BioOne Ambassador Awards

2021 BioOne Ambassadors

The Winners

BioOne proudly announces the winners of the 2021 BioOne Ambassador Award. This award honors early career authors who best communicate the importance and impact of their specialized research to the public.

These individuals from five publications were selected from a large pool of nominees put forth by BioOne’s publishing community. BioOne invited nominees to submit a 750-word, plain-language summary answering the question:

How does your research change the world?

The responses were thoughtful and enthusiastic, and we gratefully acknowledge each participant. Selection was difficult, and it is with great pleasure that we present the winners, in alphabetical order by society.

Dr. Ana González

Dr. Ana González

We can change the world by wisely choosing to drink shade-grown coffee

Imagine sipping your coffee one morning with no songbirds singing outside your window. This may seem extreme and yet it could become reality. In the last 50 years, Canada and the United States have lost 30% of its birds. This decline will only worsen due to habitat loss and climate change. Many of these at-risk species undertake an incredible 6000-kilometer journey from the Boreal forests of North America to winter in the highland forests of South America. Birds must migrate south during our winter months, because they would not survive low temperatures and lack of food. Their survival strategy depends on overwintering in warmer climes with available food sources. Deforestation in South America’s overwintering regions is the primary reason fewer individuals return every year to North America to breed during the late spring and summer.

What can we in North America do to support the conservation of these critical tropical habitats to stem the loss of our bird population? Simply put, drink only shade-grown coffee. To illustrate the connection between our coffee choices and conservation of South American highland forests, we can look to a conservation icon for both the Boreal and tropical forests, the tiny, ten-gram Canada Warbler.

We have documented the loss of over 60% of the Canada Warblers in North America in the last 50 years. Due to unprecedented rates of deforestation on their wintering grounds, these warblers and other migratory birds have been forced into agro-ecosystems that maintain native trees and provide “forest-like” habitats, such as shade-grown coffee plantations. While conservationists have promoted shade grown coffee plantations as a means to provide much needed habitat, are they really a suitable habitat and comparable to the local native forest? To answer this question, for five years every winter, I travelled to the Colombian Andean mountains tracking the Canada Warbler and assessing where they are most successful.

We captured Canada Warblers in two habitats: the shade-grown coffee plantations and forests. We assessed their body condition (muscle and fat) and documented their rate of survival to serve as indicators of habitat suitability. Birds in both habitats had similar survival rates, which indicates that shade-grown coffee plantations provide suitable winter habitat for Canada Warblers, and the conservation value of this habitat is similar to forest. Thus, it is critical to maintain and protect both forest and shade-grown coffee to stem the decline in migratory bird populations.

Unfortunately, shade-grown coffee plantations are a disappearing refuge for biodiversity due to the global increase in coffee demand, and changes over time in how coffee is cultivated. Until the 1970s, all of the world’s coffee was grown underneath forest canopies across the most biodiverse regions of the world. Today, however, three-quarters of the world’s coffee is grown in the full sun or low shade. This intensive mono-crop farming drives deforestation, and thus the decline in wildlife populations. To address the loss of shade coffee plantations, conservation and coffee certification programs have been developed to provide economic incentives to coffee farmers to keep native trees in their plantations. However, there is an excess of shade-grown coffee available, because demand is insufficient. We must take action quickly, because this lack of demand is a risk to the trees in these plantations. With no buyers for surplus shade-grown coffee, farmers might convert their plantations to other crops and pastures. Not only will the conversion of shade-grown coffee plantations result in a loss of forest cover, it will have a negative impact on North American forest-dependent migratory species, such as the Canada Warbler and on resident wildlife.

The findings of my research demonstrate that by making informed ethical coffee choices we can be a part of the solution to conserve the winter habitat for migratory birds. Furthermore, shade-grown coffee plantations capture more carbon than conventional farming, and increase farmers’ ability to adapt to climate change by protecting crops from raising temperature. Smallholder farmers in the tropics are one of the lowest income groups in the world and they would also benefit from the economic incentives of shade-grown conservation programs.

Our coffee might be stronger than we think, and we have the power to maintain and increase the number of trees in the tropics one cup at the time. As demand for shade-grown coffee increases so will the canopies and suitable habitat for migratory birds.

