Bill’s research update #2

A greenbottle blue tarantula (C. cyaneopubescens) on a branch. Despite of its name, saturated, bright green color rarely occurs in tarantulas. Credit: Michael Kern/

Hi, Germinature readers! It’s been over a year since my last research update. Looks like it’s about time to do another one to let you know what happened in 2015 and also to give you a sneak peak of what’s in the pipeline for 2016.

I was fortunate enough that last year ended with a bang for me. Two papers of mine were published just before the end of 2015, although I started writing them at the beginning of the year (scientific publication is a long and painful process.). :p

The one that came out earlier was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, titled: “Spiders do have melanin after all” (read it HERE). Previously, melanin was known to present in all organisms except for arachnids. For the first time, we discovered evidence of eumelanin’s presence in spiders and presented the evidence in this paper. Nothing excites researchers more than for their research findings be get disseminated quickly and broadly. So, you can understand why I felt quite pumped when I knew that someone cited my work to answer another person’s question on Quora. Now, if only somebody can help me FIX the Wikipedia entry!!! (Update: it’s now referenced in that wikipedia entry by 12/2016)

The second article came out on Black Friday in the journal Science Advances, titled: “Blue reflectance in tarantulas is evolutionarily conserved despite nanostructural diversity” (read it HERE). Although it cannot even see the tail light of the gravitational wave discovery announced days ago, it did rank in the top 0.1% among more than 4.7 million scholarly papers tracked in terms of reaches over the internet, according to Altmetric. Below is a roundup of the popular news outlets that mentioned my work:

News/Research Highlights section in journals: Science, Nature Nanotechnology, and Biotechniques; mainstream media, including National Geographic, Discovery News, BBC and The Atlantic.

The article was discussed in an Australia science podcast, and it was also reported in eight different languages through different kinds of media around the world! Other than English, there was German, French, Russian, Hungarian, Polish, Japanese and Indonesian (Sadly, there was no Chinese report – yet – even though I actively reach out to a Taiwanese science website.).

Interesting questions were raised as a result of its publicity, and I would like to briefly address some of them here.

How does an evolutionary biology research relate to Biomimicry?

One thing that I can assure you is that this paper represents the first step of a larger overarching project based on Biomimicry Thinking. Hence, it’s inherently interdisciplinary and fits well in the Integrated Bioscience Program. The Journal Editor that commented on the paper during the peer review process, said: “Globally, this is a true interdisciplinary study that has the potential of making a nice contribution to Science Advances.” Although in the end, this paper was published under the category of Evolutionary Biology, indeed it is also related to Biophysics, Optics/Photonics, and Spider Biology, …etc. However, I had no expertise in any of those fields before I started my Ph.D. study here at The University of Akron. I was not an expert in spiders, nor in structural colors, and definitely not in evolutionary biology! Somehow, with Biomimicry, I have made progress and contributed in all those fields!!

How would you value basic scientific research? Could you really put a price tag on it?

Since this paper is based on Biomimicry Thinking, it’s definitely set up to solve a real-world problem with an application end goal in mind. However, this very first paper of the project is perceived as purely basic science research and it is. This tells us two things: 1) Everything has an origin in basic science; 2) The utility/application of basic research may not be immediately obvious to most people. This stirred up some debates among netizens when National Geographic shared the research on their Facebook page. Some netizens argued that we shouldn’t waste taxpayers’ money by looking at spiders when there are more urgent problems out there, such as cancer, hunger, and climate change; while others understand the value of basic research and defended my work. On the other hand, one of the hosts of the Australia podcast argues therein that basic research is very valuable and should be “knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” We shouldn’t put the burden of proving the utility of their research on the shoulder of the scientists. Under normal circumstances, I would tend to agree, but here I have a small objection. It seems that the host of the podcast show is suggesting, between the lines, that we just made up all those potential applications as a justification for our research, and made it more appealing and sexy to the funding institutions and general public. However, all those potential applications are very real, and we’re working hard on a follow-up manuscript, which will make the connection between the original research and the application more explicit (hopefully it will be published before the end of 2016. :p). And you bet that I will send a copy of the publication to the podcast show! 🙂

My goal for 2016 is to get another two spider color papers published by year end~ Hopefully I will be able to share more exciting stories about my research then.

Lastly, I think it is fitting to quote the President of MIT L. Rafael Reif from his open letter on the gravitational wave discovery:

The discovery we celebrate today embodies the paradox of fundamental science: that it is painstaking, rigorous and slow – and electrifying, revolutionary and catalytic. Without basic science, our best guess never gets any better, and “innovation” is tinkering around the edges. With the advance of basic science, society advances, too.

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