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The Shrimp on a Treadmill Video

(August 18, 2017, Update)

 

In November 2006, I posted the following story to the Shrimp News website:

 

Dr. David Scholnick, a researcher at Pacific University, has invented and built an underwater treadmill to measure the activity of a “jogging” shrimp for a set period of time at known speeds and oxygen levels.  Scholnick says: “As far as I know this is the first time that shrimp have been tested on a treadmill, and it was amazing to see how well they performed.  ...Healthy shrimp [Penaeus vannamei] ran and swam at speeds of up to 20 meters per minute for hours with little indication of fatigue.”  To further challenge the healthy shrimp, Scholnick put a small “backpack” made of duct tape on the shrimp’s back.  With the extra weight and lowered oxygen, shrimp jogged for up to an hour.  When sick shrimp were put on the treadmill, they showed elevated blood lactate levels after jogging.  Lactate is produced during exercise as a by-product of metabolizing glucose.  Infected shrimp are unable to remove it from their tissues efficiently and therefore did not recover from jogging as quickly as healthy shrimp.

 

Unbeknownst to Scholnick, Pacific University’s director of online communications, Richard Sipe, spotted the film on the professor’s faculty webpage.  He uploaded it to YouTube.com, a popular video-sharing website, and before long the clip was enjoying incredible popularity.  At last count, Scholnick’s nimble crustacean had been viewed more than one million times and generated several spin-offs in which people added music or re-cut the footage to make it look as if the five-inch-long shrimp was dancing.

 

View the Video: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUe78awZMT0).

 

 

Ten Years Later

 

Dr. Scholnick got a lot of publicity for the video—not all of it positive.  He was criticized for wasting taxpayer money on frivolous research.  Just a few days ago, ten years after the video appeared, Dr. Scholnick posted a clever response to all that publicity on Scientific American Blogs, the online news site of Scientific American magazine, where scientists discuss topics that may not appear in the magazine.  By the way, the highly respected Scientific American magazine and Scientific American Blogs are not dry, boring publications containing academic research; they contain shorter, lively articles for educated layman and scientists who are interested in science.  Many famous scientists, including Albert Einstein, have contributed articles to Scientific American magazine.  It is the oldest (170 years) continuously published monthly magazine in the United States!

 

 

“The Rise and Fall of a Shrimp Biologist”

 

Using the above title, here is the entire article that Dr. Scholnick submitted to Scientific American Blogs:

 

“When you mix science and politics and disrupt the social order, you had better be ready for some lowbrow playground antics.”

 

“Yes, I am a marine biologist.  But, before you get all doe-eyed, thinking about swimming with dolphins, or saving the whales, I need to explain that there are two very different kinds of marine biologists in the world, one kind triumphantly leaps off of boats wearing stylish wetsuits to study highly intelligent and beautiful marine mammals; these are the dolphin huggers, while the other kind of marine biologist studies the less popular animals in the ocean, things like worms and slugs, or in my case, shrimp.”

 

“And to be precise, I don’t study just any shrimp.  My career choice was to study sick shrimp, shrimp laden with bacteria.  While my dolphin-hugging colleagues are inundated with students they travel the world giving invited seminars to large, enthusiastic audiences and seem to get research support with the flick of a pen.  I, on the other hand, am basically the proctologist of the marine biology world in terms of popularity.  And like all proctologists, my expertise is entirely unappreciated.  To be a successful shrimp biologist requires a commitment to working in obscurity and a passion for trying to understand aspects of our natural world that most people don’t find the least bit interesting.”

 

“In high school, I would certainly be labeled a geek or nerd, and I realized a long time ago that I would never be the most popular person, or even scientist for that matter, in the room.  But all that changed a couple of years ago when something extraordinary happened.  It was as if the marine biology gods looked down on me and smiled, and for a short time, I was granted dolphin-hugger status.  Unbeknownst to me, someone lifted a video of a sick shrimp exercising from my nerdy faculty webpage and posted it on YouTube.”

 

“Within days, millions of people around the world became fascinated by a shrimp running on a treadmill, and for the first time in my career, my phone started ringing.  News organizations wanted to know about my research.  I was being invited to give seminars and even appeared on television.  One day I found myself standing in Rockefeller Center, about to head into Studio 1A to make an appearance on the Today Show—a shrimp treadmill in one arm and bag of shrimp in the other—when I realized I had made it; I had reached the status of a dolphin hugger.  My mother would finally be able to tell her friends with pride that yes, her son studies shrimp.”

 

“But as you well know from any coming-of-age teen movie, things always turn ugly when the geeky unpopular kid tries to hang with the in-crowd.  Prom night, as it were for me, when everything came crashing down, was in Washington DC and came in the form of a congressional wastebook report that erroneously suggested that obscure, non-dolphin-hugging science is unimportant.”

 

“The report said that I had wasted millions of taxpayer dollars running shrimp on a treadmill.  My research became the equivalent of Patrick Dempsey dancing the African Anteater Ritual in the movie Can’t Buy Me Love, and I was accused of wasting $3 million tax dollars to buy scientific popularity.”

 

“And of course, all the ‘popular kids’ wanted to take their shot at sending the geek back to the minor leagues.  Mike Huckabee did an entire segment on Fox News about how soldiers could not get the equipment they needed to keep them safe in battle because of shrimp treadmill studies.  AARP put out a nationally distributed commercial suggesting that Congress had sacrificed healthcare for the elderly because of useless shrimp treadmill research.  Representative John Culberson (R-TX), chair the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, told Science magazine that he hopes to never see funding for shrimp on a treadmill research again, and Forbes.com listed shrimp treadmill studies as one of the top ten sources of wasteful government spending for the year.”

