TED Community » Tierney Thys

About Me

Tierney Thys is a National Geographic Explorer, marine biologist, filmmaker, science media producer, TED All-star and member of the TED braintrust. After graduating in 1988 from Brown University in Rhode Island with a degree in biology, she became a certified seaplane pilot and helped build a winged submarine at Deep Ocean Engineering in California with Sylvia Earle before attending graduate school at Duke University in North Carolina. Combining her interests in biology and engineering, she earned a doctorate in zoology studying the biomechanics of fish swimming muscles under Stephen Wainwright. She been intrigued with the fish form ever since.

Since 2000, Thys and her colleagues have been traveling the world (most recently Galapagos and Bali) studying giant ocean sunfish (mola). Though ocean sunfish grow more than ten feet (three meters) long and weigh over 5,000 pounds (2,270 kilograms), little is known about them. By placing satellite tags on molas and collecting tissue samples for genetic analysis, Thys and her colleagues are uncovering their 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 do they interact with other species and follow frontal systems? Can sunfish help us understand the changing ocean? More information can be found at www.oceansunfish.org and her TED talk.

Thys served as the Director of Research for Sea Studios Foundation (1998-2008), a non-profit production company dedicated to inspiring public understanding of science, technology and stewardship of the environment through entertaining and innovative media. The company co-produced National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth project (www.pbs.org/strangedays) and The Shape of Life (www.pbs.org/kcet/shapeoflife, TED talk). Currently, Thys is working with the creators of the Plankton Chronicles, to produce an ongoing ocean series for TEDed called Stories from the Sea. She also serves on the science advisory board of Revive and Restore and the Wildscreen Trust.

In an effort to better understand our powerful relationship with the nature world and how to catalyze long-term stewardship behavior, Thys is currently exploring the neuroscience of nature and the brain—a discipline she calls Neurobiophilia. She has an Innovations Grant from National Geographic to work with co-investigators Dr. Nalini Nadkarni and Tan Le exploring the brain's response to nature imagery using mobile EEG headsets and eye-tracking devices. The team aims to create optimized videos for use in nature-deprived settings e.g. assisted living centers, office building, maximum-security prisons. An ongoing prison project includes working on the
“Blue Room” with the staff of the Snake River Correctional Institute in Oregon. This project was named one of the top inventions of 2014 by Time Magazine.

Dr. Thys consults for numerous film and conservation groups, loves to work with kids and adults alike and recently acquired her own aquarium with theater (albeit virtual!) as the Daily Explorer in the online game, Animal Jam. Animal Jam is a computer game featuring a virtual world where 6-11 year olds become an animal and learn about the animal kingdom on land and in the sea. With more than 25 million registered players, the game is available in multiple languages in more than 150 countries.

Tierney Thys serves as the National Geographic expert on several NG expeditions a year including sailing the Caribbean, student marine bio camp in Belize and Bali, and Around the World by Private Jet--Ocean and Island trips. Her greatest aim is to raise awareness of Earth's natural resources and in particular the health of the spectacular life within the deep blue, and the pivotal role our ocean plays in the livelihood of all humanity.

United States, Carmel, CA
Current organization:
National Geographic Explorer
Past organizations:
Science media producer and consultant, Sea Studios Foundation
Current role:
National Geographic Explorer
Areas of expertise:
Conservation Education, Biology, film-making
I am:
Athlete, Brainstormer, Doctor, Educator/Teacher, Environmentalist, Explorer, Filmmaker, Idea generator, Scientist, Writer/Editor
My website links:
Ocean Sunfish, Neurobiophilia, TEDEd
Brown University, Duke University
TED conferences attended:
TED2016, TED2015, TED2014, TED2013, TED2012, TED2011, TED2010, TED2008, TED2007, TED2006

TEDCRED 200+ TED SpeakerTED Attendee

More About Me

I'm passionate about

earth, ocean, family and kids, non-human life, education, excellent mentors, nature and neuroscience combining science and art for conservation, art from trash, nature deficit disorder, prison reform

An idea worth spreading

What is really happening in our minds when we gaze at nature?

Can we better optimize the creation and delivery of nature footage to maximize its social and therapeutic good in prisons, office settings, assisted living and any nature-deprived setting?

Talk to me about

kids, nature and neuroscience, global stewardship,sunfish, ocean conservation, traveling,flying, trail-running, green living, art and science, the future of education

People don't know that I'm good at

telling way too many dirty jokes

My TED Story

My dear friend Paul MacCready suggested my name to Chris Anderson as a speaker many years ago and to Paul I remain forever grateful. We all miss him.


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    A reply on Talk: Tierney Thys: Swim with the giant sunfish

    Oct 28 2013: Thanks for your comment Blaz. I was actually referring to the locals--the otters--being appalled at the behavior of the sea lions. Hence the picture of the otter with its hands to its face. Little humor in there--sorry if that caused confusion.
  • A reply on Conversation: What can preschoolers and their parents do affect environmental change?

    Mar 6 2011: Great links Ashley. Thanks for those suggestions. I spoke at the Green School a few years back and heartily applaud what John and Cindy are creating in Ubud. Truly inspirational. Infusing such a curriculum into more of our schools would behoove us all. Creating for preschoolers a cradle to cradle curriculum a la TEDster William McDonough would be fabulous as well.