How a $47 Shrimp Treadmill Became a $3Million Political Plaything

Saturday, February 18, 2017: 8:00 AM-9:30 AM
Room 206 (Hynes Convention Center)
David Scholnick, Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR
Yes, I am a marine biologist. But, before you get all doe-eyed, thinking about swimming with dolphins, or saving the whales, I need to explain that there are two very different kinds of marine biologists in the world, one kind triumphantly leaps off of boats wearing stylish wetsuits to study highly intelligent and beautiful marine mammals, these are the dolphin huggers, while the other kind of marine biologist studies the less popular animals in the ocean, things like worms or slugs, or in my case, shrimp. And to be precise, I don’t study just any shrimp, my career choice was to study sick shrimp, shrimp laden with bacteria. I am basically the proctologist of the marine biology world in terms of popularity, and like all proctologists, my expertise is entirely unappreciated. To be a successful shrimp biologist requires a commitment to working in obscurity and a passion for trying to understand aspects of our natural world that most people don’t find the least bit interesting. In high school, I would certainly be labeled a geek or nerd. But, all that changed a couple of years ago when something extraordinary happened. It was as if the marine biology gods looked down on me and smiled, and for a short time I was granted dolphin-hugger status. Unbeknownst to me, someone lifted a video of a sick shrimp exercising from my nerdy faculty webpage and posted it on YouTube. Within days, millions of people around the world became fascinated by a shrimp running on a treadmill and for the first time in my career my phone started ringing, news organizations wanted to know about my research, I was being invited to give seminars and even appeared on television. One day I found myself standing in Rockefeller Center with a bag of shrimp under my arm about to head into Studio 1A to make an appearance on the Today Show and I realized I had made it, I had reached the status of a dolphin hugger. My mother would finally be able to tell her friends with pride that yes, her son studied shrimp. But as you well know from any teen coming-of-age movie, things always turn ugly when the geeky unpopular kid tries to hang with the in-crowd. Prom night, as it were for me, when everything came crashing down was in Washington DC in the form of a congressional wastebook report that stated that I had wasted millions of taxpayer dollars studying sick shrimp. My research became the equivalent of Patrick Dempsey dancing the African Anteater Ritual in the movie Can’t Buy Me Love, and I was accused of wasting $3-million dollars to buy scientific popularity. And of course, all the “popular kids” like Fox News, AARP, and Forbes wanted to take their shot at sending the geek back to the minor leagues suggesting that shrimp research was the icon for wasteful government spending. So, I guess the moral of my story is that when you mix science and politics, it may be just as cliquey as high school and if you disrupt the social order you had better be ready for some lowbrow playground antics but I am of course saying that from no-man’s-land in the lunchroom.