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Makin’ Waves

UF biology alumnus to speak at TED in Tanzania.

Marine biologist and UF Biology alumnus Mike Gil PhD’15 has been named a TED Fellow and is one of 21 international experts who will attend and speak at this year’s TEDGlobal, TED’s annual conference, which will take place in Arusha, Tanzania in August. “I’m truly honored by the distinction,” says Gil.

Gil shares his research stories on his vlog for his nonprofit, through which he endeavors to debunk myths and inspire interest in marine biology among the world community. The vlog includes funny moments such as fish attempting to eat his camera, scenes of adventure such as underwater footage of whales and turtles, and Gil’s direct-to-camera discussions of science careers, the nature of scientific inquiry, and how to become a marine biology. Through these videos, Gil reflects upon his own journey as a scientist while presenting science as a source of wonder and understanding.

“Humans affect ecosystems that we, as a society, have come to rely heavily upon,” he says. “I think this is among the most pressing research topics of our time.” His major research projects have revolved around the effects of human activity, especially pollution, on marine environments. At the University of Florida, his dissertation project examined nutrient pollution in coral reefs caused by nitrogen-loaded industrial and agricultural runoff. Much like when you don’t clean your fish tank, nutrient pollution can lead to algae blooms that choke coral reefs.

Gil’s recent cover story of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also touched on the algae problem. In the paper, he explains how fish eat socially and, by eating algae, help protect coral reefs. However, overfishing decimates fish populations and makes this social eating — and thus overall eating — less likely and algae takeovers more likely.

In 2012, Gil set sail on the SSV Robert C. Seamans on a research cruise with the Sea Education Association. Their itinerary took Gil through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, one of several such vortices in the world’s oceans that draws oceanic debris — especially plastics — into clumps that provide refuge for various species. Gil counted organisms living among the debris he pulled aboard and studied barnacle-made structures that constituted microbiomes on the plastic debris. His findings were published in Scientific Reports on Jan. 27, 2016. In a collaborative project with fellow UF Biology graduate Joseph Pfaller PhD’16, to whom Gil provided data about the mating pairs of oceanic crabs (Planes minutus) that he found on the debris, they offered evidence for a new spatial-behavioral model of symbiosis.

Gil says that his primary drive as a biologist is to study ecosystem resilience, i.e. the ability of an ecosystem to adapt to external stressors, especially anthropogenic factors, to help inform conservation efforts for future generations’ well-being. “To make the world aware of these answers will determine the future of our species (including our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on),” he says. “Fortunately, there is a simple, objective process that we can use to answer these questions, and it is called science.”

In addition to being a science educator and communicator, Gil is currently a National Science Foundation (USA) Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of California, Davis.

TED has taken note of his double-edged approach to science and saving the world, stating: “We choose Fellows based on remarkable achievement, their strength of character and on their innovative approach to solving the world’s tough problems.”

“Ever wonder if true adventure still exists in this world?” asks’s tagline. Thanks to Mike Gil, we don’t have to.