March 9, 2005

Coleman’s community service helps humans, fish communities

 

Which came first, the cichlid or the egg? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, Ronald Coleman is busy studying the eggs of the cichlid fishes to help determine why various species produce different size eggs.

Photo of: Ronald Coleman
Photo of: Ronald Coleman

Coleman, a professor of Biological Sciences, was awarded the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics most recent Outstanding Community Service Award for his research involving cichlid eggs. The award recognizes service by faculty members from each of the colleges who have made outstanding professional contributions to enhance the public good in the past five years.

Coleman began his research on cichlid eggs in the mid-1990s while a post-doctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, but quickly realized that breeding fish and collecting their eggs was a time-consuming and expensive endeavor to undertake on his own. So he started a website that offered fish hobbyists an opportunity to assist with his research by sending Coleman samples of eggs.

People raise cichlids and spawn them, and then mail the eggs to Coleman in a small vial of rubbing alcohol. Coleman then measures the eggs and records the data, which he posts online along with the names of the people who have contributed eggs. Over the years, Coleman has built an enormous database and has been able to gather data more than 250 species with help from people from all over the world.

“The data we are gathering no one has come close to,” Coleman said. “It allows people that like fish but aren’t scientists to contribute to science. It is good for them and great for me.”

Coleman says he was inspired to involve the public with his research after he attended several conventions and noticed a divide between scientists and fish hobbyists. Coleman was bothered that many people felt as though science was out of their reach simply because they weren’t scientists.

“I try to take science out to the public so that they see that it is all around them and that they can do something important,” Coleman said. “I want everyone to feel that if they have an interest, they can contribute in a meaningful way.”

The website, cichlidresearch.com, has become a beacon for cichlid enthusiasts and beginners alike. Type in the word “cichlid” in a Google web search, and Coleman’s website is the first site listed. The information listed on the website varies from how to build an inexpensive fish tank to the anatomy of cichlids.

Coleman says one of his main points of pride is the “Ask a Question” e-mail link on the website. He will answer any question related to cichlids, and estimates that he receives around 10 questions a day and has answered approximately 10,000 questions since the website has been in operation.

Coleman says some of his favorite questions are from kids who are doing papers or projects about cichlids because it gives him the opportunity to get the kids excited about fish, and then hopefully “they will become trapped for life.”

In addition to operating the website, Coleman speaks to various organizations and clubs four to five times a year about cichlids and has had his work published in several national journals. Coleman also travels once a year to a tropical locale to study the cichlids in their natural habitat. His most recent trip was for three weeks over the winter break to Costa Rica with six students.

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