The Sea Turtles and the Manicurist- the Importance of Outside Expertise - 03/10/14
Hitting a brick wall is incredibly frustrating and something that has been encountered in university labs, R&D departments and garages all over the world. It can be easy to get tunnel vision when developing a new product or exploring a new line of research, but it is important to remember that sometimes an outsider’s input or area of expertise can provide you with the perfect solution.
Little was known about where sea turtle hatchlings go once they leave the Florida coast, but new information has emerged thanks to the advice of a manicurist. Using non-toxic acrylic nail polish, hair extension glue and an old wet suit, Kate Mansfield, a biologist from University of Central Florida (UCF), along with researchers from UCF, Florida Atlantic University, University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and University of Wisconsin, were for the first time, able to track the movements of seventeen baby loggerhead turtles for between 27 to 220 days in the open ocean. “Before this study, most of the scientific information about the early life history of sea turtles was inferred through genetics studies, opportunistic sightings offshore, or laboratory-based studies” explains Mansfield.
As the shells of baby sea turtles grow so rapidly, previous attempts to attach small, solar-powered satellite tags have failed. The team realized that turtle shells are made from keratin, the same substance that make up human fingernails, so a researcher’s manicurist suggested using an acrylic base coat to stop the shell from peeling, which proved to be the team’s ‘eureka’ moment. These new findings will enable conservationists to provide this endangered species with extra protection. Study co-author Florida Atlantic University professor Jeannette Wyneken explains, “There’s a whole lot that happens during the Atlantic crossing that we knew nothing about. Our work helps to redefine Atlantic loggerhead nursery grounds and early loggerhead habitat use.”
They often say that removing oneself from the normal working environment can boost creativity. This certainly seems to have worked in Rohit Karnik’s case. Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been working towards the development of a new water filtration system for six years, when he attended a conference that brought researchers from different disciplines together. It was here that he was inspired to create a simple filtration system, after listening to a scientist describe how sap travels through plants. “There is a community of people who do look at sap flow and drying in plants…but that community doesn’t intersect with the water purification community. They are thinking about how plants work and not how we can use plants to accomplish something else,” says Karnik.
While other researchers at MIT explore the use graphene to filter water, Karnik and his team were able to find a low-tech solution in nature. They found that the pores in sapwood are small enough to remove 99 percent of the bacteria E. coli from water. “The idea here is that we don’t need to fabricate a membrane, because it’s easily available. You can just take a piece of wood and make a filter out of it.” They hope that this will help communities in remote areas clean their drinking water, as well as providing the basis for the development of a man-made version.
‘Out of the box’ thinking may be a business cliché, but it is an essential part of innovation. Sometimes the solution can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
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