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Creatively Advocating for STEM Funding with an Octopus

Posted on Monday, January 9, 2023

Octopuses are unusual creatures that can help us learn more about brains in general. They can also help advocate for federal funding of research. ARCS Scholar alum Mea Songo-Casey, who researches the octopus’ visual system, was honored as the winner of the Fund It Forward Student Video Challenge by The Science Coalition (TSC).

Students currently enrolled at TSC member institutions were asked to create a video explaining their connection to fundamental research and why Congress should continue to invest in the partnership between federal research agencies and their university counterparts. Songco-Casey’s video explains why understanding the octopus visual system matters and the role that federal funding plays in supporting her research as she completes her PhD at the University of Oregon.

“STEM funding is critical for both pushing projects forward and advancing the careers of trainees,” she says.

A video of a small octopus engaging in prey capture first fascinated Songo-Casey at UO’s department of biology. “Octopuses are very different from humans and other animals,” she explains. “However, both octopuses and humans developed camera-type eyes, which focus light through a lens, like a camera. Given that this is a neat example of convergent evolution, it is interesting to think about what other similarities or differences exist between octopus and human brains,” Songo-Casey says.

“Unraveling the octopus’ brain may help us understand fundamental building blocks of brains in general,” she explains. If you think the mantle –the larger part of the octopus – is the head and contains the brain, think again. “The octopus’ brain is actually donut-shaped and located right behind the octopus’ eyes,” Songo-Casey says.

The ARCS Oregon chapter included Songo-Casey in a video for their luncheon and she said the filming experience inspired her to try for the video competition. The alum says her long-term goals “include teaching, education, and mentoring – whether it be in an academic or industry setting.”

The Science Coalition is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of more than 50 of the nation's leading public and private research universities. It is dedicated to sustaining the federal government's investment in fundamental scientific research to stimulate the economy, spur innovation and drive American competitiveness. Here are the Members of the Coalition.

“When we have funding in STEM, we have opportunities to focus on research as well as free our minds to think more creatively about the problems at hand and future projects,” Songco-Casey says.

Watch her video submission here.