Undiscovered: a Podcast about the Backstories of Science featured the work of Shelia Patek last week. Patek is an Associate Professor in Biology who studies the dynamics of physics and evoluntionary processes. Part of this research is done on mantis shrimp. Most people may recall Patek’s shrimp research being featured in the news this past year as part of the federally funded projects listed in Senator Jeff Flake’s Wastebook. Her Capitol Hill presentation was precipitated by that media incident. She speaks about her journey to DC on the podcast episode entitled “Wastebook.”

Professor Patek’s science engagement story is framed by the question of “what are you doing for the world?” Her mantis shrimp research may hold significant revelations on how to improve our human engineering capabilities. In December 2015, this insight was absent from Senator Flake’s team when they constructed their Wastebook describing Patek’s research as a shrimp fight club and waste of government money. The wastebook portrayed her National Science Foundation funded study as a waste of 707,000 tax payer dollars. The actual cost of her study is only a couple thousands of dollars after research overhead and facility management is taken away.

 

The fight club description was in reference a study led by one of Sheila’s grad students. Mantis shrimp use their hammer claw to crack snail shells and defend their territory from other mantis shrimp. The strike from their claw has been compared to a strike from a lethal weapon,  the equivalent (if not more so) than a bullet coming out of a gun. The sea creatures also sport a strong armored tail plate that endures many of these strikes. Considering the force of these offense mechanisms, there are many questions concerning how the tail plate endures that many hits without being compromised. These questions were the inspiration for the study.

 

Patek knew that her placement in the Wastebook represented a misunderstanding of science and the purpose of her research. She quickly posted an article refuting Flake’s placement of her study in his wastebook. Subsequently, next spring, she was invited to present her research with other scientists whose work had been placed in various wastebooks made by other senators.

She accepted and defended her research communicating why her mantis shrimp research matters with broader goal of communicating why science is important to the world. The shrimp’s hammer acceleration out paces missiles and race cars. The fact that they are able to achieve this in water may also signify great advancements from the research findings generated on these anthropods. These developments could hold critical implications for military and aviation engineering advancements .

Patek believes the knowledge that scientists generate in the lab is important and from that we’ve been able to say new things about the world. Patek’s story has also been featured in Duke Magazine, PBS, and TEDx presenations.

Listen to the full June 13th Undiscovered podcast here: http://www.undiscoveredpodcast.org/the-wastebook.html