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Behind the scenes with Brian Sidlauskas

Fisheries and wildlife sciences associate professor

Brian-Sidlauskas

The 2-D fish database Brian Sidlauskas helped develop provides online students with access to more than 1,000 images that help them learn the diagnostic characteristics of various species, test their knowledge and practice for practical exams. Photo courtesy Bruce MacGregor.

Everyone likes a good pun – and OSU Ecampus Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences Associate Professor Brian Sidlauskas is full of them. If that’s not reason enough to take one of his classes, maybe the fact that you’ll gain access to 2-D and 3-D fish databasses will seal the deal and give you porpoise. As an Ecampus instructor, Brian utilizes cutting-edge technology to develop resources his online students can access at a distance, providing a real-world experience similar to what a student would receive on campus. Brian holds a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Cornell University, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Chicago.


By Heather Doherty  
Aug. 31, 2017

Briefly describe your role as an Ecampus instructor. 

“I am the course designer for two innovative Ecampus versions of classes that I also teach on the Corvallis campus: Ichthyology and Systematics of Fishes. Together, they form a major unit on fish biology, anatomy, physiology, ecology and evolution central to several majors, including fisheries and wildlife sciences, zoology and natural resources.”

What made you decide to get into this field of study?

“I’m the son of a Massachusetts fisherman, and so I had quite early exposure to fish biology. Some of my earliest memories involve times spent fishing out in Salem Harbor, which might have predisposed me to the field of study. But it was really an undergraduate position in the Cornell Vertebrate Collections, followed by a research assistant job in the lab of Amy McCune (a fish systematist) that made me realize that ichthyology was a viable career path. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Brian

Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences Associate Professor Brian Sidlauskas. Photo courtesy Marie-Claire Paiz.

What do you like most about teaching fisheries and wildlife sciences online?

“Inflicting fish puns on a captive audience solely for the halibut.

“In all seriousness, it is a real privilege to be able to reach such a diverse student population and to be able to share the awesomeness of fishes with people who would otherwise lack access to the brick-and-mortar version of my classes. I also enjoy the challenge of translating complex lab sessions into a virtual format.”

You played a major role in the development of the online 2-D fish photo database. Describe what this database is used for, and what your role was.

“Systematics of Fishes is inherently a fish identification course that requires substantial observation and comparison on the part of the students. We make this possible on the Corvallis campus by offering students access to thousands of specimens in a teaching collection that took more than seven decades to assemble. Students use the specimens to learn the diagnostic characteristics of various species, test their knowledge, and to help each other practice for the challenging practical exams. The online photo database is our attempt to virtualize and equalize access to that resource. There are already more than 1,000 images available, with more added each year. My role largely involves the design and revision of the database, the selection of specimens to include and the supervision of the dozen-or-so students who have painstakingly photographed the specimens and digitally cleaned the images that now appear in the database.” 

“It is a real privilege to be able to reach such a diverse student population and to be able to share the awesomeness of fishes with people who would otherwise lack access to the brick-and-mortar version of my classes.”

You are currently supervising efforts to increase the span of the fish database by 3-D scanning approximately 150 fish. Describe the benefits of having a 3-D version of the database.

“In our initial runs through the course, we discovered that some fishes that are easy to identify in person are harder in photographs, in part because the body shape isn’t obvious in photos. Is that fish skinny or round if you look at it head on? With a physical specimen, you can just pick it up and turn it around. With a photo, that’s impossible. To solve the problem, we are surface scanning a collection of specimens using a fancy scanner called an Artec Spider. It looks a lot like a steam iron, but when passed around a specimen, it creates a 3-D model that can be rotated freely. And voila! A virtual fish specimen that makes body shape instantly clear.”

Brian is supervising a team of instructors and Ecampus staff who are creating a 3-D fish database that is accessible online.

Brian is supervising a team of instructors and Ecampus staff who are creating a 3-D fish database that is accessible online.

Briefly describe any other different tools and techniques you use to make learning fisheries and wildlife sciences online a similar – or equally engaging – learning experience to an in-person class.

“One of my favorite discussion board techniques involves a quiz chain in which each student guesses the identification of a mystery fish that another student posted, and then posts a mystery fish photo of their own for other people in the class to figure out. This can often spark the same sort of discussion and interaction that students in the physical lab create when they quiz each other to help practice for the practical exams. I’m also fairly happy with the two virtual field trips in Systematics of Fishes. One was easy to create: It involves having the students visit an aquarium or pet shop near them to see live fishes. The other one took a lot more work, but uses photos, videos and field notes from a real collection expedition to give students some of the sense of actually being present to help find and identify fishes in the wild.”

How can earning an undergraduate degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences help students in their futures?

“A degree in fisheries and wildlife helps a student become the steward of their own future at the same time as they prepare to be the stewards of life on Planet Earth in the future that we all will share together. Our graduates find jobs as governmental scientists, academics, science communicators, consultants, teachers, employees of non-governmental organizations, aquarists and zookeepers, and a host of other fields.”

How do you build a genuine connection with students who, in many cases, you’ll never meet in person? 

“Salmon chanted evening while I was smoking a sea gar on my back porth, I realized that injecting humor (particularly fish puns!) into my lectures went a long way to humanizing the learning process and letting my personality shine through, even in recorded format. It is harder for students to carp about small flaws in the courses when they are laughing with me! I also maintain a very visible and active presence on social media, and try to respond to all inquiries there.”

“I find that I’ve become something of an ambassador for online education among my peer instructors, particularly those at other institutions. Most other ichthyology professors initially assume that it is impossible to teach these classes without access to physical specimens, at least until I show them what we are accomplishing.”

How have you evolved as an educator since you began teaching classes online with Ecampus?

“I find that I’ve become something of an ambassador for online education among my peer instructors, particularly those at other institutions. Most other ichthyology professors initially assume that it is impossible to teach these classes without access to physical specimens, at least until I show them what we are accomplishing.”

Briefly describe any current research projects you’re working on.

“Research projects happening in the lab right now include studies on the phylogenetics of headstanding fishes in South America, spine evolution of sculpins here in Oregon, and the potential impacts of dam construction on the fish biodiversity of the central African country of Gabon. You can read about that latter project in this great article on The Nature Conservancy’s website.

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this field of study and/or your research?

“Fishes are endlessly diverse and incredibly awesome. Not a week goes by that the world’s ichthyologists don’t discover new species or new biological capacities in known species. I will never be bored in this job.”

 What advice would you like to give to students?

“Think and train broadly. Though my main field of study is ichthyology, my work draws – at least weekly – from skills in writing, statistics, genetics, ecology and evolutionary biology, graphic design and multiple foreign languages. I also spend a great deal of time networking and solving problems in small groups. Don’t neglect these other aspects of your education, as they will open doors for you.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“I am a serious aficionado and amateur performer of early music (that composed prior to 1650 or so) and play a variety of historical instruments, including harp, medieval lyre, various woodwinds and drums. I write and sing songs from time to time. I’m also an avid hiker, board gamer (mostly Euro-style games like the famous Settlers of Catan) and chef, and love to spend long days in the kitchen preparing classic French recipes when I have the time.”

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