Column: Temperature impacts on behavior


Column: Temperature impacts on behavior
Adam Heinze, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biology

Sometimes it’s the small things that matter. Full disclosure: I love science. I love the tools science uses, the process of science, but most of all I love the idea that there are concrete answers to some of the big questions I personally wrestle with and solutions to some of the challenges our society faces.

My research focuses on temperature and its impact on aquatic microbial life. I spend my best summer days in the basement — my nose to the bench discovering new information that no one has known before.

It makes my heart beat faster just typing it now. My lab has learned this summer about swimming behavior and how minor changes in temperature, even one degree Celsius, have major impacts on the behavior and distribution of small organisms. Who cares? These microbes we study become fish food, and the world is moving toward fish protein as people become wealthier in the developing world. If there is no fish food, there are fewer fish, and the fish are already in trouble for other reasons.

This work is interesting and topical, but not many people 10 years ago thought it was interesting. But now climate change has become yet another divisive issue in our country, and no one wants to know about discoveries in the lab this summer ... everyone wants to know what the right course of action is on fracking, or a carbon tax, or coal-fired power plant emissions. Clearly, scientists have a role in helping to shape that discussion, but the deck seems stacked when media compresses the issue into a series of sounds bites for the evening news.

My agenda is to leave this earth to my kids (and someday grandkids) in a condition that they can enjoy many of the things I enjoyed and also some new things that didn’t exist when I was around. I worry that Americans, and the leaders we elect, can’t make the hard decisions that require some real thought and contemplation. We want clear direction and right answers. This is part of what drew me to science, looking for answers to hard questions that arose. But I now see the imperative to push the hard conversations in my area of expertise, and to make people think about how to proceed in an informed, calm and reasonable way.

Our university community has taught me that it is hard to be divisive while in dialogue. The best answers are not always clear and easy. So, if you want to know about temperature and single-celled aquatic organisms, invite me to dinner, and I hope I can fill you in on some of the specific details and potential solutions my data illuminate. I also hope you can help educate me on an area you are passionate about, so together we can make the world a better, more peaceful place. If I don’t make it to your house for dinner, please share those passions with others at the next dinner party you attend. Don’t let the sound bite destroy the science I love or the public discourse in the areas you love either. I am hopeful we can solve these big messy problems for our kids, one dinner party at a time.

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