How we get research ideas

You’ve probably heard all sorts of stories about how scientists get ideas. Niels Bohr’s orbital electrons atom modelMendeleev’s periodic table and Kekule’s benzene structure supposedly all came from dreams.

Most new research ideas come about in much more mundane ways. One example involves thinking about critical knowledge gaps central to our understanding of important processes in the natural and technological world.

Take climate change as an example: how will it affect our coastal communities? What possible mechanisms might influence fish stocks we depend on, or shellfish farming plans? We need to understand such linkages to better prepare for the future and mitigate the effects of climate change.

From this ‘need to know’ starting point, we apply the scientific process: formulate a hypothesis (an educated guess of what’s happening), develop an experimental design to test the hypothesis (how can we determine if our prediction from the educated guess is correct or not?), determine what data we need, and then carry out the project.

And this is where the fun starts: in science, discoveries often lead to new questions and new ideas. Here’s an example from one of our own projects. Years ago, we set out to identify what may be driving the population of Steller sea lions in our region up or down. To that extent, we developed and deployed a new kind of electronic monitoring system for young sea lions. The Life History Transmitters – LHX tags for short – are like electronic black boxes on aircraft. LHX tags are implanted into the belly of young sea lions, and then record data throughout the life of their host. Only after the sea lion dies, they eventually come out of the decomposing, dismembered, or digested carcass and transmit their data via the Argos satellite system. We then get a very sad email that tells us, where, when and why the host animal has died.


Most answers lead to more questions

This discovery that sleeper sharks may prey on Steller sea lions led me to look up what is known about these sharks: very, very little indeed.


Pacific sleeper sharks are close relatives of the Greenland shark. How can these animals live for hundreds of years(see box to left)? How much do they need to eat? Given the conventional wisdom of sleepers being sluggish, benthic scavengers, how can they catch a fast swimming, agile, aggressive 4 year old male Steller sea lion?

Well, I decided that we need to start studying this enigmatic species. Many of our pressing questions are best answered through studies conducted under controlled conditions: in captivity. But, there are no sleeper sharks in captivity in North America. That’s why we decided that we need to bring some wild-caught sleeper sharks into the Alaska SeaLife Center for a few weeks, before releasing them again.

Starting in 2018 and with funding by the North Pacific Research Board, and in collaboration with Dr.  Christopher Lowe from the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab, we will capture up to 10 immature (<2m) sleeper sharks right here in Resurrection Bay. They will be measured, sampled tagged and released. A subset of 5 of them will be transported to the Alaska SeaLife Center, where we will hold them for 1 to 5 weeks, and then release them again. While at the center, we will measure their metabolic rate and its temperature dependence (Q10).

We are hoping this new model for working with these understudied animals will lead to many exciting studies in future years. Want to study sleeper sharks? Come talk to me at the ASLC!

Written by: Dr. Markus Horning


Photo Credit: Lightbulb–Created by Jannoon028 –

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