Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Research: What's in it for me?

Since school starts this week for most of the country (including us at Texas Tech!), I thought I'd use this week's posts to talk about the value of research. We always hear about research related to cancer or stem cells or new cures for disease, and often we will read about this study or that study that found medicines safe to use. But what about all of the other research that goes on outside of the medical field? Occasionally we'll hear about a new, innovative behavior that we've never seen before, but often times these discoveries are buried under tons of headlines about medical research. I'm definitely not putting down medical research or casting aside its importance, but I think the public (aka you guys and gals) should be made more aware of the different kinds of research that go on. If you are interested in science but aren't interested in medicine, there is still a TON of stuff you can do, and many possible careers out there for you!

Often times when I'm out with a new group of people and I'm asked what I do for a living, I say "I'm a behavioral ecologist". Now, I think we can all agree that most people have no idea what that is, and so they ask what I do. Then I say, "well, I study frogs". Sometimes it's left at that, but sometimes they want to know more. I usually explain a little about my research and about what I'm looking for in the toads. Usually people are satisfied with that, but once or twice I've had people say, "OK, so then what? Why should I care if toads are smart?" Well, you know what I say to them? "BINGO! I wish everyone asked me that question!"

So, why should YOU care if toads are smart? Two words: invasive potential. I may be looking at how toads learn about novel environments, but what I'm really interested in is invasive potential, or the likelihood of a non-native species to become established (breeding and flourishing on its own) after being introduced to an area that it is not normally found in. Invasive species are a huge problem all over the world; they can potentially outcompete native species, change the community structure of the environment, and in the worst cases, cause local extinction (or extirpation) of native species. If learning about potential resources and remembering their locations increases invasive potential, then we are one step closer to not only understanding why some translocated species become invasive, but to possibly predicting what species might become invasive in the future and proactively stopping that from happening. 

And so, that's why you should care if toads are smart. Are you convinced?

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