I raised myself. I love seeing them hatch and then develop over time into their adult coloration. Yes, you guessed it, they have an Instagram account! ...you’ll have to find it on your own though. :)
College of Science: What advice would you give other students/researchers interested in using Instagram for science communication?
A.J.: I’m still new to using Instagram as a science communication medium, but I think what I’ve learned so far is to jump right in and post pictures of some of your research. Chances are that there are people out there, whether they are friends, family or complete strangers, that will appreciate what you’re working on. Also, hashtags are key to getting more public exposure to your research so test some of them out and find some that are used in a lot of other Instagram posts.
Interested in getting into science communication at LSU? Check out the Communication across the Curriculum Science Studio. The studio communicators can help you get started and we have equipment you can rent to get amazing photos and videos of your scientific projects, lab work, fieldwork and more!