Isopods At The Gate: Interview with Kevin Zelnio

Kevin Zelnio celebrates invertebrates on his blog The Other 95% and, at the second Science Blogging Conference four weeks ago, it was announced that he has joined the Deep Sea News blog and thus officially became a SciBling (with all the associated hazing rituals involving beer).
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background? What is your Real Life job?
I’m a PhD student at Penn State hopefully in my final year. My scientific training is in invertebrate zoology and marine ecology. I study the ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal vent communities at the Eastern Lau Spreading Center which is conveniently situated between Fiji and Tonga! I am also into taxonomy and describe some of the many new species we find there.
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
A jack of all trades. I want to be a writer, a museum curator for inverts, a taxonomist, gentleman naturalist, a folk musician and work in the open access publishing movement.
You went down in the submersible Alvin. Can you tell us how did that happen and what did you do there?
I was an overenthusiastic undergraduate at University of California – Davis where i majored in Evolution and Ecology and (almost) Geology. I was taking a 1-unit seminar course in hydrothermal vents for fun. My professors were invited to go on a cruise to the East Pacific Rise, which is off the coast of Central America and Mexico, to run the night operations using a towed camera. This was a biological cruise headed by Janet Voight, a curator at the Field Museum. They asked if I wanted to come along for a little month long boat ride in the middle of my fall quarter. Of which I replied HELL YEAH!! As the undergrad, I was affectionately referred to as the “ship’s bitch” and worked a lot with the video and helping other researchers with their work. I found my talent of sorting through muck to find critters. A talent that basically became my PhD now. There were only a limited number of Alvin dives on the expedition and only 2 scientists can dive a day, pending no severe weather (of which we undoubtedly had a few days of). I wasn’t really expecting I’d ever get to go down, but always hoping. I even shaved off my beard for the time since I could grow facial hair in preparation (so the emergency oxygen masks makes an airtight seal around the face – a requirement to dive). Eventually I was approached and asked if I wanted to dive the next day. Of which I replied HELL YEAH!! After locking me in the sub with a pilot to make sure I didn’t have any claustrophobic tendencies, and double checking to make sure the oxygen mask fit my face, I was briefed and ready to go!
It was an 8 hour ride in total and U N B E L I E V A B L E in every way. It took 45 minutes to descend 2.5 kilometers. The color of the ocean turns a darker and darker shade of blue until you reach the maximum depth limit of light and nothing but blackness all around you. I saw fish and luminous jellies and plankton on the way down. After a while the sub pilot put the lights on and within minutes I could see the ocean bottom approaching. It was barren and lifeless and as we touched down a puff of sediment was kicked up by Alvin’s thruster and I felt as if I had just landed on the moon. Eventually I saw fish here, a sea whip there. Then BAM! An enormous black smoker appeared before me brimming with 2 meter tubeworms with red plumes wavering in the current. We were just centimeters from the 300C hydrothermal fluid and toxic metals and gases. One error and you can “burn” a hole right throw the plexiglass portal. Thankfully the Alvin sub pilots are exceptionally skilled. Our objectives were to retrieve some experiments left on the seafloor for a graduate student and retrieve water samples of the hydrothermal fluid for a chemist that was also in the sub with me. I also video-taped as much as I could trying to find unusual behaviors, predation, just taking it all in and taking notes for the other senior scientist. At the end of the dive we dropped weights and the ascent took an hour and half. I still have a vivid image of that day. It was a turning point in my life.
[Image from here]
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I guess I never really knew what blogs were until maybe a little over a year ago. I had been reading Deep Sea News irregularly for awhile because when I googled something I was interested in about the deep sea it always came up! Eventually I started commenting on the site and about that time I realized that this was a blog.
I have so many favorites, I keep track of them in Google Reader. I read my co-moderators (from the Real Time Blogging in the Marine Sciences session) blogs religiously: Cephalopodcast; Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice and Sunsets; The Beagle Project and Deep Sea News. I love Snail’s Tales, I guess his was one of the first blogs I found when I started my own blog. Since the conference I’ve gotten much more into reading some of my fellow sciblings blogs. Quite a few blogs have made it into my Reader of people I met and had good interactions with at the Conference. The Inverse Square blog, Pondering Pikaia and Museum of Life + Science blog are 3 that jump out at me right now.
Most people classify blogs into personal, political, tech, medical, etc. Your classification divides blogs into two categories: above and below 200m. Care to explain?
Deep Sea News is all about reporting on the largest environment on earth. By somewhat arbitrary definition, “deep” is characterized by roughly everything under 200-400 meters. Photosynthesis is really hampered beyond 200 and light is virtually gone by 400. There is easily enough going on down there to cover a post a day minimum. Its a very exciting and dynamic place to be!
If it was technically feasible, would you blog WHILE diving?
Probably not. Maybe Twitter updates though. You can’t waste too much time since you got only one shot at getting your research or observations done and the sub is pretty expensive to operate. The last objective of our dive plan is always “Don’t F@#$ up!” If I had my own sub then naturally! Craig, Peter and I at Deep Sea News are in the process of obtaining a blog submersible.
What are your personal experiences about the pros and cons of blogging as a science graduate student?
Its a tough balance. I really like writing and communicating my passion and enthusiasm about the ocean and invertebrates. This is my outlet for me to do what I want to do for no other reason than I want to. I do not have the support of advisor, he views blogs as a waste of time and career stopper. I respectfully disagree of course and view writing a blog post as no more a waste of time as watching an hour or two of TV or reading a book. Blogging has also given me greater confidence and understanding in science. I am famously known in my lab as the most up to date person on research in the marine environment. That’s because I am reading and then blogging about all this great research being produced by other scientists. Writing about something helps me to retain that information and treat it more critically.
Is there anything that happened at the Conference – a session, something someone said or did, a new friendship – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
The whole conference was a real eye-opener for me. I’ve been to several science conferences in my field of research but that was by far the best conference I’ve attended. I came away from it all with a revitalized interest and several ideas of which to improve myself. I will definitely take it more seriously, meaning that I will edit my posts, write more clearly and succinctly, and make better use of online tools and technologies. I must say though the student blogging panel was a great discussion and I am impressed of the caliber of knowledge of breadth that these undergrads and grad students have and how well they communicate. It gives me hope for the future.
It was so nice to see you in person and thank you for the interview.
The pleasure was truly mine and I look forward to making SciBlogCon a regular thing.
Check out all the interviews in this series.


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