An interview with Tiffany Sih

   2017, October 9
Posted by Veronica Radice

An interview with:
Tiffany Sih
James Cook University  (Australia)
Short bio:

Growing up along the sunny shores of California, my interest in fishes began at a young age, while accompanying my grandfather on fishing trips (because I was the only family member who didn't get seasick). After getting a Bachelor of Science at the University of Southern California, I tested my sea-legs working as a fishery observer in the Bering Sea and then as a naturalist in Maui. During these formative years I also became a dive instructor, boat captain, and even managed some closed-circuit rebreather training. I then began a Masters, followed by a PhD program at James Cook University, Australia, where I combined my research interests in fishes and fishing. I use Baited Remote Underwater Video Stations (BRUVS) and advanced otolith chemistry techniques to look at the distribution of deeper fishes.

Interview keywords
Study locations

Early Career Scientist: Tiffany Sih

‘Mee-so’ or ‘meh-so’ -photic?

Definitely ‘meh-so’-photic, but I have been told I pronounce things differently with my ‘cute’ mixed-up American-Australian accent.

Charismatic megafauna or cool critters?

I love being distracted by charismatic fishes (big or little); I am like a bobblehead doll when I am underwater ticking off fish as I see them.

What is your primary research interest, and how does it link with the mesophotic zone?

My research interests are deeper fish communities, identifying which are the key players, but also how those species may be affected by fishing. Since many of these deepwater fishes, like the snappers and groupers, are fished throughout the Indo-Pacific, it is important we start to draw similarities and differences from where they are distributed. I saw a key area where this information was perhaps overlooked, and that I could contribute some worthy information.

Describe the location of your main (or most interesting) study site and how it fits in with your research questions.

The central Great Barrier Reef shelf-break has been an interesting place to study. Myrmidon Reef is an amazing site to dive and deploy cameras. While quite a few studies use it as a study site, few studies have gone to any substantial depth, so for my research I really wanted to capture the entire depth range. As the most prominent reef feature for this part of the GBR, each ‘facet’ of the reef is pretty unique. Some slopes are teeming with life. I once dropped a camera into a huge school of dogtooth tuna – perhaps the largest caught on camera! A fun part of the research is the ‘mystery’ of what you will find on the next camera drop.

Tiffany Sih and Prof. Mike Kingsford deploy underwater video cameras to capture deep fish communities of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia (R/V James Kirby, James Cook University) (C) Hannah Epstein
Pentapodus aureofasciatus from BRUVS video (Central Great Barrier Reef shelf-break) (C) Tiffany Sih

What is your primary means of accessing mesophotic depths to conduct your research (e.g. ROV, SCUBA, rebreather, submersible) and what were the main challenges to overcome?

I love BRUVS! I use specially-designed camera housings to withstand the great pressure at depth. The location (being 100 km offshore) and local oceanography (both the topography and currents), have made it challenging, and I am not ruling out using ROVs, submersibles or rebreathers for future work, but BRUVS are a tried-and-tested method and versatile at great depths and a variety of habitats.

What do you remember from your very first exposure to coral reef or mesophotic fieldwork?

The surprising amount of color at great depths – using white lights with my cameras helped to bring out some of the subtle ‘sparkle’, but for a relatively light-limited environment, many of these fish have fancy facial markings or vibrant colors.

A diversity of fishes enter the BRUVS field-of-view (Central Great Barrier Reef shelf-break) (C) Tiffany Sih
Scientist selfie: dissecting an Ironjaw snapper (James Cook University) (C) Tiffany Sih

What new skill(s) have you learned during your research and what is one thing (skill, program, advice, etc.) that you wish you learned earlier in your science journey?

Patience and statistics. Learning R (statistical software) is a lot of trial-and-error, so finding your own answers requires you to have patience and ample persistence.

How do you keep current with an endless stream of research coming out (or any favorite science website or blogs that you follow)?

Twitter is fantastic. I first embraced it when I was a social media representative for the Australian Coral Reef Society. I think it is important to expose yourself to wider research community (i.e. science communication, terrestrial ecologists, academics, conferences you cannot attend) and propagate the ideas you find cool and interesting. Plus, if you use the Pomodoro method, it is a convenient way to spend your 5-minute breaks.

A frequent BRUVS visitor, Lethrinus rubrioperculatus changes colour patterns to show off for the camera (Central Great Barrier Reef shelf-break) (C) Tiffany Sih
Tiffany Sih and Fisho Ben collecting biological samples of deepwater snapper at ~250 m depths (100 kilometers offshore at “secret” fishing location, Central Great Barrier Reef shelf-break) (C) Rohan Brooker