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Focus on Broader Impacts: Dr. Katie Hinde, Arizona State University

It’s finally March. The competitors have been preparing for the upcoming battles not only all season, but for their entire lives. Every single thought and action has been in anticipation of this moment. Winning is everything, and nothing else matters. The stakes can’t be any higher- the players know the competition transcends pride and social status to possibly being a matter of life or death.

Yes, you read that correctly: winning can result from the death of your opponent. …Or, winning can result from your opponent succumbing to illness, being too full to fight, getting displaced from the environment, or simply from your opponent being a “lover” and not a “fighter.” Get your brackets ready, because it’s officially time for March Mammal Madness!

MMMLOGO

Credit: Cyn Rudzis

A web based broader impacts activity created by Dr. Katie Hinde of Arizona State University, Mammal March Madness is an annual, 3-week long simulated tournament-style competition between mammals (and sometimes other creatures). Each year, it pits 65 unique animals against each other in 1 on 1 battles until only one creature is remaining. Each beast belongs to one of four animal “divisions”: The Mighty Giants, The Chill (Cold Adapted) Mammals, Mascot Mammals, and Mammals of the Nouns (in 2016).

MMM 2016 bracket

This year’s bracket

Each animal is given a “seed”, or ranking from 1-16 within their individual division depending on various factors including (but not limited to) fight style, size, armor type, and temperament. A “1” indicates the highest ranked seed, while a “16” indicates the lowest ranked seed. A battle is then simulated for each round. The victor is decided by running a computer simulation that weighs the scientific attributes of each animal against each other, with the inclusion of chance to create “upsets” (when a lower seeded animal wins the fight) and an extra “home court advantage” for the higher ranked mammal. The home court advantage is taken away once there are only eight animals remaining, and the location of battle is then determined completely at random (ranging from forests to urban-type environments).

There are a total of 64 individual battles, including a wild card round and the championship round. Participants fill out an entire bracket with who they believe will win each battle, ending with one eventual champion, before the tournament begins (March 7th). They then compare their guesses to the actual results. Each battle is live-tweeted and the winner of the fight is announced in “real time” at the end of the narrative.

Charon Flying Fox

Original artwork by Charon Henning for the event.

The purpose of Mammal March Madness (besides providing eternal bragging rights for the winners) is to spread interest in biology and to teach participants about the various animals that are included in the tournament. This includes plenty of fun facts about the animal’s ecology, evolution, and conservation. The event is also designed to use science to bring together all kinds of people, ranging from animal scientists who may be inclined to pick winners based solely on scientific characteristics to students or families that may have never even heard of a “Stoat” or “ Vole of the Bank” and choose winners based on gut-feeling.

The event has thousands of participants ranging from entire classrooms to museums and artists worldwide. Mammal March Madness has been growing rapidly in popularity since its creation in 2013, when Dr. Hinde came up with the idea after being inspired by that other March tournament and a Buzzfeed article that pitted a few animals against each

Charon Giant Armadillo

Artwork by Charon Henning.

other but determined the winner based on “cutenes s”. She decided that she would base her tournament on hard science. Dr. Hinde and collaborators Kristi Lewton from the University of Southern California, Joshua Drew from Columbia University, and Christopher Anderson from Dominican University, then put in the time to research each individual animal and rank them based on the various scientific attributes. The entire collaborative team runs the simulations and develops the live-battle narratives.

Dr. Hinde and her group have also been working to track the scientific impact that their event creates. They are currently working with data from pre-and post- tournament surveys of college students to assess if participation shifts knowledge and attitudes about science, evolution, and conservation. They’ve also been able to quantify traffic to the blog, Storify Archive of the battles, and their twitter trending and mentions. In 2015 the blog had close to 200,000 page views during the month of March.

Katie Hinde

Katie Hinde, a Quokka, Kristi Lewton at the Mammal Collection, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard Museums (photo by K. Hinde)

Dr. Hinde believes that Broader Impacts are most effective when they are not an afterthought and when they are not generic. She says that the motivation for a scientist to do their research, whether it be a deep curiosity about phenomena in the universe or a desire to improve the human condition, can be contagious. She believes that sharing the passion a scientist has for their work can be done in a number of ways, and that it is only a matter of finding a way that suits the individual scientist. This passion, or “spark” can quickly lead to a community of diverse people that are happy to take part in what the scientist has put together. She closes by saying a positive, “growth” attitude is essential to not only good science, but to good outreach and is a tool that should be used to build and strengthen the scientist’s community.

A copy of the bracket and tournament schedule (including times and specific instructions if you are unfamiliar with tournament brackets) can be found and printed out from Dr. Hinde’s blog, Mammals Suck…Milk.

Live results can be found on Dr. Hinde’s blog and on the blog’s Twitter page.