4-True story: Using TikTok for (shark) science good

Jaida Elcock says she thrives in chaos. And we’re inclined to believe her. From her ridiculously entertaining TikToks on animal facts, to her work with the non-profit Minorities in Shark Sciences (oh, did we mention she’s currently pursuing her Ph.D.), she seems to be managing that chaos pretty well. We talked with her about all of her endeavors, her inspiration from conservationist Jeff Corwin, and what (or who) she would like to see in science.

This episode was produced by Shane M Hanlon and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Karen Romano Young. Interview conducted by Ashely Hamer.


Shane Hanlon:       00:00           Hi Nanci.

Nanci Bompey:      00:01            Hi Shane.

Shane Hanlon:       00:03            Who is your favorite TV personality?

Nanci Bompey:      00:06            What is a TV personality?

Shane Hanlon:       00:08            Well, okay. That’s a great question. I thought about a better way to phrase this. Essentially, TV shows that have a host. Like a reality show or a baking show or something. Do you watch any of that stuff?

Nanci Bompey:      00:21             Oh! Yeah, yeah. I don’t really, but reality shows… Oh! I have one. I have one. I have one. I have one. I have one. We got really into, during the pandemic, Grand Designs, which is this British TV show where they build these homes.

Shane Hanlon:       00:35            Oh my gosh.

Nanci Bompey:      00:36            No, it’s amazing.

Shane Hanlon:       00:37            Is it on PBS?

Nanci Bompey:      00:39            No, no. It’s only on British TV. You can only get it randomly… Anyway, it’s been on for like 20 something years. The guy who hosts it… I love him. Kevin McCloud. He’s great. He wears lots of blue Patagonia outfits and I love it.

Shane Hanlon:       00:53            Oh. It sounds like my kind of guy.

Nanci Bompey:      00:54            He does. He dresses quite like you.

Shane Hanlon:       00:56            What’s it called?

Nanci Bompey:      00:56            Grand Designs. You would actually really love it. People build their dream homes and you get to see all of… Like, in the UK, all these amazing places. They’re really modern, but cool. He’s an architect and host and he’s great.

Shane Hanlon:       01:09            So it wouldn’t just make me feel bad about myself as we sit in my tiny basement dungeon and record this?

Nanci Bompey:      01:15             Or you’d be like, oh my God, I could not imagine undertaking this. It’s a lot. You know what I mean? They’re always… It’s stressful.

Shane Hanlon:       01:21             All right. All right. I’ll take that. I’ll take that advice and look into it.

Shane Hanlon:       01:29             Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Nanci Bompey:      01:39             And I’m Nanci Bompey.

Shane Hanlon:       01:40            And this is Third Pod From the Sun.

Shane Hanlon:       01:44             Okay, so I asked you about TV personalities because I was initially inspired by our guest today talking about her love of Jeff Corwin. Do you know who Jeff Corwin is? Does that name ring a bell to you?

Nanci Bompey:      01:55             No. I don’t know.

Shane Hanlon:       01:57             I wish people could see the pained expression on your face.

Nanci Bompey:      01:59             I was going through my brain.

Shane Hanlon:       02:02            So, he’s of the Steve Irwin ilk. Back… I don’t know now. Late ’90s, early 2000s. Had a show on Animal Planet. One of those types of guys. All sorts of like nature-y, planet, everything. And so the prompt, why I asked you about TV personalities, I was like, this will be a great tie in to this episode. But beyond him, I realized that our guest today herself is a bit of a personality. She uses TikTok to communicate animal facts among other things as well as being a researcher and co-founder of a science nonprofit. Our interviewer was Ashley Hamer.

Jaida Elcock:          02:40            My name is Jaida Elcock. I am currently a first year PhD student at the MIT Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Joint Program. Such a mouthful, so everyone just calls it the MIT-WHOI-JP. I’m studying biological oceanography, specifically sharks. I’m interested in their movement ecology, habitat use. How are they using their immediate… If you ever see a stranger on the street and you’re just like, what do they do with their life? How do they exist in the world? I have these same questions about sharks. So I’m like, how do you get the nutrition that you need to do these crazy long migrations and stuff like that? So just kind of curious about their lives. How they exist in the world. I’m also, as you kind of talked about, a science communicator on TikTok and Twitter and Instagram, and I am a co-founder and the director of public relations for Minorities in Shark Sciences, a.k.a., MISS.

Ashley Hamer:       03:28            Yeah, that is a lot going on. I was going to ask how you fit in the TikToks and the organization. I mean, is there a trick to it or do you just do it when you can?