 

“It is important to note that shrimp research has never been a high priority budget item in Congress, even though shellfish are a multi-billion dollar industry and I do science on a shoestring budget in labs that are usually hidden in the basement of some obscure science building.  In fact, I build most of my research equipment from spare parts.  My lab is full of homemade devises like thermocouples to take the temperatures of sick shrimp, tiny transducers to measure shrimp heart rates and minuscule syringes to try, as difficult as it may be, to get blood samples from ailing shrimp.”

 

“So the fact that I was being chastised for using a small homemade shrimp treadmill built from a truck inner tube and skateboard bearings was, in my mind, a high price to pay for popularity.  And while the narrative that millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted running shrimp on treadmills is a compelling story if you are trying to win the fiscal responsibility vote, it is a far cry from the truth and entirely misrepresents how science is funded through a rigorous peer-review process that occurs for all Federally funded granting agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health.”

 

“I guess the moral of my story is that when you mix science and politics, it can be just as cliquey as high school, and if you disrupt the social order, you had better be ready for some lowbrow playground antics.  Back in my lab, once again working in relative obscurity, I console myself with the thought that although shrimp research will most likely never again capture the nation’s imagination, understanding the health of marine organisms and the seafood we eat is critical for our country’s economy and safety, but of course, I am saying that from no-man’s-land in the lunchroom.”

 

Update, August 18, 2017
(Top of Page)

 

David Scholnick was an unlikely figure to become the face of government waste.  Former USA Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, made him exactly that.  In April 2011, Coburn released a report—“The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope”—as part of his years-long attempt to root out waste in government.  On page 35 was the name David Scholnick, who became Coburn’s poster boy for government waste.

 

On August 9, 2017, USA Representative Steve Russell, also from Oklahoma, sat before a crowd of like-minded fiscal conservatives and spoke about government waste.  Russell was carrying on the Oklahoma congressional tradition of criticizing the crustacean study as the embodiment of government waste.

 

“I had a lady, God bless her, from the National Science Foundation...come in and she tried to make a compelling argument for why we needed shrimp-on-treadmill studies.  I was not convinced,” Russell said.

 

The line garnered laughter from many in the crowd.  John Tidwell, state director for Americans for Prosperity and host of the conversation, asked what the scientist’s argument was.

 

“That we could learn something from it,” Russell said to more laughter.

 

“That the shrimp could learn something from it?,” Tidwell asked, and again there was laughter before Russell reached the moral of the story, the point he was trying to make.  “Let’s learn something from it from somebody else’s dollars, rather than yours.  If people really have a passion for shrimp on treadmills, they can go and spend their money on it,” he said.

 

Justification for the Video: Scholnick and his colleagues were studying how changes in the world’s oceans affect the ability of marine organisms, such as shrimp, to fight infections.  Bacteria that a shrimp is unable to remove from its body could end up on the plates of American seafood consumers.  “Given that every teaspoon of seawater can contain millions of bacteria, it does not take a mental giant to understand that the health of marine organisms and the safety of the seafood we eat are closely related.  Since shrimp are active animals in nature, it was logical to study the immune response of shrimp during activity,” Scholnick told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

For less than $50, Scholnick built a miniaturized treadmill from spare parts: an old truck inner tube, skateboard bearings and a used pump motor.  But Coburn’s report did not mention that; it emphasized a dozen shrimp-related NSF grants worth more than $3 million.  Before long, the details became blurred and people became convinced that Scholnick had spent millions to put shrimp on treadmills.

 

In December 2016, scientists who felt they had been maligned by fiscal conservatives in Congress—Scholnick included—invited senators and representatives to a science fair of sorts at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, USA.  They explained their research, including another shrimp study that had come under criticism: the so-called Fight Club study.

 

USA Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who took over Senate waste-finding duties from Coburn, accused a Duke researcher of spending $700,000 to watch shrimp fight each other.  The researcher, Sheila Patek, said the five-year study into how mantis shrimp generate enormous power underwater has already led to changes in the manufacturing of impact-resistant materials and could change military defense systems.

 

Meanwhile, Scholnick has moved on from the national attention Coburn foisted upon him and that Russell continues to mention.  He compares himself to the geek in a 1980s comedic drama who temporarily hung out with the popular crowd before snapping back to reality.  “I guess the moral of my story is that when you mix science and politics, it can be just as cliquey as high school, and if you disrupt the social order, you had better be ready for some lowbrow playground antics,” he told Scientific American in January 2017.

 

Information: David Scholnick, Pacific University Oregon (Email david.scholnick@pacificu.edu, Phone 1-503-352-2727, Webpage http://www.pacificu.edu/as/biology/faculty/DavidScholnick.cfm).

 

Sources: 1. Scientific American Blog.  Guest Blog/The Rise and Fall of a Shrimp Biologist.  David Scholnick.  January 9, 2017.  2. News OK.com.  A Shrimp on a Treadmill Is Coburn’s Lasting Legacy of Fighting Government Waste.  Justin Wingerter (Email jwingerter@oklahoman.com).  August 13, 2017.  3. Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International, Updated August 18, 2017.

 

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