Imagining Visual Ecology: Dr. Sönke Johnsen

Photo of Dr. Sonke Johnsen with a plush squid wrapped around his shoulders

In this episode of BioGist, Tyler Edwards, a member of the class of 2022 majoring in Biology, interviews Dr. Sönke Johnsen, a professor in the Biology department at Duke University.

Listen to hear about how Dr. Johnsen spends his days studying light and vision, was a consultant for Finding Nemo, and lives on a horse farm.

To find out more about Dr. Johnsen, visit his lab website at , and follow him on Twitter @sonkelab.


Listen here


biology, animals, bioluminescence, duke university, biologist, math, light, art, vision


Tyler Edwards, Dr. Sönke Johnsen

Tyler Edwards  00:00

Hi there. I'm Tyler Edwards and welcome to BioGist where we bring you the gist of biology at Duke University. This time, I had the chance to speak with Dr. Sönke Johnsen

Dr. Sönke Johnsen  00:10

I'm Sönke. I'm a biology professor at Duke. I've been here about 20 years or so.

Tyler Edwards  00:16

And my first question is just what do you study?

Dr. Sönke Johnsen  00:19

Oh, yeah, I figured that one was coming! We study sort of the boundary between light and biology. And we do a little bit of work also on how animals navigate around, because that ends up connecting to the light and the environment, things of that sort.

Tyler Edwards  00:34

When people think about, I don't know, Finding Nemo, or other or Planet Earth or anything, where we're seeing images of the deep ocean, one of the most like, vivid parts of that is all the different colors or lack of colors, all the ways that like animals down there bioluminesce. Is bioluminescence, something that you study as well?

Dr. Sönke Johnsen  00:55

Yeah, so we studied bioluminescence, you know, how, how they make the light, what they do with the light, how, you know, the light can be seen? Yeah, funny you mentioned Finding Nemo, I was actually a consultant for that on bioluminescence and on colors, and on the deep-sea fish and all that kind of stuff. Years ago, they invited me out and basically asked me a gazillion questions and then sent me home.

Tyler Edwards  01:18

That is so cool!

Dr. Sönke Johnsen  01:21

 It was a lot of fun, I gotta say, I really enjoyed it. We also just use some of what we do for the art world. So we take a lot of pictures of deep sea animals, and then we give them to different art exhibitions and photography exhibitions around the world, or for conservation, we try to incorporate a lot of art. And so like all of our different presentations, we've collaborated with artists to make different videos and things of that sort. So yeah, I mean, I guess if I were to describe myself, it's almost more like I'm an artist doing biology than the other way around. We're interested in all these different sort of optical puzzles. And what draws us in a lot of times, it's because they're beautiful, you know, an animal can do this amazing thing with its skin. And it's just so beautiful. And like, how does it do it? And what does it do with it? And how do other animals see it?

Tyler Edwards  02:04

That is so awesome. I guess my next question is more about the science. And so I know for me, like I'm Emily Bernhardt's lab, and I do some ecology work. And my favorite thing is just but I get to put on waders, and... [laughs]. And out of the methods that you just mentioned is do like one where you're like, this is like my favorite thing that I get to do because I'm a scientist.

Dr. Sönke Johnsen  02:28

Yeah, there's, there's probably kind of two one is exactly what you're talking about, you know, going out in the field. I love to go to sea. I mean, there's such a sense of camaraderie, there's such a sense of adventure, you know, you never know what you're going to find. I mean, half of the work is just exploration, because so few people are out there. And it's it's just crazy what you see. The other thing, weirdly enough, which seems like the exact opposite, is I love to do math. I'm like a total math nerd. I mean, it's funny, like, I'll be laying there like in bed in the morning, like on a Saturday morning, and then all of a sudden, I just have to get up and do some math. And my wife's like, oh, my god, you're doing math, aren't you? And it's like, so nerdy. But yeah, I love those two things together, just because I don't know sometimes for me, they meet in the middle.

Tyler Edwards  03:08

My last question for you is, I'm curious about what you do either to relax outside of work, or just things that you do outside of being a professor in doing this wonderful, awesome research that you really enjoy.

Dr. Sönke Johnsen  03:21

So I live on a farm, and an awful lot of time on a tractor when I'm not working [laughs]. I love tractors, they're just really cool. My wife's been talking about boarding horses. And then I looked into llamas, and then we looked into sheep, and on a whole bunch of different, we're not really sure yet.

Tyler Edwards  03:38

So you mentioned that one of the things that drives you to do your work is just beauty and an appreciation of how beautiful all of these animals are. I'm curious about other reasons why you landed in marine biology and looking at imaging and thinking about vision as your field of study. And why is it something that you have dedicated, like your life, or at least this part of your life to?

Dr. Sönke Johnsen  04:02

Yeah, so those are actually two, funny enough, really different questions. So I got into biology completely randomly. My friend and I made a bet that we would each go to grad school because we were working as carpenters and kindergarten teachers at that time. And we decided we needed more education and we wanted to try something new. And we each like picked a letter out of the alphabet, we had to go to grad school and that subject. The reason it worked, and you know, the reason I stuck with it, it's a bunch of things. One is, biology is just it's sort of like an amazing family story, you know, except the end of the family is just sort of endless and related and all these different ways. But I mean, to be really honest, I mean, what drives me is that I love the students. I mean, I love the people in the lab, I love the undergrads, I love that sense of community, I love that sense of adventure, I love just being connected to the biological world. You know, it's like they say like, some jobs aren't really a job. They're just who you are, you know, becomes almost you know, like a religious thing it just becomes this is what matters to me as a person, and the biological world is that for me.

Tyler Edwards  05:07

Thanks for joining us for BioGist. Also, thank you to the Duke University biology department for supporting this podcast and Poddington Bear for the music. See you next time.