Jaida Elcock:          03:38            I thrive in chaos, so that’s my answer for that. I mean, I do it when I can. I try to be consistent with when I’m uploading my scripted animal fact TikTok videos. I haven’t done one yet. This week’s been wild, so I might just do it this weekend, but sometimes you just kind of like push it off a day or two or, “Hey, guys, I’m really busy. I’m not going to do one this week. You’ll get one next week.” I mean, you just kind of do it. I don’t know. I’ve always been a science kid. I was the kid that was like, oh, I want to watch Bill Nye all of the time and learn from it. Not just like when we were in class. Like, oh, Bill Nye is on the TV. No, like, I want go home and like, can we get Bill Nye somehow on the TV? Like, this is what I want.

Jaida Elcock:          04:18             And so I always wanted to go into science and I knew that I would work with animals in some way. Every kid wants to be a vet when they’re little, so that was like my first thought. But then the more I learned about the ocean and sharks… Despite the fact that I was afraid of sharks as a kid, the more I learned about them, I was like, you know, these are really misunderstood animals and they’re not just these murdering machines, so why don’t I learn more about them? And then I got to the point where I was asking questions that science didn’t have the answers to yet and I was like, so I guess this is how people get into research because I want to know the answers and no one else knows them yet so I guess I’ll just figure them out. And so that kind of just pushed me to keep going. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and now here I am in my PhD.

Ashley Hamer:       05:01            Oh, that’s awesome. Did you have a certain person or a certain thing that really inspired you to get into science?

Jaida Elcock:          05:08            Jeff Corwin. I don’t know if people… I feel like people don’t know him as well as they knew Steve Irwin and stuff like that. But Jeff Corwin had a show like on, I think, Animal Planet or something when I was really little and I watched him all the time. And then I moved to Arizona and then I found out that his favorite place on earth that he said at some point was the Sonoran Desert or something like that and I was like, oh my gosh, I live so close to there. I was obsessed with his way of existing and going through and asking all these questions and just going in the natural world and finding answers and stuff like that. I met him once when I was eight or nine and I will literally never forget that day. I bought a stuffed animal that day when I went to that convention and I met him in person and I still have it. It’s one of my most prized possessions. I’m like, this symbolizes the day that I met my hero and he told me that I was brave and I was like, “I’m going to be a scientist.” And I was like… I don’t know. I just think Jeff Corwin’s the coolest person. I really want him to follow me on Twitter, but we can make that happen someday.

Ashley Hamer:       06:17             Is there anyone that you would’ve liked to have seen for inspiration that you didn’t see?

Jaida Elcock:          06:22            Honestly, literally, any woman of color. I don’t think that I really saw much of that growing up. Again, I saw Jeff Corwin. He’s amazing, but he’s a White man. And Steve Irwin, who was amazing, but he’s a White man. I am not White and I’m not a man. And so just growing up not being able to see myself represented in those roles was… I don’t want to say discouraging for me because I’m just stubborn enough to just be like, screw it, I’m going to do it anyway. I don’t care what anyone else has to say. But I know for a lot of other kids, it’s harder for them to feel welcome in a space where they don’t see themselves represented. So I would’ve really liked to see that growing up not just for myself, but for all the other kids like me and I’m glad that we’re starting to see some of that representation now.

Ashley Hamer:       07:07            What about any hurdles that you have overcome to be here right now? I mean, are there challenges that you’ve overcome?

Jaida Elcock:          07:14             Imposter syndrome is a big one. And I know that everyone has it. No matter what field you’re in, you always have this thought of what if I’m not good enough or whatever it is. You’re doing literally your best and that’s what you can do. People are supporting you. Your parents are proud of you. You just have to keep… You have to be your own hype man, really, and find other people that will be your hype man too. Because I’ve got friends that are like, “Girl, why are you upset right now? You are literally doing amazing.”

Jaida Elcock:          07:45            I guess a couple other hurdles is a little bit of sexism and racism, which I’m assuming you’re going to encounter in any field ever. I’ve gotten comments like, “Oh, well you’re a woman. You’re not strong enough to handle a shark.” And I was like, bold of you to comment this on a picture of me literally handling a shark. I don’t understand. Like, what do you mean? And then people would be like, “Oh, you want to work in marine science, LOL, but black people can’t swim.” And I’m like, okay, well, black people can do whatever the hell they want to do and you literally just saw me in the water, so you can go literally anywhere else with your terrible attitude and talk to someone else about it because I don’t want to hear it. I don’t have time for your negativity. So that part is just like… I don’t even pay attention to it. I just completely block them out. I’m like, you can say what you want to say, but you sound dumb. I’m just going to keep doing what I need to do because I have more important things to think about than you being petty on the internet.

Ashley Hamer:       08:44            Are there any super cool experiences that you’ve had out in the field?

