Inspiring community college students to pursue a career in ocean and earth sciences

jwren

Contributed by Johanna Wren

Ever wonder what questions community college STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students ask when taken on a tour of a research vessel?

“Are all beds the same size?”, posed a five-foot tall student standing next to a 6-foot fellow student, as they inspected the state rooms in the R/V Ka‘imikai-O-Kanaloa.

Or, one of my personal favorites: “Can I drive the boat!?”

Each summer, a score of Kapi‘olani Community College (KCC) students meet every day for six weeks to immerse themselves in math and other STEM subjects as part of the KCC STEM Summer Bridge program, HāKilo II. For the past three summers, C-MORE and SOEST from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa have been invited to spend one week with these students, introducing them to ocean and earth science careers through hands-on experiences.

HāKilo II students on a field trip to R/V KOK at Snug Harbor. Photo credit: Heidi Needham.

HāKilo II students on a field trip to R/V KOK at Snug Harbor. Photo credit: Heidi Needham.

The theme throughout the week is Learning by Doing, so we embark on field trips, engage in career exercises, and interact with graduate students and professionals in STEM fields. Our goal is to help the students discover their passions, and urge them to follow those passions in their professional careers. I first got involved with HaKilo II’s SOEST week as a graduate research assistant with the C-MORE Education office in 2013. I have since helped to organize and lead the event each summer, as the intensive week of career exploration has become one of my favorite summer events.

Learning By Doing: Field trips!

“Bet you didn’t know you got a mouthful of critters every time you get in the ocean!” said peer-mentor Dan to a student while looking at what they caught in a plankton tow.

Learning by Doing is done best outside of a classroom, so we take the students on multiple fieldtrips. For example, during these field trips, students figure out how the Hawaiian Islands were formed, and why hillsides and surrounding ocean look the way they do. Seeing first hand – and trying to figure out why – there is coral wedged between layers of basalt high above sea level, turns sea level rise from an abstract concept into a tangible one. Learning by doing, seeing and feeling is so much more powerful than being told how the world works.

Student and instructor during a geology field trip, talking about the formation of O‘ahu and sea level change at Lāna‘i lookout. Photo credit: Johanna Wren

Student and instructor during a geology field trip, talking about the formation of O‘ahu and sea level change at Lāna‘i lookout. Photo credit: Johanna Wren

Even though we have visited some of the same sites every year, there are always new things to discover, and students never fail to impress and surprise me with their curiosity and insightfulness. I really enjoy showing students what lives in the clear and seemingly empty waters near the beach. After conducting a plankton tow, while looking at the copepods and other animals in the water, students often wonder if they swallow all of those animals when they go swimming. It’s really nice to see even the most intractable student, who wouldn’t part from her smartphone for more than a minute, get excited about the land and sea around her.

Learning By Doing: Experience as a near-peer mentor

“Let’s ask Daren, he knows everything.” – A commonly overheard statement by a group of students when they ran into a problem they couldn’t solve.

Spending a summer studying subjects that often take students outside of their comfort zone can be intimidating and scary to many. At the same time, there is nothing more inspiring than connecting with an individual you identify with, who shares your background or interest. This is where the near-peer mentors like Dan and Daren come in. Each year, a handful of senior KCC students, many of whom participated in HāKilo II in previous years, act as peer-mentors and play a pivotal role in inspiring and engaging students. Students can identify with a mentor who went through the program just last year, and who comes from a similar cultural and/or academic background. The students are less reserved with their questions, and the peer-mentors themselves develop into teachers with enthusiasm and confidence.

Students in HāKilo II learning about seagliders, and how to combine an interest in engineering with a love for the ocean, from Sarah Searson. Photo credit: Johanna Wren

Students in HāKilo II learning about seagliders, and how to combine an interest in engineering with a love for the ocean, from Sarah Searson, a sea-going marine technician. Photo credit: Johanna Wren

I especially like witnessing the progression from student one year to peer-mentor the following year. Watching them go from shy and unsure students to outgoing, empowered, and confident in their new role as peer-mentor is motivating. And what I always find remarkable is how humble the peer-mentors are: they all have an ‘if I can do it, you can do it’ attitude. Peer-mentors take on the roles of a leader, educator, and mentor, and they not only inspire the students, they inspire me as well.

Learning by Doing: Networking with people paid to pursue their passion

“Man, that’s the closest I’ve been to an astronaut!” said one student after talking to a geology professor working on the Curiosity Mission with NASA.

Instead of reciting statistics and course requirements, which often become overwhelming, we introduce the students to career professionals in a variety of fields, from surf forecasters to ocean engineers. Students “talk story” with 20 different professionals, hearing – and often seeing – firsthand what that career entails and what kind of education they need to get there.

HāKilo II students talking with a career professional, Kimball Millikan, about wave buoys and ocean engineering. Photo credit: Johanna Wren.

HāKilo II students talking with a career professional, Kimball Millikan, about wave buoys and ocean engineering. Photo credit: Johanna Wren.

Once students realize that many of the professionals they talked to get paid to surf, dive or hike (common hobbies among the students), their enthusiasm skyrockets. The type of questions they ask changes from general (e.g. “What kind of degree do you have?”) to specific (e.g. “What subject would you recommend that I focus on to get your job?”). The dedication that the professionals show not only to their profession but also to sharing their passion with young scientists is profound. At the end of the week, we ask the professionals to give one take home message to the students, and it is universally: “You work too much not to love what you do.”