This summary is in reference to:

Contrasting the suitability of shade coffee agriculture and native forest as overwinter habitat for Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis) in the Colombian Andes
The Condor, 122(2): 1-12. 2020.
Ana M. González, Scott Wilson, Nicholas J. Bayly, Keith A. Hobson

Dr. Connor M. Wood

Dr. Connor M. Wood

From owls to ecosystems: using bioacoustics to address broad-scale conservation challenges

From wildfires to invasive species, today’s environmental changes are affecting entire landscapes. Protecting endangered species and necessities like clean drinking water requires us to work at the same broad scale, which is exactly why my research focuses on monitoring animals across the landscape. My work began with one of North America’s most famous endangered species, the spotted owl.

Spotted owls live only in the forests of western North America, and one of the most urgent threats to this endangered species is the closely related barred owl. Human changes to the habitat of the Great Plains have allowed barred owls to expand across the entire continent, and now this aggressive bird is in direct competition with the smaller and more docile spotted owl. California’s Sierra Nevada is the forefront of this invasion, and conservationists need to understand the barred owls’ progress in order to protect spotted owls from extinction.

To meet this need, my team and I deployed recording units across 2,300 square miles of mountains in northern California – making our study three times the size of a conventional owl monitoring project, and one of the largest acoustic monitoring efforts in the western hemisphere. In just two summers, we collected over 500,000 hours of audio data, which I processed with custom owl hoot identification tools. Once I had settings that correctly identified owls and ignored everything else (well, mostly…we still had to validate the results!), I could efficiently determine which sites were occupied by owls. I then used the resulting data to estimate the rate of barred owl population growth.

The results were startling. In just one year, the barred owl population had grown by a factor of 2.6 – in the first year they were recorded at just 8% of our sites but in the next they were recorded at 21% of our sites. Based on the rate of barred owl population growth, protecting the future of the spotted owl in the Sierra Nevada required swift action. And it wasn’t just a question of saving the spotted owl: barred owls feed on a much wider range of prey than spotted owls, meaning that barred owls could destabilize the entire ecosystem.

As a result, a team composed of state and federal agencies, academic groups, and private industry biologists was formed, and they conducted experimental barred owl removals across the Sierra Nevada. The acoustic monitoring program was the backbone of this effort because it allowed the team to locate barred owls and to measure their progress. The effort was successful: the audio data indicated that the barred owl population has been reduced to below the levels we documented in the first year of monitoring and that spotted owls are recovering.

But that isn’t all we can do with the audio data: I am using a novel machine learning algorithm to identify several hundred species of birds. We have also identified coyotes, frogs, and insects, as well as the sounds of machines and the eerie silence they leave in their wake. Just as we’re expanding the species we can study, we’re also expanding survey coverage to include over 7,000 square miles – nearly the entire Sierra Nevada. This means that when managers are making decisions like how to prevent catastrophic wildfires, they’ll have information about entire biological communities, not just a few species. This is important because holistic management leads to better outcomes.

The more we can unlock the latent potential of the sounds of the Sierra Nevada, the better we can conserve its unique biological and cultural history – and plan for its future. If we succeed, it can continue to do things like provide a home to thousands of species and drinking water for most of California. So, if you’ve ever used a computer or watched a movie, you’ve benefited from the Sierra Nevada ecosystem.

This work is possible in part because of the spotted owl’s popularity and legal protections, which ensure continued support to develop novel approaches to ecological monitoring. Already, our work on this project has been cited by researchers in China, India, England, Spain, Panama, and the U.S., which means that spotted owl conservation is helping not just the spotted owl and not just the Sierra Nevada ecosystem, but species around the world. Environmental change is rapid and vast, but thanks in part to the spotted owl, we’re developing the tools we’ll need to understand that change – and adapt to it.

