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Marine biology researchers adapt Billy Joel hit to explain their work
The Barber Lab Quartet's debut video, "The Longest Time (Coral Triangle Edition)."

Marine biology researchers adapt Billy Joel hit to explain their work

In Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time,” a once-burned narrator sings about the woman who taught him how to love again. Somehow, a group of UCLA student researchers skillfully managed to turn these “love” lyrics inside out to reflect their own passion — for evolutionary biology and marine biodiversity.

Originally published in the UCLA Today.

Composed of three doctoral candidates in ecology and evolutionary biology and a new graduate with a B.S. in marine biology, the Barber Lab Quartet came together to share their research with the world using sweet a cappella harmonies and a clever video.

The idea for “The Longest Time (Coral Triangle Edition)” came to the women while they were doing field research in Bali, said Allison Fritts-Penniman, group member and video director.

“We'd always be singing along to the radio, or someone's iPod, or whatever was playing in the car for those long road trips to field sites or day trips to the Balinese countryside,” she explained.

Fritts-Penniman and fellow singers Andrea Chan, Abril Iñiguez and Sara Simmonds chose to riff off the the classic Billy Joel crooner because their work in evolutionary biology is heavily dependent on the long(est) times (Get it?).

In fact, Professor Paul Barber’s laboratory, where they met, is focused on studying the factors that contribute to the evolution of biodiversity in a region known as the Coral Triangle — the waters around Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines that contain the highest number of marine species in the world.

“We look at genetic divergence among species or populations, and try to determine what causes this divergence,” explained Fritts-Penniman. Her research is focused on whether the development of a new species of nudibranch (sea slug) was encouraged when the slugs moved to a new type of coral species. 

The women are all studying different subjects — Simmonds is examining host/parasite relationships in coral-eating snails while Chan, a research intern in the lab, is looking at single-celled algae living on isopods.  But they all wanted to make something special to commemorate their work and their mentor.

“Our goal at the time was to surprise Paul with the song,” said Fritts-Penniman. “We just thought the idea of the Barber Lab Quartet was a funny tradition to start.”

Simmonds FreeDive

Sara Simmonds looks for coral-eating snails in Bali, Indonesia. Credit: Herton Escobar.

The rigors of field work and the students’ return to campus last fall meant that completing the song was postponed until winter quarter.

That’s when Fritts-Penniman decided to take advantage of a fellowship-mandated video project to finally debut the Barber Lab Quartet.

They finished up the lyrics, divided up the parts, practiced, recorded the vocals and finally filmed the video in just three days.

Their work and passion paid off.  Barber, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said it was a total surprise.

“I was completely blown away,” he explained. “I had no idea that they were making it and had no idea that they were all such good vocalists.”

The video has become a hit with the online science community and garnered more than 52,000 YouTube views, a tweet from Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson and (most excitingly) an endorsement from the Piano Man himself. Tyson, who often appears as a media spokesman for science, sees the video as a way to market science to young girls.

But as wonderful as recognition from the stars can be, Fritts-Penniman explained that it was the feedback from teachers, students and fellow researchers that was the most meaningful.

“The goal became to educate the general public about the Coral Triangle in a fun and engaging way.  … It's been much more gratifying than I ever imagined,” she said.

Barber agrees that the video is a particularly effective method for outreach for an area of study that isn’t very well known. “One of the biggest issues with conservation in the Coral Triangle is that, unlike the Amazon, no one knows what it is or why it is important,” he said.

Tagged snails cling to their preferred coral host in Dumaguete, Philippines. Credit: Sara Simmonds.

He explained that about 30 percent of the Coral Triangle has disappeared, despite being both an ecologic and economic marvel (some 120 million people are employed in the area it spans). The Barber Lab Quartet’s video is a way to learn without feeling like that’s what you’re doing.

“With all of the environmental challenges we face, I'm not sure that people want to be lectured about conservation,” said Barber. “We need ways to reach people that are fun and engaging and make people want to know more.”

Currently three of the four Barber Lab Quartet members are once again in Indonesia conducting field research, which Fritts-Penniman has been documenting on her blog. When asked if the quartet would reunite, her response was enthusiastic.

“Of course! We're already working on lyrics for a couple of other songs.”

Center for Southeast Asian Studies