The best part about this program for me each year is when students discover that their interests don’t have to stay hobbies, but that they can become their careers. A few weeks ago, I ran into one of the students who participated in HāKilo II two years ago and was a peer-mentor last year. When I first met her in 2013 she intended to major in Nursing. Since then, she has changed her focus, transferred to UH Mānoa’s Dept. of Oceanography Global Environmental Sciences program, and participated in marine biology and oceanography summer research experiences both in the U.S. and abroad. She is a true inspiration and role model, and I’m so honored to have had a small part in helping her find her passion.


Johanna Wren is a PhD candidate in the Department of Oceanography in the Toonen-Bowen (ToBo) Lab at Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her research focuses on larval dispersal and population connectivity of reef fish using a biophysical modeling approach. She is interested in identifying biophysical drivers around the Hawaiian Islands that shape the connectivity patterns seen in reef fish communities today.

 

Climate Science for Marshallese High School Teachers

 biopic_MT

 

Contributed by Michelle Tigchelaar

As a climate modeler, I mostly experience climate change through graphs and figures, scientific papers and the long-term projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. At times the reality of climate change becomes more tangible, like when we went on a field trip to Mauna Loa and were presented with a 400 ppm CO2 air sample — the Keeling curve in action! But it wasn’t until I visited the Marshall Islands this June to contribute to the 2015 Climate Science Teaching Institute, that the painful truth of a changing climate truly hit home.

Majuro Atoll from above. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

Majuro Atoll from above. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

At an average elevation of 2 m above sea level, the narrow atoll islands of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and its population of 68,000 are at risk of near-constant inundation by the end of this century. Not much further down the road, the islands could disappear entirely. The injustice of this is enormous. Not only did the Marshallese do very little to contribute to the leading causes of climate change, they also do not have the resources that richer (i.e., more polluting) countries have to deal with its consequences. Recently, the RMI Ministry of Education added climate change education to the mandatory curriculum, so that its citizens will be better informed about what is happening to their islands and the world around them. In this context, COSEE Island Earth – with support from PREL and NSF Ocean Sciences – organized a workshop for high school teachers so that they will be equipped with knowledge and activities to use in their classrooms. I had the honor of teaching the physical climate science part of this workshop.

Teaching at this workshop proved to be challenging, for unexpected reasons. For starters, it was difficult to figure out what material to present on. How was I to  condense all the complexities of the climate system and climate change science into a few lectures that are understandable, relevant and comprehensive? Many of the attendants of our workshop were general science or biology teachers, so they had little prior knowledge of how the climate system works. Furthermore, while English is an official language of the Marshall Islands, most teachers were more comfortable in their own language — which was often, but not always, Marshallese (many teachers in the RMI come from other Pacific Islands such as Fiji, Micronesia or the Philippines). We also encountered cultural differences between teachers in the US and the Marshall Islands, with the latter seeming less vocal when questions arose. By starting with the material at the very beginning, building slowly, repeating key points and leaving ample room for questions, I hoped I was able to adequately convey the material.

Teaching about sea level rise projections at the College of the Marshall Islands. Photo credit: Dr. Judy Lemus.

Teaching about sea level rise projections at the College of the Marshall Islands. Photo credit: Dr. Judy Lemus.

In the US, decades of research and coordination have resulted in the availability of a wealth of papers, reports and websites that present scientists and the general public with detailed information about past climate measurements and future climate projections (think for instance of the National Climate Assessment or NOAA’s El Niño Portal). By comparison, a lot less is known about climate variability and change in Pacific Island nations, so I had a hard time finding easily digestible information to share with the teachers. Fortunately, the international research community is slowly starting to pay more attention to this region of the globe. I was thankful for the help of Drs. Mark Merrifield and Phil Thompson from the UH Sea Level Center, who shared and explained their work on sea level rise in the Pacific Islands. More importantly, some great local organizations were able to present at the workshop as well. By involving local organizations, we were able to facilitate the creation of (hopefully) lasting connections, so that exchange of climate knowledge can also happen outside of this workshop and in years to come.

SeaGrant’s Karl Fellenius showing the class instrumentation from the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS) that is moored in the harbor of Majuro. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

SeaGrant’s Karl Fellenius showing the class instrumentation from the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS) that is moored in the harbor of Majuro. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

During the workshop, one of our aims was to come up with activities that teachers can easily reproduce in their classrooms. On my end, I demonstrated: 1. how to create El Niño in a tank (with food coloring and a blow dryer); 2. why sea level rises due to thermal expansion and the melting of land-, but not sea-, ice (with water, clay, ice and a heat lamp); 3. where and by how much sea level is expected to rise in the future (using the online NOAA sea level rise viewer); 4. how moon phases work (with styrofoam balls and a lamp); and 5. how to measure humidity and demonstrate convection (again using ice and food coloring and thermometers). We thought we had done a pretty decent job at coming up with accessible activities, until we learned that some schools do not have the resources we expected them to have. For instance, some schools on the more remote islands of the nation only have one computer, or no steady electricity source. One teacher told us that they don’t usually have access to ice, except for when a fishing boat stops in port! Luckily we had brought supplies with us to hand out to the teachers, so that they could at least do some of the activities.

