Tierney Thys, PhD
Tierney Thys was born in California. As soon as she could walk, her parents slipped her into a homemade wetsuit and tossed her into the surf. She has loved the water ever since. During grade school, she moved to Vermont and in 1988 graduated from Brown University in Rhode Island with a degree in biology. A certified seaplane pilot and diver, Thys helped build a winged submarine at Deep Ocean Engineering in California before attending graduate school at Duke University in North Carolina. Combining her interests in biology and engineering, she earned her doctorate in biomechanics in 1998 investigating the mechanics of swimming muscles in fish. She has been intrigued with the fish form ever since.
Since 2000, Thys and her colleagues have been traveling the world's oceans studying the giant ocean sunfish
(mola). Though these fish can grow more than ten feet (three meters) long and weigh over 5,000 pounds (2,270 kilograms), little is known about them. By placing high-tech satellite tags on molas and collecting tissue samples for genetic and pollutant analysis, Thys and her colleagues hope to uncover the molas' secrets: How did they come to occupy all tropical and temperate seas? Where, when and at what size do they reproduce? How do they locate their jellyfish prey? Are there more ocean sunfish species yet to be discovered? Are their populations endangered? How can they help us understand the changing oceans? Recently the mola research team joined the Census of Marine Life — an unprecedented effort to understand what lived, lives and will live in all the world's oceans.
In addition to conducting research on molas, Thys is the senior science editor at Sea Studios Foundation, a documentary film company based in Monterey, California. Sea Studios Foundation is dedicated to inspiring public understanding of science, technology and the environment through entertaining and innovative media. The company recently co-produced the National Geographic's Strange Days on Planet Earth series. Thys admits that while her two careers are quite different from each other they are nonetheless complementary. Both aim to raise awareness of the oceans — not only of the spectacular life within the big blue, but also of the pivotal role the oceans play in Earth's climate and the livelihood of humanity.
Thys, T.M., Hobson, B.W., and Dewar, H. (November 2001). Marine animals – the next generation of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles? Oceans. Accessible online at