Jaida Elcock:          08:48            Yes, absolutely. When I was out in the canyons tagging whale sharks, you can’t obviously pull them onto the boat because half the time they’re bigger than the boat because they’re the largest fish on the entire planet. So what you have to do is you have to get in the water with them or tag them somehow from the side of the boat. The way we went about it is we got in the water with them and we put a tag on them by hand. So I got to put a tag on one of these animals and it was the coolest thing ever. I was in the water with this likely 35-foot shark that is a filter feeder and I know is harmless and wants nothing to do with me and is simply existing in its space and is like, that’s a speck over there. And I’m sitting here like this is the largest animal I will likely ever see in my entire life and it’s gorgeous. All these spot patterns are so pretty. Their spot patterns are unique for each individual. As unique as a human fingerprint. So I was like, I could take a picture of this and then, in 10 years, if someone takes a picture of this animal again, I can just tell you what animal that is. I have footage of it. That’s the coolest thing ever.

Jaida Elcock:          09:53            To just be existing in the water with this gigantic shark that I never thought that I would ever encounter in my entire life because I grew up in the desert, I was like, I feel so at peace and connected with nature. Because I feel like we as people feel so disconnected from nature so often because we’re online all the time and we never go outside. I feel like an old person that’s like, “Kids never play outside these days,” but it’s true. We never go outside. We are so connected to our devices and whatnot. It was just so nice to be like out in the water. I didn’t have service for three days. All I could do was just look out and see all the life around me. I got to be in the water, like under the water, with this shark and just exist in the same space as it. I was like, this thing is magnificent and this is the best experience of my entire life. So yeah. Long-winded answer, but that was probably my favorite field work story of all time. And my advisor was there with me to just be like, “How cool is this? Isn’t this awesome. I get to see your face as you see a whale shark for the first time.” And I was like… It was just so cool. It was the best thing ever.

Ashley Hamer:       11:11               Do you have anything that is non-science related that’s a hobby?

Jaida Elcock:          11:16              Yeah. I’m a fiend for karaoke. Love it so much. That’s always a fun time. It’s been a while since I’ve done it because of the pandemic, of course, but I do a lot of car concerts anytime I drive anywhere.

Ashley Hamer:       11:29              What’s your number one karaoke song?

Jaida Elcock:          11:33             Bad Romance by Lady Gaga. That’s a good one. Oh, I love that song so much. Yeah. Lady Gaga. I don’t really listen to country music ever, but Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood goes so hard. I’m like, you know what? I will destroy this song in a karaoke bar. I will go off on this song. So, yeah.

Ashley Hamer:       11:52              What words of advice do you have for people who are wanting to get into the sciences and maybe follow in your footsteps?

Jaida Elcock:          11:58             Be confident. I know that’s so much easier said than done. I talked a little bit earlier about like being your own hype man and finding a good support system and that’s super, super important. Science needs everyone to succeed. We need a variety of people and thoughts and ways of life and ways of thinking about things. We need everyone to be successful. So if anyone’s trying to tell you don’t belong in science for whatever reason, tell them that’s BS. That’s wrong. Everyone deserves to be in science because science affects everybody. The natural world, the things that we learn about, is going to affect everyone in some way, whether it be big or small. So everyone should be able to have a say in science. Everyone should be able to conduct science if they want to. Everyone belongs in this field. So be confident, be fantastic, be you, and get out there and kill it. I’m excited for you. You got this.

Shane Hanlon:       13:14             I need Jaida to be my hype person. I think I just need a hype person.

Nanci Bompey:      13:19             Why do you need a hype person?

Shane Hanlon:       13:21              Do you not need a hype person?

Nanci Bompey:      13:22             No. I prefer low profile.

Shane Hanlon:       13:23             No, no, no. I’m thinking… Not necessarily as a marketer. Like as a person to hype you up to do something.

Nanci Bompey:      13:30             Oh, like, you could do this! Let’s go!

Shane Hanlon:       13:30             To get through your day. I feel like I’m your hype person with this podcast. I’m like, Nanci, come over. We’ll record for the podcast. It’ll be great.

Nanci Bompey:      13:38             And you’ll buy me food. Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Shane Hanlon:       13:42             You know that’s what I’m here for. Well, I’m happy you can be here, Nanci. Even though it’s unlikely that Jaida will be able to be our on-call high person, I want to thank her for chatting with us

Nanci Bompey:      13:54             And special thanks to Ashley Hamer for conducting the interview, NASA for sponsoring this series, and to Karen Romano Young for her illustration of Jaida.

Shane Hanlon:       14:02             This episode was produced by me with audio engineering from Collin Warren.

Nanci Bompey:      14:07             We would love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review this podcast and you can always find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane Hanlon:       14:16             Thanks all and we’ll see you next week.

Shane Hanlon:       14:23             This is my favorite part. Hello, Nanci. All right.


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