Demonstrating why we see different phases of the moon. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

Demonstrating why we see different phases of the moon. Photo credit: M. Tigchelaar

All these challenges aside, I left the workshop with many positive impressions. One would think that the prospect of a disappearing homeland and the terrible injustices of climate change and socio-economic inequality would leave a community despondent and angry. Perhaps a lesser people would be. But I found the Marshallese teachers to be eager to learn and open-hearted. Many of them went to great lengths to attend this workshop, and all appeared to be incredibly thankful for the opportunity and excited to teach the material to their students — with whatever resources they have. I was particularly inspired by one teacher, an older gentleman from Januit. He truly grasped that dealing with climate change in these remote islands is not only an issue for international politicians, but also an opportunity for islanders to increase resiliency and battle poverty by taking better care of reefs, land and people. When these kinds of insights enter into school curricula, that is the power of education. So in the end, while I hope that the Marshallese high school teachers were able to learn from me and my knowledge of climate change, I am also grateful for all that they taught me.


Michelle Tigchelaar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Her research focuses on modeling the response of the climate system to long-term forcing over the past 800,000 years. She also enjoys putting science to good use and being a student activist. 

 

To Jargon or not to Jargon

e_profile

Contributed by Elisha Wood-Charlson

Jargon, as defined by Google, consists of “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.” So, you can imagine why jargon is a natural target for science communication training and workshops. Hey, science jargon even has its own April Fool’s spoof article.

Well, as it turns out, defining jargon and identifying jargon create a bit of inherent irony. A word is only considered ‘jargon’ when it isn’t well understood, so when are science words ‘jargon’ and when are they not? Google’s definition suggests that jargon can be specific to a group, and not necessarily restricted to a technical field. In addition, Google gives the entertaining synonym of “slang”, which begs the question – are scientists actually speaking our own form of “Science Jive”?

One of the most challenging parts of science communication is understanding your audience well enough to choose vocabulary that will communicate your science accurately while still getting your message across. Therefore, we need to start thinking about our “Science Jive” in layers. How far removed is our target audience from our science field?

The Russian Doll of Science Jive
Nesting Dolls (Photo Credit: James Lee)

Nesting Dolls (Photo Credit: James Lee)

As with all science communication efforts, you must first understand your audience(s) before you determine how much jargon you can layer on. The smallest, innermost ring is your peer group (you are the doll in the center). Your peer audience will include members of your lab group, your collaborators, and even your fellow participants in a domain-specific session at a conference. Almost everything in this ring may be considered jargon to a general audience, who resides in the largest, outermost doll layer. And, although some of the jargon translations from the far inner ring to the far outer ring may be the most challenging (discussed later), the dolls in the middle are where things get really interesting. How well do you know your audience two rings removed? For example, I recently attended the 2015 AAAS conference in San Jose, CA. Having never attended an AAAS conference before, I was surprised at the breadth of science topics presented. They ranged from looking at the effect of epigenetics on the brain to 3-D printing of 4-D mathematical models to microbial oceanography, my personal ring of Science Jive. So, how do you know when to jargon and when not to jargon?

The best way to figure out your audience is to understand where they exist in the science communication space. Do they read popular science articles, like those in Scientific American or Discover? If so, getting familiar with those journals (if you aren’t already) will help you determine which jargon level you should speak to. For example, in situations where “addition of viral concentrates resulted in decreased photosynthetic activity” might not work, something like “after adding more viruses, the cultures started dying” might be perfect. From another perspective, if you are writing something for a government office, you might consider getting in touch with whomever is in charge of science-related issues. Depending on their background, they may only be one or two jargon rings away. Or, if their background isn’t in the sciences, they may comfortably reside in the far outer general public ring.

Communicating Science Jive to the Outer Doll

Have you tried explaining your research to a family member? Megumi Chikamoto had a great post (4 Feb 2015) on Real Science at SOEST! blog about jargon, relating to her 7 year old son and making her message more understandable to a broader audience.

Translating jargon takes a bit of trial and error. Pick a prominent jargon word in your specialization and start trying out alternative vocabulary with the lab down the hall, fellow students at a departmental seminar, or with other science departments that meet up for pick-up soccer games after work. In the end, you may still end up with a word(s) that can’t be captured at the level of accuracy you require. Another strategy is to develop an analogy for your research. Can you capture the dispersal model or biogeochemical flux pathway in a metaphor or image? For example, Donn Viviani, a graduate student in C-MORE, is able to transform his research into the simple process of making a cup of tea!

In the end, only you can decide when to jargon and when not to jargon, and it will take practice. However, there should also be a collective effort by every science specialization to establish some translated terms that are acceptable replacements for their domain. In some areas, such as climate change, this is already happening. But we shouldn’t wait for a social movement to motivate us! Scientists are people too, and we should be making an effort to communicate using language that can be understood by our audiences.