This summary is in reference to:

Early detection of rapid Barred Owl population growth within the range of the California Spotted Owl advises the Precautionary Principle
The Condor, 122(1): 1-10. 2020.
Connor M. Wood, R. J. Gutiérrez, John J. Keane, M. Zachariah Peery

Dr. David Shiffman

Dr. David Shiffman

How shark science’s past can and should shape the future

Sharks and their relatives are some of the most threatened animals on the planet, and given their important ecological roles keeping ecosystems that humans depend on for food security and employment in balance, this is a big problem for all of us. Research published just in the last few weeks has shown that the amazing sawfish, called “hedge trimmers with fins” in New York Times coverage, have vanished from more than half of their global range in my parents’ lifetime. A newly described species is poetically called the “Lost Shark,” because it seems to have gone extinct in between when the sample was collected and when the species was formally described. Scientific research has a vital role to play in prioritizing and shaping policy responses; by studying threats to these animals and the solutions to those threats, we can more effectively create evidence-based policies and try to fix some of the damage to our oceans before it’s too late.

The American Elasmobranch Society (AES) is the world’s oldest and largest professional society focusing on the scientific study and management of sharks and their relatives, our members have played key roles in learning how to protect these animals and implementing those policies around the world. However, it’s important to look at what research is being performed and by whom, to see if there are any species or disciplines or perspectives falling through the gaps. To examine patterns in shark research and the researchers who study these animals over time, I assembled a multi-disciplinary research team ranging from rising star student leaders for whom this was their first-ever publication to former AES Presidents who wrote books I read when I was a kid. We read, coded, and scored the abstracts from almost 3,000 talks and posters presented at the AES annual meeting over 30 years.

We found that many of the most-studied species aren’t the most endangered species; they’re presumably selected because they’re easier for researchers to access. Eight of the most-threatened species found in the Americas were never mentioned in a single AES conference abstract. Vast regions of US waters are barely studied despite containing species of conservation concern. And even though social science and the human dimensions of shark conservation have long been identified as research priorities—management regulations don’t tell the sharks what to do, they tell humans what to do, so we need to understand the human side—just 21 out of nearly 3,000 abstracts used these important tools.

Our study also documented shifting demographics and affiliations among conference presenters over the decades. One identified concern is a big decline in aquarium-employed experts presenting at the AES conference. Scientists, husbandry specialists, and educators at aquariums play a key role in not only performing their own science on captive animals, but also speak to a huge audience of aquarium guests who can be inspired to support conservation. By not having these voices and perspectives represented in AES conversations, we risk missing out on many benefits to sharks and to our members. We also found that despite recent gains, the Society suffers from underrepresentation of many minority groups. This data will inform AES’s ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Scientists from diverse backgrounds often generate more creative solutions, and scientists who are members of certain communities can be more effective at vital community outreach, so we must do better.

This work has already resulted in active efforts to bring perspectives we’ve lost over the years back into the fold, and redoubled efforts to make the Society a welcoming and inclusive space for all. It has given me a big-picture perspective on the history of my field that I’ll bring into my public science engagement activities. And by showing what our research community hasn’t yet studied, this work will help to shape research priorities that will help us to better understand how to effectively conserve, manage, and protect sharks and their relatives. It fed directly into my current PostDoctoral research which identifies research gaps to generate research priorities for threatened sharks and their relatives, which we hope will be a one-stop shop for students wishing to perform policy-relevant work who are uncertain where to start. By examining trends in research and the researchers who perform it over the entire history of my field, this paper shows how far we’ve come…and how far we still have to go.

This summary is in reference to:

Trends in Chondrichthyan Research: An Analysis of Three Decades of Conference Abstracts
Copeia, 108(1): 122-131. 2020.
D.S. Shiffman, M.J. Ajemian, J.C. Carrier, T.S. Daly-Engel, M.M. Davis, N.K. Dulvy, R.D. Grubbs, N.A. Hinojosa, J. Imhoff, M.A. Kolmann, C.S. Nash, E.W.M. Paig-Tran, E.E. Peele, R.A. Skubel, B.M. Wetherbee, L.B. Whitenack, J.T. Wyffels

Dr. Kimberly Boykin

Dr. Kimberly Boykin

Bon appétit: New Diet Options for Snakes

No one knows how the sausage gets made. And honestly, most people don’t want to know. Except for when it comes to sausages for snakes—then people seem to be a little more interested!

