Casey Dunn wins the Waterman, untangles DNA and promotes open science

Casey Dunn is a biologist who draws upon an eclectic set of interests. His lab at Brown University studies how evolution gave rise to the diversity of life.  In particular, he studies siphonophores, giant colonial, connected ‘superorganism’ jellyfish that are one of the longest animals in the world (they grow to be 100+ feet long in the open ocean).

Beyond siphonophores, Dunn’s invested in the future of scientific data sharing as well as makintg science accessible through storytelling. To that end, Dunn created CreatureCast, an online video series that feels like an episode of This American Life recorded in a biology lab.

Today, Dunn, a 2010 PopTech Science Fellow, was awarded the National Science Foundation's prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award, the United States’ highest scientific honor bestowed to a scientist 35 years or under. PopTech spoke with Dunn about the various projects he has his hands in right now.

PopTech: Your lab focuses on “learning about the actual history of life on Earth as well as the general properties of evolution that have contributed to these historical patterns,” which sounds pretty expansive. How do you approach that type of investigation?
Casey Dunn: A lot of what we’re doing is collecting rare, poorly known organisms and then using genomic tools to sequence lots of genes from them. Then we use that information to figure out how they’re related, which helps to reconstruct the history of the evolution of a variety of things.

What’s the specific data you’re collecting?
My lab is working on understanding where biological organization comes from in the first place. One of the most common patterns we see in biology is functional specialization – division of labor just like we see within human society. Some people make shoes, some people grow food and similarly, in biology, we see lots of reiterated structures that are structured for different tasks. When we think of complexity, we think implicitly about the degree to which their parts are functionally specialized.

Do you have an example of how that functional specialization works?
There are these animals called siphonophores, which are the focus of a lot of my research that have become complex – not by making parts of the themselves specialized but by reiterating their whole bodies. It’s as if you were to have hundreds or thousands of conjoined twins and all of these twins did different things and they continued to bud from each other throughout your life.


When these siphonophores are dividing and cloning, how does the division of labor happen?
That’s the exact question we’re trying to answer! These animals are so poorly known that many of the specimens we collect are undescribed species. For many of them, we’re starting from zero when it comes to understanding their biology. We have to figure out what species they are, what the specialized parts are and how they’re organized. This is just basic descriptive biology that for many organisms was done 150 years ago. It’s like these things may have been on a different planet all this time. It’s a bit like working on aliens.

Shifting gears – you gather quite a bit of your own data in your work. What’s your perspective on open data and access to information.
It used to be completely expected that when you published a paper, you deposited all those data in the public archives. All your data was shared and made available so that it could be anonymously downloaded without requesting them from other scientists. Because data sets have become larger, it’s getting to this point where you have to request it from other scientists and it’s going a step further where people are saying, I’m willing to share data from my final analysis but I’m not willing to share all the raw data. This has really had an impact on the culture of science.

It’s like these things may have been on a different planet all this time. It’s a bit like working on aliens.

That seems counterproductive to scientific advancement and wasteful as there may wind up being unnecessary duplication when it comes to research. Are you playing a role to promote more openness?
We’re continuing to share everything and I hope that helps other people realize the importance of making their data available.

You can get into some kind of tit-for-tat mentality where you can say, Oh you’re not going to share your data? It’s not fair if you can rerun all my analysis but I can’t rerun yours. So I’m not going to post all my data.

You’ve not only made your research available by publicly sharing it, but you’ve also made it available through an online video series you created, CreatureCast, a really refreshing way to learn about science reminiscent of Radio Lab and This American Life. How did you get started with CreatureCast?
There was an undergrad working in my lab, Sophia Tintori, and she was going to collect some siphonophores. She took an audio recorder with her and recorded Allison Sweeney for that first iridescence episode on CreatureCast. When we got back, there was a lot of audio that we couldn’t use because it was too jargon-y but if we took that jargon out, a lot of key concepts were lost. Sophia suggested reinserting some of those concepts visually with these hand-drawn animations. That formula turned out to be really effective and that template has served as inspiration for a lot of pieces that we’ve been doing.

With scientists, somewhere along the way the ability to talk to the rest of the general public has been beaten out of them.

Are there other ways that you’ve integrated your research with storytelling?
We’ve started putting up some short video clips of animals and that’s been a lot of fun.  There are all these beautiful things you see in the course of pursuing the core research objective like, there’s no way to get a video of cute budding jellyfish into the paper so you enjoy that alone. This gives us a way to take some of those things we see in the course of our research and share them.

What’s one CreatureCast episode you’re particularly excited about?
I really like the most recent one on untangling DNA that Sophia did. It takes DNA, which we think of as being the blueprint or life and points out that it’s just string – it’s molecular string and it actually gets tangled up really badly and you have to untangle it. So I find that very grounding. It’s just as bad as throwing uncoiled rope in the back of your car. It’s kind of fun that DNA has this very humbling, real world problem.

CreatureCast - Untangling DNA from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

A focus of PopTech's Science Fellows program, in which you participated this year, is to help scientists communicate their research and projects more effectively. It seems like you’re working towards that as well with the undergrads and graduate students in your lab who are all contributing stories to CreatureCasts.
There’s a crisis in communication in science right now. With scientists, somewhere along the way the ability to talk to the rest of the general public has been beaten out of them. Then we try to add it back in at the end. Whereas what I think we need to do is talk about communication much earlier and make much more explicit ties to the humanities.

Here's another one of Dunn's favorite CreatureCast episodes:

CreatureCast - Multicellularity from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image (Casey Dunn): Gonzalo Giribet
Image (siphonophore):  Casey Dunn

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