 

Other resources
Scientific Jargon, Thompson Writing Program handout by Jordana Rosenberg 2012
Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public, log post by Andrew David Thaler at Southern Fried Science
Words Matter, AGU blog post by Callan Bentley


Elisha M. Wood-Charlson has a PhD in marine science, and has worked in a variety of research areas including coral symbioses, marine viruses, and viruses in corals. She is currently testing out life as a science communicator and is finding the creative latitude enjoyable. She works for the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) as an educator, designing #scicomm training for graduate students, postdocs, and early career researchers (check out the new Science Communication Portfolio training guide on the SOEST website!). She is also managing the EarthCube Oceanography and Geobiology Environmental ‘Omics (ECOGEO) Research Coordination Network (RCN), which demands structured communication between the scientists asking the difficult ‘omics questions and the bioinformaticians making the tools to help answer them.

Bad Data/Good Data: How a physical study ended up giving insight into animal behavior

Portrait

 

Contributed by Katie Smith

In oceanographic research, we plan, hypothesize, and make observations as carefully as we can, but nature can still sometimes find ways to mess with us. After all, research is about investigating scientific mysteries, so we never really know what we’re going to find. That’s not a drawback to research—it’s a feature. Sometimes, the most exciting scientific mysteries are the ones that lead in a direction we never expected, as I learned in a recent study of Māmala Bay.

Typical day for a physical oceanographer

As a physical oceanographer, I study internal waves. These are underwater waves that can be found throughout most of the ocean. Similar to how surface ocean waves travel on the interface between two fluids of different densities (those two fluids being the water and the much less dense air above it), internal waves can move through water that has different densities at different depths. In the ocean, the main properties affecting water density are temperature and salinity, so generally less dense (warmer and/or fresher) water sits on top of denser (colder and/or saltier) water. Any disturbance to this structure, such as a current forcing water up and over an underwater ridge, can create internal waves that move through the water. We don’t see these internal waves with the naked eye, but we can detect them with underwater measurements of water properties such as temperature and velocity.

View of Waikiki and Diamond Head from Mamala Bay. Photo credit: Katie Smith

View of Waikiki and Diamond Head from Mamala Bay. Photo credit: Katie Smith

For six months, I had a sensor deployed in Māmala Bay at 500 m depth to look for internal waves. This sensor, called an ADCP (acoustic Doppler current profiler), measures water velocity using sonar: it sends out a brief pulse of sound through the water column, and the sound bounces back off of tiny particles drifting in the water at different distances from the ADCP. The time it takes for the sound waves to bounce back tells the ADCP how far away each particle is, and the amount of sound that returns to the sensor (the “backscatter”) gives a relative estimate of how many particles are in the water at different depths. The Doppler shift of the sound that returns gives a reading of the velocity of the drifting particles and, thus, the velocity of the water in which they are drifting. In order to get a good velocity reading, though, there need to be a sufficient number of particles in the water for enough of the sound to bounce back and return to the sensor.

Once my ADCP was hauled out of the ocean and back to the lab, I started to look at the data it collected. I used a method that essentially highlights repeating patterns in the data and the frequencies at which the patterns repeat. This type of analysis is useful when looking for signs of internal waves, because waves are themselves a repeating pattern. When I did this analysis, it showed a lot of activity occurring at a frequency of about one cycle per day. My experience with internal waves initially led me to think that this was a strong tidal signal, since many internal waves oscillate at tidal frequencies. Interesting! I might be observing an internal wave with a diurnal tidal frequency breaking at this location! But when I looked closer at the velocity readings, I realized that things were not what they seemed to be.

Animals are messing up my data!
The ADCP is hauled back on board after 6 months of data gathering. Photo credit: Katie Smith

The ADCP is hauled back on board after 6 months of data gathering. Photo credit: Katie Smith

When I looked more closely at my data, I saw that my “interesting” velocity signal was actually a false signal—an artifact of the ADCP receiving poor data. The ADCP had recorded consistently high backscatter near the bottom during daylight hours, but low backscatter at night. This means that during the day, the sensor received a nice, strong signal because there were lots of particles in the water for the sound to bounce off of. But during the night, the water near the bottom became incredibly clear, so the ADCP couldn’t get a good velocity signal. For the most part, the ADCP marked the weak signal as missing data as it is programmed to do. But sometimes, when the signal strength was at the border between too weak and maybe just strong enough, the ADCP recorded an unreliable jumble of numbers. The nighttime jumble was what caused my apparent “interesting” signal that was occurring at a cycle of once per day.

I now knew that my hypothesis of an internal wave breaking at a diurnal tidal frequency was based on false velocity readings, but this raised a new question: Why would my velocity readings be strong during daylight hours but weak during the night? The pattern repeated itself every day. To answer this question, I had to step outside of my usual research area of physical oceanography and into the field of biological oceanography. What’s happening is that there are organisms that migrate on a daily schedule in a behavior we call “diel migration.” Tiny zooplankton, fish, squid, and shrimp feed on plankton near the surface of the water, but they are vulnerable to being eaten by larger predators when they can be seen in the light of the sun. So during the day, they hide in dark waters too deep for the light to reach. At night, they swim upwards or “migrate” into shallower water to feed under the cover of darkness, when there is a lower risk of being spotted by predators.

My ADCP was located at a deep site where these animals were hiding during the day. This is why I had a high backscatter signal during daylight hours. At night, though, the animals would all move to shallower depths to feed, leaving such a low backscatter signal that the sensor couldn’t get good velocity data near the bottom. My backscatter signal was a record of diel migration!