If you have ever owned a snake or known someone who has, you are aware that they are oftentimes fed an exclusive diet of small mammals, such as mice and rats. There is very little diet variety available to feed snakes kept in captivity and that is where my research comes into play. If we could get snakes to accept novel food items in the form of sausages, then we would be opening the door to increasing their diet options. In the wild, snakes do not eat just small mammals. Depending on the species, they may also eat birds, eggs, fish, insects, amphibians, or other reptiles. In this study, we fed juvenile corn snakes an insect-based diet in the form of sausages to determine its comparability to a diet of frozen mice. Throughout the course of the experiment, we measured health, growth, and digestive parameters to ensure they were receiving adequate nutrition. We also evaluated the diet’s palatability and the snakes’ acceptance of the diet over time. Encasing various diet formulations in a sausage casing appears to be one of the easiest ways to offer snakes and other reptiles more novel food items and to increase the diet variety that we can offer to them. To my knowledge, this paper was the first to offer snakes an “alternative” diet and to assess their health between various diets. The results of the study were promising, showing that a manufactured insect-based diet produced no ill effects and was still capable of producing adequate growth in juvenile snakes.

This research has larger implications than just being able to offer snakes more diet variety. It is also an important step forward in improving captive snake health. Small mammals and other whole vertebrate prey are very high in calories. Pair that with a snake that has limited opportunity to exercise and you will see obesity become a major concern. By using insects as an alternative protein source, we were able to feed snakes similarly sized meals with 20% less calories, while still providing enough nutrients to support healthy growth. The willingness of snakes to accept a sausage-based diet finally gives veterinarians and nutritionists a way to create specialized diets for snakes and combat illnesses such as liver or kidney disease. Dogs and cats have been able to enjoy the benefits of prescription-type foods for decades; it is about time that we are able to offer something similar to our scaly friends as well.

However, this project was never just about snakes. It has very important implications for human health as well. Live and frozen rodents are capable of harboring harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella. In many cases, mice and rats may serve as the original source for the Salmonella carried by snakes. At least two major recalls of frozen feeder mice have occurred in the United States over the last ten years due to human illnesses associated with Salmonella. Humans can either be infected by handling of the frozen mice directly or from the bacteria being shed through their reptile’s gastrointestinal tract. The benefit of using an insect-based protein source is that black soldier fly larvae (the insect used in our diet formula) are known to be pathogen-free. By using these insects as a main protein source, we have the potential to reduce this ongoing zoonotic threat.

Additionally, insect-based diets allow us to reduce our dependence on vertebrate protein sources. Insects require much less food, water, space, and energy than do vertebrate animals when compared on a pound-for-pound basis. They can also be raised on feed by-products and other waste materials, allowing for more efficient use of our limited resources. As the world’s population continues to grow, we will continue to place more strain on our natural environment. We are constantly needing to produce more and more food for not only ourselves, but also for our pets and livestock. Any effort that we can make now to decrease strain on our food production systems will be beneficial for us in the long run. Plus, the more studies that show insects being used successfully in diets for animals increases the likelihood that government agencies will approve their use as ingredients for humans too. If getting humans to eat bugs doesn’t change the world, then I don’t know what does!

This summary is in reference to:

Preliminary Evaluation of a Novel Insect-Based Sausage Diet for Juvenile Corn Snakes (Pantherophis guttatus)
Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery, 30(3): 129-136. 2020.
Kimberly L. Boykin, Karina Butler-Perez, Cameron Q. Buck, Jordan W. Peters, Mark A. Mitchell

Dr. Kaylee Byers

Dr. Kaylee Byers

Location, Location, Location: Rats, Real Estate, and Public Health

When was the last time you saw a rat? If you live in a city, there’s a good chance you’ve had a rat encounter. Maybe you saw it carrying a slice of pizza up a subway stairwell, or you heard the pitter-patter of tiny paws underneath a dumpster. Rats are notorious for their ability to thrive in urban areas all around the world. But they’re also known for their capacity to carry bacteria and viruses that can make people sick, which makes them undesirable neighbours.

One of the disease-causing bacteria carried by rats is Leptospira interrogans. It takes up residence in the rat’s kidneys and splashes into city streets in their urine. From there, the bacteria can be spread to both people and other animals. In people, the bacteria cause a flu-like illness called Leptospirosis. This disease is a global public health concern, affecting over one million people and resulting in more than 50,000 deaths each year.

