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A conversation with Tom Shannon, PhD ‘07

Jul. 6, 2012

Writer: Beth Gavrilles, bethgav@uga.edu

Contact: Thomas Shannon, shannon@tulane.edu

How would you prepare for being interviewed on the NBC Nightly News?  And how would you respond to being parodied by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show?  Tom Shannon, Ecology PhD ’07, recently had the chance to find out.

Tom Shannon received his Ph.D. from the Odum School of Ecology in 2007.  His research, completed under the direction of professor Bill Fitt, explored coral reef ecology, specifically symbiosis between photosynthetic algae and invertebrates.  He is now a post doctoral researcher at Tulane University in New Orleans.  And since the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Shannon has found himself with a second job as well: providing the media with expert commentary about the spill’s ecological implications.  Shannon has been interviewed by several news outlets, including NBC Nightly News; a clip from that interview was picked up by Jon Stewart and satirized on The Daily Show.

Shannon accepted a post doctoral position at Tulane in 2009, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, on a project to explore global warming and sea level rise and the effects of storm surges on salt marshes and bottomland hardwood forests.  He explained that storm surges, especially combined with sea level rise, will push water further inland, to a higher level, and that water will remain for a longer period of time than in the past. Storm surges will also bring salt water into fresh water systems.  “The salt marshes here – our study area is between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne – are very low salinity, not like the ones on the coast,” he said. 

Shannon has been developing flooding enclosures and control systems for salt marshes and forests.  “They needed someone to design and build the infrastructure required to flood and control salinity and water level in both of those environments,” he said.  “That’s what they hired me to do.”  Soon after he arrived, however, the principal investigator took a job at the University of California, Berkeley, and Shannon was thrown into the lead role for the entire project. 

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has not yet reached Shannon’s study sites.  “My marshes at the moment look safe, but who knows what will happen when hurricane season hits,” he said.  “That’s the big concern down here.”

If oil from the spill does reach his sites, Shannon has considered the possibility of using the enclosure infrastructure he’s built to keep oil out of certain areas to serve as control sites.  He is not hopeful about this strategy, however.  “With all the dispersant that’s been used, the oil is broken down into its molecular components, entrained in the water, not on the surface.  It will get sucked up into plants via their root systems, so it isn’t looking too feasible to exclude the oil,” he said. 

The news media began approaching Shannon for comment when Tulane’s public relations department provided his name as an expert in salt marsh ecology.  His initial interview was with NBC Nightly News (see "Onslaught of oil moving further inland".)  He and a colleague accompanied the reporter on a tour of inland marshes, the first time they had been out in the field and seen the effects of the spill. “The first thing that struck me, as an invertebrate zoologist, was the behavior of the hermit crabs,” Shannon said. “It was a symptom that something was really wrong.  Everything else was dead, there were just the hermit crabs, and they were climbing out of the water.  It showed that the water was not life-supporting.  The animals couldn’t breathe.  The problem for them is not the surface oil, it’s the oil that’s been dispersed into the water column. This was just one example of how bad the situation is.” 

It was the clip of Shannon pointing out the reaction of the hermit crabs that was satirized on The Daily Show.  The segment includes a mock horror movie about hermit crabs attempting unsuccessfully to flee the disaster.  (See "To Shell and Back".) Shannon was surprised, but not dismayed, that Stewart chose to joke about the situation. “I thought what he came up with was pretty funny, and so did my colleagues,” he said.  “I don’t think he did any injustice to hermit crabs, or to scientists.  I’m sure he understands that all the animals in the Gulf are truly in peril.  He made a parody of it, but in doing that he illuminated the perils that wildlife is facing.  And he spent more than just a couple of minutes on it, and a lot of people saw it.”

Shannon said that he’s learned that it’s important to work with the media, even though it can be frustrating.  “They are interested in the end result, and we as scientists are interested in the process.  It can take the whole day to get the picture they want, when you’re trying to get your actual work done.  But it’s important to work with them, because otherwise the information won’t get out.  They put a face on it that people otherwise wouldn’t see.  Most Americans don’t read Science and Nature, so it’s important to get the information out into popular media.”

Shannon concluded, “When I was first approached to do interviews, I was thinking, ‘I’m not an expert in this,’ especially the petrochemical side of it.  But I realized that, because of the unprecedented nature of this disaster, there really ARE no experts.  Those of us working down here are going to become the experts – and I hope that expertise will never be needed again.”

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