A new direction

It turns out that the diel migration of these small animals in Oahu’s coastal waters is an area of active research. Previous studies have observed diel migration of these organisms, but they have mostly focused on shallower waters. I am now working with biological oceanographer Christina Comfort on a manuscript to report our observations of this migrating community of organisms. These observations could be important for the planned SWAC (Seawater Air Conditioning) system being built in Mamala Bay, as the intake pipe for the cold water feeding that cooling system is near 500 m depth and could affect or be affected by the presence of a large migrating community.

This study exemplifies why oceanographic research is an exciting, versatile line of work. Things don’t always go as planned, and data won’t always reveal what you expect, but that can be a good thing! You might find that your research takes you in a completely different direction that is still interesting in its own right. Oceanography is by nature an interdisciplinary field. The physics, chemistry, and biology of the ocean all exist everywhere simultaneously. Being able to start a project looking for a purely physical signal in the ocean and ending up with a manuscript about the behavior of small nearshore animals—this is one of the reasons I love doing oceanographic research.


Katie Smith is a PhD candidate in the Department of Oceanography at UH Mānoa. Her research focuses on the behavior and effects of internal waves in nearshore systems, and she is also interested in the interactions between the physics and the biology of the ocean.

What drives me to be a scientist?: Impacting society through science

“Originally, I was driven by the type of job that I didn’t want to have, but am now driven by the potential impact that I can have while solving marine environmental problems.”

Read on to find out more about what led Stu to his career!

goldberg pic

 

Contributed by Stuart Goldberg

If you put a label on me, I am a microbial oceanographer. I study the function of microscopic bacteria and phytoplankton in marine food webs. I do so because these organisms support healthy ecosystems and fisheries by transferring energy and nutrients to organisms at higher levels of the food chain. But how did I get to studying microbes in the ocean? Well, thinking back, what drives me to be a scientist has changed over the years. Originally, I was driven by the type of job that I didn’t want to have, but am now driven by the potential impact that I can have while solving marine environmental problems.

One of the first jobs I had was working for Pepsi Cola of the Hudson Valley, NY during summers and holiday breaks in high school and college. My co-workers were great – their good-natured humor help to make the days more enjoyable – but it was back-breaking work. Every day, I went to supermarket after supermarket, stocking shelves with soda and building gigantic soda displays, like the pyramids you regularly see. It was also tough to earn respect from store managers that I interacted with because I was so young. This wasn’t where I wanted to be, or end up.

Once I started college at the University of Maine, I pursued a degree that would help me find a job working outside, preferably on environmental issues. I started freshman year as a forestry major with the hopes of working on conserving New England’s forests for future generations. I quickly discovered that the majority of UMaine forestry graduates went on to work in the paper industry. What really turned me off to this career path was that the paper industry contributes significantly to air and water pollution. Every day, paper mills emit tons of gases into the air, causing acid rain and global warming. They also have discharged pollutants into freshwater ecosystems that can bioaccumulate in fish, contributing to some of the state-issued consumption warnings due to possible health side effects. Although there were other forest conservation career opportunities working for state and federal agencies, I felt the urge to change majors to marine science to live a life near the ocean studying how its processes support our lives.

Being by the sea had always provided a sense of comfort and ease while growing up, so the idea of a career on the water or understanding more about marine ecosystems was enticing. Fortunately, UMaine had just initiated an undergraduate major in marine science. After learning about ocean food web dynamics and nutrient upwelling in my first oceanography class, I knew that this topic area was the right fit because I was very interested in how nutrients are recycled to support productive ecosystems and fisheries. From there, it was up to me to discover a career path in this field. I embarked on undergraduate research experiences in Maine and Bermuda, and eventually began graduate school at UC Santa Barbara where I earned my PhD studying the marine carbon cycle. Soon thereafter, I moved on to post-graduate school research studying a variety of topics including aquatic nutrient cycling and ocean acidification. At this point in my career, I was motivated by the desire to eventually become a professor. As time went by, however, my career interests began to change. I wasn’t enjoying the long hours writing grants and papers, or staying up late at night working in the lab, and a change was needed.

A few years after earning my PhD, my spouse accepted a marine policy fellowship in Washington D.C. I was looking forward to a fresh start in a new place, but I would have to eventually find a job. Although being unemployed for a few months was stressful, it was during this time that I found new motivation for being a scientist at an unexpected event. Every year, the nation’s shellfish farmers come to D.C. to talk to their congressional representatives about their relevant concerns, some of which are focused on things that can improve the productivity of their farms and shellfish sales. For example, the proper training and equipment to monitor changes in salinity, temperature, and ocean acidity can help prevent juvenile oysters from dying, thus enhancing harvests and profitability. On the last evening of their visit, I was invited to an elegant party that was hosted by U.S. shellfish growers associations from around the country. While mingling, I began a conversation with a shellfish farmer from Northern California. Upon hearing about my background in oceanography and ocean acidification, he asked if I could help him predict upwelling events that would bring acidic waters over his oysters. Acidic seawater is harmful to juvenile oysters because it kills them by dissolving their shells. In this instance, I realized that my scientific skills and expertise could be used to help solve real-world problems while informing decisions about marine natural resources.