But, just because rats can carry Leptospira, doesn’t mean that they all do. Your risk of coming into contact with these bacteria depends on where you live. We trapped rats from 62 city blocks in Vancouver, Canada, and found that while some blocks had over 50% of their ratty residents carrying Leptospira, others across the street were Leptospira-free. What is it about some city blocks that make them more or less likely to have rats with Leptospira? And, can we use that information to reduce health risks for people?

From a distance, city blocks might appear to be similar, but up close they’re actually quite different. Some are mostly residential, filled with houses or apartments, while others have businesses like restaurants or grocery stores that produce lots of attractive rat bait. And the condition of the buildings matters too, since cracks or crevices can serve as rat homes or hideaways. To identify the environmental features that were associated with whether rats carried Leptospira or not, we wandered through alleyways and down sidewalks using a 58 item survey to gather information and create unique profiles for each block. We also counted the number of rats that we trapped in each city block because more rats could increase opportunities for the bacteria to spread.

Surprisingly, we didn’t find any evidence that environmental characteristics or the number of rats influenced whether rats carried Leptospira. Instead, the reason some city blocks have these bacteria and others do not, could be due to behaviours of the rats rather than characteristics of the urban landscape. The secret could be in the way rats move.

Although rats are known for embarking on long-distance journeys overseas, rats on the ground don’t seem to move that far. We know from other studies where we tracked rat movement that rats tend to stick to a single city block. In fact, using rat genetics we found that rat relatives were often caught within 33 meters of each other. These data suggest that rats rarely move between city blocks in this neighbourhood, with roadways acting as a barrier. If rats stay close to home, then the bacteria they carry don’t have an opportunity to travel either. This clustering of rats and their bacteria can reveal why our societal approach to controlling rats is not working.

Rats are just one part of a complex urban ecosystem. Yet in terms of management, we tend to rely on simple responses. If you have rats on your property you might call a pest control professional to remove them from the premises. But our work shows that rats readily move along alleyways and among properties within a city block. In fact, some of our previous research reveals that removing rats from a block can increase the proportion of surviving rats that carry Leptospira. We think that removing some rats can change how they interact with each other in ways that increase the rate of bacteria transmission among individuals. And so, some approaches could actually heighten public health risks.

Instead of focusing all of our energy on eliminating rats or only managing a few characteristics of the urban environment, we could look for other opportunities. This might involve a shift from managing the rats to managing the physical and mental health harms associated with encountering them. To do this we need to better understand how rats interact with people and the urban environment. And to do that, we could start by asking folks about the last time they saw a rat.

This summary is in reference to:

Is Carriage of Leptospira interrogans by Rats Influenced by the Urban Environment or Population Density?
Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 57(1): 157-161. 2021.
Michael J. Lee, Kaylee A. Byers, Christina M. Donovan, David M. Patrick, Chelsea G. Himsworth

Meetthe Judges

Stacey Baker

Stacey Baker

Stacy Baker is a public engagement program associate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Prior to joining AAAS in 2016, Stacey received her Master’s in Biology (American University) with a thesis in evolutionary genetics, and a Bachelors in Zoology (SUNY Oswego). She went on to study molecular biology at the National Institutes of Health and then taught biology courses at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD. When not talking to Lyft drivers about scicomm, she can be found rock climbing, reading in a park or checking out the best coffee and pastries she can find in DC!
Maisie Buntin

Maisie Buntin

Maisie Buntin holds a B.S. in Zoology and Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and earned an M.S. in Anthropology and a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her academic background has allowed her the Maisin opportunity to work in research settings as well as in STEM education. In her current position as Outreach Program Coordinator at the Milwaukee Public Museum, she works to bring science programming to communities across the state of Wisconsin.
Fiona Muir

Fiona Muir

Fiona Muir is the digital content officer and part of the communications team at the Francis Crick Institute in London, one of Europe's largest biomedical research institutes. Before joining the Crick, she completed an MSc in science communication at Imperial College London and worked in the editorial team at Taylor & Francis Group’s journal division, most recently managing a portfolio of chemistry journals.
BioOne extends its thanks to Stacey Baker, Maisie Buntin, and Fiona Muir, who offered their time and expertise in selecting this year’s winners.
BioOne Publishing
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