Kevin Thiessen is Reeling in the Zebrafish Community: 2023 SDB Trainee Science Communication Award


by Katherine Inskeep

The recipient of the 2023 Society for Developmental Biology Trainee Science Communication Award is Kevin Thiessen. Thiessen is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol, UK in the lab of Beck Richardson, where he uses the zebrafish model to study scarring and wound healing. He earned his Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from Creighton University School of Medicine in 2019. He is being recognized by the Society for his work as the creator of @ZebrafishRock, a thriving Twitter community of Zebrafish researchers. Thiessen joined me for an interview about @ZebrafishRock, his scientific philosophy, mental health as a grad student, and more. 

Thiessen’s passion for science communication began as an undergraduate and then graduate student at Creighton University. Community service was emphasized as a core value of the university. He participated in outreach events and science camps at local grade schools, leading hands-on experiments on topics such as Mendelian inheritance of melanocytes using zebrafish. After several years studying zebrafish in graduate school, he said, he “had all these fun facts lined up and no outlet to share them other than local outreach.”

In 2016, Thiessen started the @ZebrafishRock account on Twitter. What began as a core community of zebrafish researchers now encompasses PIs and group leaders, graduate and undergraduate students, support staff and technicians, and industry professionals. Thiessen notes members from groups as wide-ranging as the Zebrafish Husbandry Association, Zebrafish Disease Models Society, International Zebrafish Society, International Regenerative Biology Society, and of course the Society for Developmental Biology. “It’s kind of this ever-encompassing group of people that just like fish,” he said.

Another central issue that he wanted to address with his scientific communication work was that most of the zebrafish research Thiessen saw widely publicized was from well-established, primarily white male researchers.

“PIs and group leaders don’t see what the students are doing,” he said. “I try to promote others who are from more diverse groups. I feel that the zebrafish community is getting much, much more diverse, and my coverage should reflect that.”

Post from the #ZFishFollowFriday series on @ZebrafishRock featuring Dr. Prahatha Venkatraman, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.Thiessen accomplishes this through the hashtag series #ZFishFollowFriday, choosing a junior career researcher to profile each week.

Beginning in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made it very difficult for young scientists to network in the absence of in-person scientific conferences. Thiessen saw an opportunity to expand his “core community” of zebrafish biologists to help bridge this gap.

“I see ZebrafishRock as a community resource, and when I say community, I mean people who are of shared interest that when coming together, they each have a seat at the table. And they all have opportunities to learn, to connect, to develop. That’s kind of where my aspirations are right now,” Thiessen explained. He thanked the people who are now helping manage the thriving account, including Amber Chiodini, Madeline Ryan, and Joaquín Navajas-Acedo.

@ZebrafishRock has become a central resource for experimental techniques, new research publications, job postings, and more. Thiessen considers this as the positive impact of social media. “For networking, there’s no better way to learn and meet new people,” he said.

The Society for Developmental Biology has played a role in Thiessen’s scientific communication work from the beginning. He received an SDB travel award in 2018 to attend the International Zebrafish Society meeting in Madison, WI. There, he had the opportunity to meet people from the @ZebrafishRock group, still in its early stages, in person. He also met some “scientific heroes” whose work and social media accounts he had found through the Society’s Twitter. This account was part of the inspiration for his own model.

Thiessen said, “They [SDB] really promote this sense of shared community, and I try to mimic that same feeling with the fish community.” He spoke particularly about the way that the Society showcases trainees’ research and makes a strong effort to build community across model organisms. Receiving this award from SDB, besides providing him with personal validation, to him represents “recognition by peers to say that I’m doing something meaningful. It’s really a huge boost in motivation to continue what I’m doing, and to continue to further support the community.”

Before we concluded, I asked Thiessen what his advice would be to young developmental biologists. His key theme can be summarized as: broaden your horizons. Thiessen suggested staying widely interested in science outside of a “razor-focused” research topic.  “To keep that fire going [for your own research], you really need that excitement to push you forward,” he replied.

Speaking on mental health for students, he said, “Find like-minded people who are in your shoes… people in a similar stage as you, it’s nice to get that cohort feeling of ‘everyone’s in this together’… whether that be colleagues at your university or people that you meet through social media, really having an outlet to talk freely and share [your] experiences.”

If you’re looking for such an outlet, or for a new topic to read obsessively about, check out the @ZebrafishRock Twitter account. Thiessen will present his SDB Trainee Science Communication Award lecture at the SDB 82nd Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Last Updated 06/20/2023