April 13, 2009
Christopher Mah provides interesting dinnertime conversation, if you’re eating starfish at least. The post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History may be the only person in the world who can name any sea star on sight. With just a low-resolution snapshot via iPhone, Mah can tell you which species are hiding in your waters.
Naming starfish is only the start of Mah’s love for the marine invertebrate. As a child, playing on the beaches near San Francisco, he discovered an appreciation for the oddly misshapen creature. “Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by weird animals,” Mah says. “I was raised on Saturday afternoon monster movies.” As he moved through his academic training at San Francisco State University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, he eventually settled on starfish. Today he works with the Smithsonian to understand sea star evolution. His expertise has been key to identifying nearly a dozen new species and types of starfish.
Mah is also one of a growing number of scientists who are bringing their passion to the public through blogging. As part of a National Science Foundation requirement to make his research easily accessible, Mah started “The Echinoblog.” Now a year old, he has blogged on topics ranging from “Giant Green Brittle Stars of Death! When they Attack!” to “What are the World’s Largest Starfish?” Mah keeps the writing lively and includes as many pictures as possible of exotic sea stars and urchins, (another kind of marine invertebrate or echinoderm, on which the title of the blog is based.)
Mah finds writing brings its own challenges and rewards. “There are days when I don’t know what I’m going to write about tomorrow,” he says. Though that usually changes when he sits down to read the latest in invertebrate zoology. Mah believes his unique background allows him to provide the bigger picture in echinoderm biology to his readers. “I’m proud of posts that have an intellectual challenge that I don’t think anyone else could have written but me,” he says.
One example he cites is his post on the relationship between ancient Greeks and sea urchins called, “The TRUE (?) meaning of Aristotle’s Lantern??” For centuries, the term “Aristotle’s Lantern” was thought to mean the sea urchin’s mouth, a set of five calcium plates located in the center of the underside of its body. But new research on the origin of the Greek word lantern found evidence that the shape of the whole sea urchin and not its mouth more closely resembles the word’s meaning, a point Mah supports with visuals in his post.
For Mah, his blog is an important part of the scientific process. He believes the product of science is as much research as it is outreach. “Science at the Smithsonian is supported by taxpayers, and they need to be beneficiaries of that money,” he says.
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