A Southern Fried Scientist and the Deep (Blue) Sea

November 22, 2013

By Sarah Gillig Sunu MEM '14, Writer

Andrew Thaler hones his science writing skills for the masses by blogging

Andrew Thaler story southern fried science
Andrew Thaler (Photo: Scott Taylor)

BEAUFORT, NC -- Andrew Thaler’s Duke roots run deep. Deep sea, that is.

Thaler started at Duke as an undergrad (T’07), spending, as he puts it, “many semesters at the Marine Lab— more than I think I was supposed to.”

He then returned to Duke to complete his PhD with Cindy Van Dover, professor of biological oceanography and director of the Marine Lab.

Thaler’s doctoral research focused on deep sea hydrothermal vent populations and how hydrothermal vent systems are genetically connected through migration.

But you might know him better from Southern Fried Science, a blog with a team of writers focusing on marine and environmental issues and science education and outreach.

Thaler started the blog to hone his writing skills for general audiences.

“I really wanted to get a handle on how to write as a scientist for other people,” Thaler says. He began writing about the broader topics surrounding his research, and ocean and science issues that interested him. Thaler credits comments on the blog with helping him to become a better writer.

“Getting the immediate feedback from posting online is great, because you’ll write something that you think is really really good, and the first couple of comments are ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying here,’ and ‘I don’t get this’. You can see where what you thought you were saying is different from what people are understanding when they read it, and you can start working on how to write what you actually mean,” Thaler says.

Thaler’s blogging has paid off in other ways as well. “I’ve gotten my name out there and some of my articles have gotten pretty big,” he says. He estimates that Southern Fried Science has had about 3 million visits since the blog started in 2008.

Other contributors to Southern Fried Science include David Shiffman T’07, now a University of Miami PhD student whose focus is on sharks; Amy Freitag PhD’13, who studies ecological knowledge within local fisheries; East Carolina University PhD student Chuck Bangley, who looks at interactions between apex predators and fisheries; Lyndell M. Bade, a graduate student at East Carolina studying cownose ray feeding ecology; Iris Kemp, a graduate student at the University of Washington, Seattle, who is monitoring juvenile Pacific salmon and herring; and University of Maryland PhD candidate Michael Bok, who is investigating mantis shrimp vision.
“It was just me blogging for about six months. But then Dave (Shiffman) and I were roommates in college, and he wanted to write about sharks, so I said, ‘Sure, come blog for the site with me!’ Maybe a year after that, we were thinking it would be good to broaden the topics we were covering, and we wanted to bring in a social scientist, so Amy (Freitag) started blogging. Over the years we’ve picked up more bloggers and we have a deeper and broader range, which is great,” Thaler says.

Five years and hundreds of posts later, Thaler is in a good position to reflect on the role of blogging in science outreach.

“I came in on the cusp of the science blogging revolution, when it became a much more accepted way to talk about research. When I started grad school, I was encouraged to include a blog in my outreach plans for research proposals. But by the time I left grad school, blogs had gotten a reputation for being a more generic, ‘throw-something-together’ sort of outreach plan. So there’s definitely been a transition from seeing blogs as a novel form of communication to a sense that they’re that the default for how a lot of scientists are reaching the public,” he says.

However, Thaler also has seen a lot of positive growth, too—in the area of marine science blogging in particular.

“When I started it was basically me and Deep Sea News, and we were the big ocean blogs. Now there are a lot more writers out there who are focusing on the oceans, and they’re largely younger scientists who are at an early stage in their careers—grad students, post-docs— and they’re doing a lot of good writing,” he says.

Thaler’s internet presence has led to some interesting interactions. “I was on an international deep-sea research cruise at the Mid-Cayman Rise and had been tweeting updates about discoveries we were making, species we were finding, and on the way back I had to take a bunch of tissue samples through customs. While I was talking to the customs officer, he asked what the tissue samples were from. I told him I’d been on a deep-sea research cruise, and they were samples of some of the species we had seen. He asked ‘Were you on the #Deepest Vents?’ It turned out that he had been following my tweets about the cruise online!”

One of Thaler’s current projects involves making ocean science more accessible and affordable.

Sarah Gillig Sunu MEM '14 is the leader of the Duke Environment blogging team.