Amphibians and Ecotoxicology: Dr. David Skelly is in Nerd Corner this Week!
Dr. David Skelly is a Professor at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences. He was nice enough to share some time with me this week to talk about lab life and some other fun things!
CB: Describe your research interests in a nutshell.
DS: My research is aimed at understanding large scale, long-term dynamics of animal populations, particularly as they relate to environments that have been modified by people. This work is being done primarily on amphibian populations in Michigan and Connecticut at both local and landscape scales. We are also looking at the ecological dynamics of diseases mediated by things that humans add to the freshwater environment. Currently we are examining the cause of reproductive deformities in several amphibian populations.
DS: I actually went to graduate school looking to work with a fish biologist, but by the time I arrived he had switched to working on amphibians. So I decided to give them a try as well! The reason that I haven’t ever changed my experimental system is because they are well distributed, they persist where people contaminate the environment. Amphibians are good indicator organisms, and since they are vertebrates they provide us with information on how an organism that is ‘relatively’ closely related to us can handle toxicity in their environment.
CB: ‘Sex and the Suburban Frog‘ , the sex changes you are seeing in amphibian populations, is one of the biggest areas of research in your lab right now. Is this issue reminiscent of TBT induced sex-changes in snails?
DS: I still consider myself a novice when it comes to the ecotoxicology aspect of my work! I came at this as an ecologist who was finding strange things going on with animals and decided to find out what was causing them. There’s all kinds of contaminants in the water where these frogs live, many of which can have estrogenic effects. We want to build outward from the pathology of an individual to an eventual understanding of how exposure to chemicals changes individual and ultimately ecosystem function.
DS: A lot of our field work involves collecting individuals or samples from the field and bringing them back to the lab, so we don’t spend a lot of time in the field. A lot of the places where we work are not very majestic…back yard ponds, adjacent to trailer parks, condominium complexes and malls. A lot of wetlands are unfortunately found in these kinds of areas, the animals that live here are dealing with some very toxic conditions.
CB: What are your thoughts on the role of social media for scientists. I was pleased to see that the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies has its own podcast!
DS: It’s wonderful that scientists have so many ways to connect with the public directly. I’m interested in the ways that social media can break down some of the walls that exist between scientists and the public. By connecting directly, you can get away from an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario. It also may take away some ideas about conspiracy in science. A lot of people have never met a scientist, so anything we can do to break down the preconceived notion that scientists are untouchable is long overdue.
CB: Do you have any non-biological talents?
DS: I’m a boat builder. I build a variety of wooden boats…I always tell my students to have a backup career because you never know how this science thing is going to work out! Powerboats, rowboats, kayaks, whatever my loving spouse allows me to get away with!
CB: I notice that on your website there is an annual ‘Skelly Lab Cider Party’. It sounds like your lab is a pretty cool place to be!
DS: I hope so! We always appoint one person in our lab to the role of ‘social chair’. Their job is to make sure that the whole group is getting together every few weeks or once a month so that we’re not only being nerds together. One of our enduring traditions is a cider party where everybody brings a box of apples with them and they go home with a gallon of cider. We have an old cider press, it’s a lot of fun!
CB: If you could have any 3 people for dinner, alive or dead, who would they be?
DS: It’s going to sound a little cliche, one would have to be Charles Darwin, the next would be G. Evelyn Hutchinson. The reason these two come immediately to mind is because they were both scientists and skeptics at the same time. They would take observations and make inferences about the natural world, while remaining skeptical and questioning. A lot of modern ecological theory is based on the way people would like things to work, and there is a lot of data that are produced to conform to theories. When you ask questions about observations in natural history, it’s a lot harder to get it wrong. I think its important to make sure that we are constantly being vigilant and skeptical of our own ideas.
DS: I think so, if that’s ok!
CB: What would be on the menu?
DS: Darwin and Hutchinson were both carnivores, and I’m a carnivore too. I would want a game dinner.
CB: I’m sure they would love it too! Thanks so much for stopping by in Nerd Corner this week Dr. Skelly!
For more details of our conversation and for more questions relating to Dr. Skelly’s soon to be released anthology of G. Evelyn Hutchinson you can: