Who doesn’t love crustacea? Lobsters, prawns, crabs, mantis shrimp – these wonderfully colourful, multi-segmented organisms make (1) delicious eating if you are not vegetarian (2) excellent model animals for studying all kinds of biological processes. So we are delighted to welcome Associate Professor Zen Saulkes (@doctorzen) of Texas Pan-American University to Real Scientists. Dr Faulkes is a neuroethologist – that is, someone who studies animal behaviour by looking at the evolution of the nervous system. He works on To find out more about his work, we asked Zen our usual set of questions:
Q: How did you end up in science?
A: As with most things, it was a combination of external and internal factors.
The main external factor was Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge who studies octopuses. I took classes with her with as an undergraduate. One day, I walked into her office, and she sort of shut the door behind me, and asked, “How would you like an enserk?” “Great!” I replied. “What’s an enserk?” Turned out that it wasn’t enserk, but NSERC, an abbreviation for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, one of the major Canadian research funding agencies. The department I was in had NSERC summer scholarships for undergraduates, but apparently they thought the applicants that year were a little weak. So Jennifer headhunted me to be a summer student. That was very helpful in eventually being accepted into graduate school.
And for you undergraduates out there, the moral of the story is: get to know your professors, so they get know you, by name and on sight. They can help you.
The internal factors were a combination of vanity, arrogance, and hedonism. Vanity because I wanted a Ph.D. I wanted to be able to call myself “Doctor Zen” and sound like the villain from a bad kung fu movie. Arrogance because not only did I think I was smart enough to do a doctorate, I also thought that I was clever enough to land on my feet and do something else if the whole science thing didn’t work out. And hedonism because I went into grad school because I was having fun doing science.
Q: Why did you choose your current field and what keeps you there?
A: Another professor in my undergraduate department at the time was W. Jake Jacobs. He was very interested in the issue of how to describe behaviour, and had written a paper about a movement analysis system developed for dance that fascinated me. I was very gung ho to try to use movement analysis system to try to link behaviour and neurobiology.
That led to my doctoral work in neuroethology, where I started working with sand crabs. I have mostly worked with crustaceans since then. Part of that is because a lot of crustaceans have cool looking armor and spines, and the more my animals look like prehistoric beasts, the happier I am to work with them.
I have not been particularly loyal to any one topic, though. This is the great advantage of academic freedom: you do get to follow your nose and reach out and try new kinds of projects. And I’ve been lucky enough to have managed to do that a few times.
Q. Tell us about your work.
A. That’s tough. I joke that I have a branding problem, because I can’t easily summarize my research in a few sentences. I’m not an “I study biochemical pathway X in cell type Y” kind of researcher. My publication list over the last few years runs the gamut from neurophysiology to ethics to parasites to ecological modelling. And I’ve published papers on about twenty different species.
I just try to tackle whatever question comes to mind that I think I can actually answer. And some of those questions are driven by unplanned observations. I’m out digging on the beach, and there’s a species that I’ve never been seen before. I’m looking at a nerve cord in a microscope, and there something moving in there that I hadn’t paid attention to before.
Here are a few examples of projects I have on the go right now:
Pet trade: The sale of animals as pets is almost entirely unregulated, and pet owners have not done a great job of keeping their pets contained. I’ve been doing research on the sale of crayfish through the pet trade, particularly marbled crayfish. Marbled crayfish were literally unknown to science in the 1990s, and now they’re one of the most common and readily available crayfish in the pet trade.
Parasites: I recently co-organized, with Kelly Weinersmith, a symposium on parasitic manipulation of hosts (see Integrative and Comparative Biology 54(2) for collection of papers).
Nociception: As a crustacean researcher, everyone asks you, Does it hurt lobsters when they’re cooked alive”? I may not be able to answer that question, but I might be able to get at what kinds of nasty stimuli crustaceans’ nervous systems can detect.
Sand crabs: I did my doctoral research with these mostly obscure digging critters. I’ve just decided that I will be one of the people in the world who will care about them. I’ve got a long term monitoring project of one local population, and I am slowly piecing together what their basic biology is. We don’t have answers for super simple questions like, “How long do they live? How do they mate? What do they eat?” This is not unusual for a lot of invertebrates, though.
Q. Why should anyone care about your research?
A. Because people are curious about the world. We spend so much time now trying to justify practical outcomes and return on investment that I think we sometimes overlook that it’s just great to learn new things.
More about Zen’s work can be found at his blogs, MarmoKrebs and Neurodojo. So get ready for an amazing week about crustaceans of all kinds – like most animals, they are more than meets the eye. Please welcome Zen!