My newfound drive to work on applied scientific problems to assist everyday people helped me to land a policy fellowship at a non-profit in D.C. My first task was to build trust and collaborations with shellfish farmers, and then talk to federal agency leaders and congressional representatives about ways to help these farmers adapt to the negative impacts of ocean acidification on their shellfish harvests. As a policy fellow, I began to network with other ocean non-profits to advocate to congress and federal agencies on behalf of U.S. shellfish farmers for more resources to purchase and implement ocean acidification monitoring instrumentation at oyster hatcheries. As part of this outreach effort, I organized, facilitated and led a stakeholder meeting between ~20 shellfish farmers from all over the U.S. and representatives from the USDA to provide a forum for farmers to clearly state their concerns about ocean acidification’s impacts on their industry, including discussion about what that the agency could do to assist them in adapting to these changes in ocean chemistry. One of the shellfish farmers and I also met with his congressional district representative from Oregon and her staff to further discuss these issues. The experience as a fellow helped me learn how to better translate my scientific knowledge to a variety of audiences and has helped me become a more confident scientist and person.

Whereas I was initially driven by the type of career that I didn’t want, I now realized that there are endless opportunities for scientists to make an impact on society by learning to use our expertise to help solve real-world environmental problems. In the future, I see my career moving along this trajectory.


Stuart Goldberg is a postdoctoral scholar in the Nelson lab at the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His research examines the role that microbes play in recycling nutrients in marine and aquatic environments. Recently, he has become more interested in the cycling of nutrients in coral reef and coastal environments. 

Click here to read more articles on what drives our bloggers to conduct their research everyday.
Want to submit your own article? Check out submission guidelines and email us today.

 

Why did I become an ecologist?

gold-medal-conCongratulations to Carolyn Faithfull for being the winner of our 1st SOESTblog Writing Contest “What drives you?”! Thank you to all of the readers and supporters of SOESTblog and congrats to everyone who entered our contest!

 


 

C FaithfullContributed by Carolyn Faithfull

I grew up next to a lake. You could always feel its presence, even though you couldn’t see it from our house. It made our farm the wettest in the district, miring us down in cattle-churned mud in the winter. Flocks of swans would fly towards it, flapping, honking and pooping. And in summer you could smell it, an occasional waft of rotten lettuce on the hay-filled breeze.

As you may have guessed, rotten lettuce is not the aroma of a healthy lake. Nope, this lake was big and shallow and totally unable to deal with the excess fertiliser being drip-fed from the surrounding farms. A regular pattern started occurring. It began with the stealthy overtaking of the entire lake by oxygen weed. Previously the weed had been safely far below us in our little boat. But by the end of the summer, rowing our little boat was like trying to row through a wet meadow. The lake was so clogged that on windy days it still looked calm, the water barely able to move between the thick weedy fronds. The swans loved it. Hundreds and then thousands came, honking and flapping and pooping.

Then the weed died. Choked by its own abundance, massive rolls of weed washed up, burying the swan nests and forming a stinking border around the lake edge. Free from the weed, the shallow sediments coloured the lake brown. Not for long though. The next summer the lake became a sickly green soup. We were not allowed to swim. Not that you would want to. The algal bloom became so dense that bacteria consuming the dead algal cells used up the oxygen in the water. Dead fish and mussels floated to the shore. The swans left. But, oxygen weed is a very hardy plant. It is an invasive species, and the small remaining fragments were slowly covering the bottom under the algal soup. Gradually, sediments were stabilized, the water became clearer and nutrients were absorbed by the rapidly growing weed.

My 14-year-old self wondered what was wrong: as the density of swans built up again, so did the oxygen weed – so was it the swans’ fault? Did all that pooping make the oxygen weed crash and the algae grow? My science fair project that year was particularly involved: I examined the effects of swan poop on algae in two types of jars, with and without oxygen weed.

Although somewhat misguided, the science fair project reflected something about me: I wanted to know. I knew the cycles happening to the lake were not how a healthy lake behaved and I wanted to know why.

Now I know that the flipping between weed and turbid algal-dominated states I observed in the lake is common in New Zealand. “Flipping” has been observed in 37 lakes and is associated with both the presence of oxygen weed and high farming pressure in the catchment area.

With my science fair project, I had wanted to know what was causing the flipping, but I also wanted to fix the lake. I remembered Grandpa’s stories about catching 70-pound eels and jet boat races; I wanted the lake to be like it once was, safe enough to drink, clean enough to swim in. Perhaps subconsciously I also knew it was partly my family’s fault, and I felt responsible for the mess we had helped create.

A calm early morning beside the lake. This picture was taken in 2003 before native plants were planted along the edge.

A calm early morning beside the lake. This picture was taken in 2003 before native plants were planted along the edge.

Last year, my family, several other landowners and a horde of volunteers, planted native plants around the edge of the lake. Wetland restoration is underway and farmers have been given advice on how to manage fertiliser application to reduce nutrient runoff. The future of the lake is starting to look a little bit clearer. Who knows, perhaps one day I will swim to the other side. I will have to watch out for those 70-pound eels though.

So I confess, I didn’t become an aquatic ecologist because I wanted to swim with dolphins, explore the arctic tundra or investigate the deepest trenches of the oceans (although those are all nice perks). My desire to know the how, what and why of things that lie beneath the water’s surface was inspired by a smelly, unstable, fascinating lake.

 

Liked Carolyn’s article? Share her post today!

