Weird Mollusks Science Café

“What a great concept. The only thing better than talking about sea shells, is talking about sea shells over great beer and great food,” recounted T.J. Cullinane when asked about his experience at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center’s latest Science Café. The event, an informal night of science, occurred on Monday, November 5th at Gulu-Gulu in Salem. Following Halloween, the theme featured the weird science of mollusks—a group of invertebrates including snails, mussels, and octopuses. Around fifty people filled the café to learn about these cool, creepy, and spineless animals.

The first speaker of the night, T.J. Cullinane, enthusiastically shared his love for the local mollusks he finds on Boston’s North Shore working with Friends of Lynn and Nahant Beach. T.J. was pleasantly surprised to see a diverse and engaged audience as he turned mudflats and intertidal zones into a murder mystery production. Hefeaturedcharacters like a cannibalistic chain-saw murderer (Northern Moon Snail) and an elegant aristocrat that dispatches its victims with the help of neuro-toxins (Ten-ridged Whelk). To him, the most important part of his talk centered around a specific species of mollusk – “the Ocean Quahog, a common place creature that most of us hardly ever think about until we’re whipping up a batch of clam chowder” – because it may hold the key to curing Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Sean Dinneen, a post doc in Northeastern’s biomaterials design group, was the img_4606.jpgsecond speaker. Sean spoke about his research on the optical properties of pigments in squid chromatophores – cells responsible for the squid’s camouflage ability. His work has many applications including color changing fabrics. Unfortunately, Sean said that we are still far from having an invisibility cloak like in Harry Potter. Sean drew in his audience with flashy videos of camouflaging octopus to excite people about optics and cephalopods. “I try to take that same excitement and channel it towards what it means for the future of bioinspired designs. By learning as much as we can about how these animals adaptively camouflage,we can build better photonic systems, which I find the most exciting” said Sean.

IMG_4609 Louise Cameron, a Ph.D. candidate at the MSC, wrapped up the event with a real horror story – the affect climate change will have on bivalve fisheries. In the U.S. economy alone, bivalve fisheries account for more than $500,000,000. As a result of climate change, ocean acidification will negatively affect shellfish which may result in huge losses for fisheries. Louise commented that “Mostly when we talk about ocean acidification, we talk about the problems it causes, and I wanted to engage my audience with some of the solutions.” She finished with a message of hope by talking about the regional greenhouse gas initiative led by nine east coast states to reduce carbon emissions.

Long after the microphone was unplugged for the night, people congregated around T.J.’s collection of show-and-tell shells, questioned Sean about camouflaging cephalopods, and discussed climate change solutions with Louise. Everyone’s enthusiasm for mollusks was a sure sign of the event’s success.

Best Fishes,
Sara Williams

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