Ellen Prager on Sex, Drugs, Sea Slime, and writing science

April 19, 2011
By

jacket imageOur oceans are home to an astounding array of creatures, some of whom engage in peculiar underwater activities that help them stay alive, fight predators, reproduce, and eat. While this might sound simple, the actual patterns and behaviors that determine the rhythms of biodiversity are much more complicated—and witnessed by a very select few of us who dwell above ground. We asked marine scientist Ellen Prager, author of Chasing Science at Sea: Racing Hurricanes, Stalking Sharks, and Living Undersea with Ocean Experts and Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, on how scientists might engage the public in highly topical matters—like the complications of marine life—that often require them to translate their expertise and specialized knowledge into relevant, accurate, and accessible writing.

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The elegant beauty of a pacific sea nettle. Photo copyright David Wrobel / SeaPics.com.


Prager was recently the featured guest on an episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, where she elaborated on the biodiversity of life underwater, from transgendered parrotfish and the sexual activity of sea sponges to the well-endowed conch and the kissing anglerfish. You can read Prager’s thoughts below—and continue onward to an online image gallery that showcases the unique creatures to which she is exposed in her own day-to-day research. Don’t forget to visit the Fresh Air site for an excerpt from the book and a podcast of the full-length interview.
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Science and Entertainment: A Much Needed Hybrid

“Preaching to the choir” is a phrase heard often. In my field, it applies to scientists that most often and most effectively communicate with other scientists, and environmentalists whose messages typically meet an audience already interested in nature. These avenues of information exchange are important, but they miss a critical and extraordinarily large body of people—the “non-choir” or mass public.
The general public includes our political representatives and their constituents, community and business leaders, philanthropists, school boards, members of the media, and the potential scientists and voting citizens of the future. This is not some unnecessary nebulous body of insignificance; it is a community that will, in large part, determine the future of the planet and of humankind. The question is, how do we reach the non-choir audience and effectively engage them in learning about credible science and its importance to society?
As a scientist with extensive experience in public communications, I strongly believe in the potential to use science combined with entertainment to better engage the public. Look at the success of television’s CSI and increased popularity of forensic science classes or careers. Not that the stunningly equipped offices and quick results depicted on the show are reality, but it has unquestionably engaged and inspired a broad audience. I find myself, however, also contemplating how to best hybridize science and entertainment.
In my newest popular science book, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, I have gone further than ever in marrying humor and light-hearted prose, with research results and pressing ocean issues. The evolution of the book exemplifies going from a significant topic, rich in technical jargon, to what will hopefully be an entertaining, yet accurate and informative means of grabbing the public’s attention and inspiring further learning or action.
The concept of the book began to take shape when I attended a biodiversity loss conference in Washington, DC. An impressive case was made for the importance of biodiversity and the frightening consequences of species loss, but I was struck by the preponderance of technical jargon being used. I walked away thinking that nobody outside of the communities represented at the meeting would ever understand or care about the subject. I also wondered if the issue of biodiversity loss in the oceans could be presented in a way that would engage a wider audience.
The inspiration needed to tackle the challenge did not come till later that summer while visiting a friend in Boothbay, Maine. During a short boat ride to go hiking on the beautiful island of Monhegan, she had me rolling with laughter about her new phobia—hagfish.
Hundreds of thousands of hagfish live within the relatively deep waters of the Gulf of Maine. These eel-like, jawless fish have only a small-toothed tongue to bite through the tough, scaly skin of their prey. Hence, they have evolved other means to gain access to the tasty, tender inside flesh and organs of fish and other victims. They find open orifices to invade—through the mouth, gills, and yes, the backdoor.
Though hagfish typically go after the dead or dying of the sea, with these slimy creatures swimming about en masse in the Gulf of Maine, my friend made a quick dip seem a lot less appealing. One of her disciples and local triathlete said he wears a wetsuit in the summer months not so much to fight off the cold, but to deter the sneaky orifice-seeking hagfish, though just knowing they are out there makes him swim faster.
Hagfish humor became the inspiration for my new book. If I could use weird creature stories to engage an audience and tie it to societal relevance, maybe, just maybe I could reach that oh-so-wanted non-choir audience regarding marine biodiversity. By the way, given their propensity to feed on microbe-ridden dead flesh, researchers are studying the hagfish immune system and have already discovered several interesting antibiotic compounds. Other scientists are examining the gooey, sticky slime they produce when threatened (another gross, but captivating hagfish talent) in order to create a biodegradable material akin to spider silk.
I spent months delving into the scientific literature and contacting colleagues to get interesting stories and relevant applications to society and everyday life. The book evolved, however, as several, sure-to-be-popular, themes emerged. More marine organisms than I ever realized use mucus; they release it to fend off predators, use it in feeding, cleaning, reproduction, or as a means to slicken their path in travels. Undersea, the instinct to procreate is also strong and organisms have evolved many intriguing, if not strange, strategies to attract mates, copulate, and improve the likelihood that their progeny will be born and survive. From group sex to gender swapping and special accoutrements for the job, it is a pretty kinky place beneath the waves. For some creatures their sexual encounters can even be a truly dangerous liaison due to untimely cannibalism. Another topic of commonality that surfaced is that more than ever before we are looking to marine life to improve human health; in the search for new and effective pharmaceuticals, and as biomedical models to better understand human physiology. The title, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime, was born.
Have I used terminology in the book that purists might find inexact? Yes. For instance, in explaining the amazing camouflage capabilities of the octopus, I wrote that it “impersonates” other marine life. Of course, I fully recognize that the octopus is not trying to mimic the appearance of a person! The term, however, is public-friendly and engaging, and does not detract from or change the science. There was only one word I was asked to change by my editors, considered too salacious or possibly offensive for the audience (that’s a teaser in communication-speak). Can we scientists lighten up enough to engage the non-choir? I hope so.
This book is my attempt to make science entertaining and relevant, while ensuring that it is as accurate as possible, with the exception of the specific technical meaning of certain words. Did I go too far? Did I not go far enough? Can we effectively entertain, while keeping our credibility and science intact?
I guess I will soon know the answer to those questions.

For more information about Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime, including an online image gallery highlighting the bizarre and fascinating creatures Prager encounters, visit the book’s University of Chicago Press webpage here.

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A pygmy seahorse in camouflage on a sea fan, Borneo, Malaysia. Photo by Vickie Coker.
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