 


 

Carolyn Faithfull is a postdoctoral scholar in the Goetze lab at the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her research involves examining how tiny aquatic critters respond to different types of stress in their environment, such as excess nutrients, less light, or higher temperatures. Recently she has been very interested in what these tiny aquatic critters have for breakfast. Are they eating the equivalent of cornflakes every day, or a fruit bowl? The answer might just lie in a future blog post.

 

 

Bedtime Science Stories

Contributed by Megumi Chikamoto

Every night, while sitting beside my 7-year-old son’s bedside, I ask him one question.

“What did you do today?”
“Work,” he replies, briefly. Sometimes he says, “math,” or “recess.” Some days, he turns to ask me the same question.
“Mommy, what did you do today?”

To answer his question, I try to explain one of my current research projects in detail. When I talk about the basic theory or hypothesis of my scientific topics, my son is really interested. Specifically, I have succeeded in catching his attention by talking about the drastic changes in marine plankton species that occurred around 15,000 years ago. After listening to my explanation, he comes up with his own hypothesis, which he tells me excitedly. This conversation with my son is much like brainstorming with my colleagues, and I am impressed that my son understands the big concepts of my research. But one night, I decided to take it one step further by explaining the modeling concept of my research. He fell asleep before I finished my story.

I often face this problem when I talk about modeling simulation to the general public, like my friends or relatives, not just my son. People, especially those living in Hawaii, surrounded by the ocean, tend to have a stereotypical image of oceanographers, thinking that we go out to sea for our research. I am an oceanographer; yet, I do not go out to sea. Instead, I sit down in front of a computer, peer at a screen, and write programming codes for over 6 hours everyday, 5 days a week. When I explain this to my friends and relatives, this unexpected research style seems to intrigue them, and they ask me to tell them more about my research. My research approach is using an Earth system model that is a numerical tool for calculating time evolution of the global climate system. The model calculates the atmosphere and ocean phenomena, such as wind blows, ocean currents and precipitation. Furthermore, the model includes components of marine ecosystems such as tiny plankton. My target is to elucidate marine ecosystem processes that link to climate change. But when I describe a model in such a way, my audience, like my son, loses interest quickly. This is one of the reasons why I want to improve my skill of public speech.

map_chl

Map of present-day phytoplankton biomass in chlorophyll concentration in an Earth System model. Image Credit: M. Chikamoto

One thing I realize now is how much jargon my explanation contains! Due to the specialized words, my audience might hardly understand the basic concepts and their attention is lost. Generally, people prefer to relate to a personal story, or sometimes an emotional one like in a novel; no one cares about the specialized issues (if someone is very interested in the specialized issues, he/she might be close to being the expert!). I know now that I should avoid describing my research like a scientific presentation, which is what I have done so far. Rather, I need to focus on the storytelling during an interactive conversation. Without more ado, I will try storytelling.

Why do we simulate?

Just think about this. If you take photographs in sequence with a camera and then want to know what is happening between the photos, what do you do? You might convert these intermittent images to an image sequence by taking the gaps and try to predict what happened in between in your brain. I do similar things in my research. Oceanographers monitor signals of ocean phenomena when going to sea, but getting the data is like one photo snapshot at a time. In order to display an image sequence like you do in your brain, I simulate it using a computer model instead. The model simulation in the computer calculates the time evolution of the Earth environment. By analyzing the simulated results, I can know what is going on in the environment. In fact, I use many kinds of models for today’s environment as well as for the past or the future. Through past, present and future climate simulations, I want to know mechanisms of the earth systems – how the earth systems of several different rhythms play harmony.

Trying again

One night, I decided to try explaining model simulation to my son again.

“I simulate the Earth environment using a computer and study what is going on in the atmosphere and the ocean. When I was a college student, computers were very slow and we were waiting to finish the calculation for several months. But nowadays, technology has developed tremendously and computer speed is much faster than it was in the previous era. For example, my computer can finish a 500-year-long simulation while you are sleeping at night. In this way, we can go back to the past using very long simulations, even as far back as to the Ice Age. Using a computer, I can study all of the past, the present, and the future climate.”

“That’s great!” my son said, admiringly.

—————————————————————————————————————————

chikamoto_m

Megumi O. Chikamoto is an affiliate researcher in SOEST and a postdoctoral researcher at International Pacific Research Center. After getting her Ph.D in Atmosphere and Ocean Science at Hokkaido University in Japan, she has worked at the University of Minnesota, the University of Tokyo, the Japan Agency of Marine Science and Technology, and then the current position.  Her research focuses on marine ecosystem response to climate variability and changes in the past, current, and future.

HIMB30 – The Prius of Bacteria

By Jennifer Wong-Ala 

Jennifer Wong-Ala

“Ew, you work with bacteria?! Aren’t you afraid of getting sick?” This is what I usually hear whenever I talk to people who are not familiar with the different types of bacteria. When most people think of bacteria, they think of the harmful germs that get them sick. The “good” bacteria I work with are called HIMB30, from the Gammaproteobacteria class. Gammaproteobacteria are common in the marine environment, and HIMB30’s name comes from the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology on the east side of ‘Oahu, where it was isolated from.

