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Katie Hinde Championing the Fun Side of Science Through Virtual Animal Games, Thunderdome Style

Katie Hinde
Katie Hinde.

What might happen in a throw-down between an Australian feral camel and the demodex skin mites that live in human eyelash follicles? In this virtual battle, which was one of many waged in March Mammal Madness, a Twitter science tournament created by AAAS Member and evolutionary biologist Katie Hinde, Ph.D., here’s how the match played out: The demodex mite was on the eyelash of a camel jockey who was racing alongside the wild camel on an ATV, trying to corral the animal to capture it and train it to race and jump. The jockey’s goggle snapped off and the camel spit in her face, and some of the woody bark in the cud got in her eye; as she wiped it out, that splinter got into her hair follicle and impaled the microscopic parasite. Winner: the camel.

The champion in this battle, as with the others in the March Mammal Madness tournament, was determined by a random number generator; Hinde then wrote the narrative for how it went down. For the people following along, which included scores of students, teachers, scientists, and other enthusiastic fans, the outcome was exciting, fun, unexpected, and eminently educational.

Modeled after the NCAA College Basketball March Madness Championship Tournament (though there’s no affiliation), Hinde’s March Mammal Madness is an annual tournament of simulated combat among creatures great and small and includes both mammals and non-mammals, despite the catchy moniker. Just like the basketball version, participants of March Mammal Madness fill out their brackets with their choices for the winners for each bout and scoring happens at the end of the tournament. Participants can drop in at any time, though Hinde notes that it’s more fun to start at the beginning.

Deeply researched and science-based, the competitions are based on how a species may function in a battle environment, with factors like temperament, weaponry, body mass, fight style, and running speed taken into consideration in calculating outcomes of the matches. Other information embedded in the descriptions about the fights include facts about how natural selection has shaped adaptations, inter-species interactions, and the role of conservation management of endangered species.

Hinde was inspired to create March Mammal Madness in 2013 after she saw an article online that prompted readers to rank animals based on cuteness to declare a champion. Thinking that concept could be elevated to something more functional and fun, Hinde based her tournament on empirical science. She used a probabilistic model to determine an outcome and used engaging narrative to describe how the battle played out. It was an instant hit, and soon, scientists, including biologists, were laughing and having fun, guessing and competing to speculate which species would win in the 50-some battles in each tournament, says Hinde.

Today, as many as 35 people—including graphic designers, artists, fellow scientists, and students—are involved in making the tournament happen, says Hinde.

The response has grown even more enthusiastic and impactful. In 2019, as many as 3,172 teachers participated in March Mammal Madness with their 245,483 learners. And according to preliminary data from 2020, says Hinde, over 4,500 educators used it with about 300,000 learners.

This tournament, says Hinde, has hit a trifecta: It’s a shared social experience, it’s done by experts (PhD holders or candidates) and is a reliable scientific source, and they use compelling narrative. “Those three things hit aspects of human psychology that make people excited and motivated to learn,” says Hinde. And, perhaps most important, says Hinde, the game democratizes the classroom because everyone’s having fun guessing; the teachers don’t know the answers either so they’re equalized with the students. Teachers have reported that they’ve never seen students get so excited about learning than they have with this tournament, says Hinde.

Hinde isn’t just a biology and basketball enthusiast; she is an associate professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University and a leading expert in breastmilk. Hinde’s interest in lactation began as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

“I fell in love with biological anthropology,” says Hinde.

Katie Hinde
Katie Hinde. Image credit: Ian Gilby.

As a student, Hinde began looking at the public health literature for research on humans and found that while there was a lot on topics like understanding how famine, illness, or psychosomatic stress might affect pregnancy and outcomes, but there wasn’t much on the next stage: lactation. “You make it through the pregnancy; what happens next?” says Hinde.

In her research, Hinde has shown that milk doesn't just provide the building blocks for infant development, but also affects infant behavior. Hinde has also done studies in rodents, monkeys, and agricultural species such as goats and cows that have shown that the mammary glands make more milk for daughters than for sons. (One theory has to do with the fact that estrogen passes into maternal circulation during pregnancy, affecting milk production.) Hinde and her fellow researchers are now working on a paper to substantiate these findings in humans, says Hinde.

Hinde noted that research such as this could have practical implications. For instance, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to breastfeeding is perceived insufficient milk supply, says Hinde, and if clinicians know that moms may make less milk when they have sons, this can help them support moms and boost confidence.

Her research has also highlighted profound misunderstandings about breastmilk and breastfeeding in the U.S. One example: “There’s an idea that because breastfeeding is natural, it should be easy and people should be automatically good at it,” says Hinde. But, noted Hinde, it’s like sex—no one starts out good at it. Another myth is that new moms in less industrialized nations breastfeed more easily because they didn’t move away from it the way the U.S. did. But in a recent study on Himba women in Namibia, for whom breastfeeding is ubiquitous and completely normalized, Hinde and her colleagues found that the women all receive breastfeeding help and support from their own mothers when they experienced problems like pain or the baby not latching on properly—the exact same nursing problems that American women often encounter. “It’s not enough to normalize breastfeeding—we need to normalize breastfeeding support,” says Hinde.

Hinde hopes to change people’s thinking—and scientists’ perceptions—about breastmilk. “Still to this day, there is no integration between breastfeeding and milk composition and volume,” noted Hinde. “In Pubmed, there are more articles about tomatoes than human breast milk.” When they listed the human microbiome project, they didn’t include breastmilk, says Hinde.

And, notes Hinde, scientists can back policy that provide new moms with more support. New moms often return to work about 10 days after giving birth, which is when breastfeeding is being established, says Hinde.

“We need to have an awareness of how people are navigating their lived experiences, and making sure that we message about our science in a way that is supportive and moves the needle to improve people’s lives and well-being,” she says. “There is a wider awareness that this is important but we have a ways to go before this is prioritized.”

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Katherine Lee