So why is this bacteria “good”? HIMB30 is not harmful to human health, and serves many functions. Think of HIMB30 as a hybrid car. A hybrid car uses gas to power its engine and has an electric battery that it can recharge. HIMB30 is heterotrophic — meaning it consumes “food,” or organic matter in this case, like the gas you put in a car, but it also has the ability to use light to create extra energy, much like the rechargeable battery. Genes for phototrophy and genes that have the ability to fix CO2 into an energy source were found in HIMB30, which is unusual in this order of bacteria. With my research, I am trying to figure out how HIMB30 uses these genes to acquire its energy.

The gene found in HIMB30 that has the ability to conduct phototrophy is called proteorhodopsin. Proteorhodopsin is related to a pigment found in your eyes called rhodopsin that allows us to see different colors. This protein is able to harvest energy from the sun and it functions as a light-driven proton pump. A proton pump can be thought of as a gate that allows protons to enter the mitochondria. Since the discovery of proteorhodopsin, many bacteria have been found to contain this gene.

Stepping away from lab work for a moment to pose for a photo with Vanessa

Stepping away from lab work for a moment to pose for a photo with Vanessa

It is estimated that in one liter of water, there is about a billion bacteria. Since there are so many bacteria in the ocean, it must be easy to bring them from the ocean to the lab to start growing and experimenting with them right? Well, it is not quite that simple. It is suggested that less than 1% of the microorganisms in nature are able to be cultivated in the lab today. This being said there are even less microorganisms that can be cultivated that contain proteorhodopsin and this makes them difficult to study. This makes HIMB30 extra special, since it has proteorhodopsin and we have it growing in culture in our lab. I have been doing experiments with the cultures in order to learn more about the metabolism of HIMB30.

Many of you may ask, why is this important?  The carbon cycle in the ocean is responsible for the cycling of nutrients. In this cycle, bacteria play a huge part of the marine food web and process more than half of all the flow of carbon-based matter. There are many different types of bacteria in the ocean. Photosynthetic bacteria use sunlight and convert it into energy. Mixotrophs can use sunlight and organic matter for energy, while heterotrophic bacteria attack other organisms. Now where does HIMB30 come into all of this? HIMB30 has characteristics showing that it may be a photolithoautotroph. This means that it can use the energy it gets from light to convert substances such as carbs, fats, and proteins into simple substances. It also uses a form of sulfur and CO2 as a source of carbon for this to occur. But the big question is how would this affect the carbon cycle in the ocean? It is still unknown how some bacteria utilize the proteorhodopsin gene and the effect it can have on the carbon cycle.

Jenn's OSM2014 poster presentation

Jenn’s OSM2014 poster presentation

In February, I presented these exciting research findings at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting held in Honolulu. This was the first conference I attended and let me tell you, it was huge! At first it was overwhelming, but after a while I got the hang of planning out my day. At the end of the week, I was sad that the conference was over. I learned a lot from the vastly different sessions and I met many great people whom I plan on keeping in touch with for years to come. Science has taken me farther than I had ever imagined and I am super excited that this is only the beginning.

Jennifer Wong-Ala is an undergraduate student at Kapi‘olani Community College and is currently conducting research as a Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) Scholar. She plans on transferring to UH Mānoa in Fall 2015 and earning a BS in Global Environmental Sciences. She is a mentee as part of the SOEST/KCC Maile Mentoring Bridge Program (www.soest.hawaii.edu/maile).

Adapting Locally to Sea-level Rise

By: Haunani Kane

Wetlands are important to Island communities because they provide food in the form of loʻi (taro patch), and loko iʻa (fishpond), trap sediment that may otherwise enter the ocean, and provide habitat to a number of native and endangered species.  Sea-level rise, however, threatens the integrity of coastal wetlands due to increased erosion, salt-water intrusion and flooding. The greatest challenge for wetland managers/users will be to prioritize management actions at each of the areas that are predicted to be impacted.  To assist in this challenge we worked closely with wetland users to develop two strategies to manage predicted impacts.

Firstly, due to the low gradient of most coastal plain environments, the rate of sea-level rise impact will rapidly accelerate once the height of the sea surface exceeds a critical elevation.  We calculate a local sea-level rise critical elevation (similar to a tipping point) that marks the end of a slow phase of flooding and the onset of rapid flooding.  The outcome of this method provides wetland managers with maps that can be used to create an inventory of resources that may be impacted during the slow and fast phases of flooding.

Secondly, within highly managed coastal areas, vulnerability is related to site the specific goals of coastal stakeholders.  For example in response to sea-level rise a kalo farmer may prioritize management efforts at the loʻi over the nearby pond because the loʻi provides food for his/her ʻohana (family). On the other hand, a federal manager who is tasked with providing habitat for endangered species will focus sea-level rise management efforts on the pond because it is used more frequently by endangered waterbirds.  We worked closely with wetland users to develop a ranking system that models the local vulnerability as a function of 6 input parameters: type of inundation, time of inundation, habitat value, soil type, infrastructure, and coastal erosion.  Through the use of an in person survey each input parameter was ranked based upon the goals and objectives the users of that area.  Areas of the highest cumulative vulnerability were mapped and should be used to prioritize future adaptive management.

Haunani Kane is a graduate student in Geology and Geophysics, working in the Coastal Geology lab of Dr. Chip Fletcher within SOEST. Haunani is from Kailua, O‘ahu, and her research centers on better understanding past and future sea-level rise events to assist coastal risk management. She believes that by tying culture to science we may be able to inspire more young native scientists.