The Lightning of Catatumbo

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Catatumbo photo 1

As I shovel myself out of a snowstorm in the northeast I thought I would pass along a story I wrote recently about a warm place far far away. I used my research experience on Curaçao to delve into the complex interactions between coral reefs and people. In the piece I let my creative side run, which I hope makes the content interesting and easy to digest.

Click here to read: The Lightning of Catatumbo

As a side note, some of you may have noticed that Science Minded has been on a hiatus. Unfortunately, research and teaching has consumed my blogging time over the past couple of months, but now that 2013 has come I’ll start posting again. I’ll also be enacting a number of improvements to Science Minded so look for more news soon. Thank you for your continued support and I hope you all have had a safe and happy holiday season.

All the best,


Putting young Americans to work

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The garage door is up and the cacophonous whine of building equipment is in full throttle. Students, supplies and tools spill out of the classroom and onto the patio. Some are using circular saws to cut plywood, others are grinding away spurs with corded grinders, and a few are even welding, making aquarium racks out of wrought steel. It’s just another day in Chris Morissette’s Environmental Engineering class.

I’ve been teaching at High Tech High North County for only a few weeks now and I’m already gaining an appreciation for the project-based ethos. The students come in to class excited, and many use their free time for extra work or to get trained on new equipment. Each is shown the right way to use the tools and handed the accompanying outfit of safety equipment, then they go to work under close supervision.

The racks they’re fashioning will hold a single ten-gallon aquarium tank. Groups of four will have their own tank, a mini-ecosystem, which they will maintain throughout the year. All in all we will have fifteen aquaria, thanks to funding from SDG&E and the San Diego Foundation, and each will hold live coral from the Pacific and the Caribbean. Our overarching scientific goal is for the students to investigate how human activities—pollution runoff, warming of the oceans, and others—influence coral health. But there is much more to be gained from this project.

My classroom lesson topics thus far have ranged from the biology of corals to the tools of professional aquarists. Just last week we took our sixty students on a field trip to Birch Aquarium. While there I was able to give small tours behind-the-scenes, but it wasn’t to show off the animals. Instead, the students observed the complexity of engineering that goes into keeping the myriad marine systems functioning.

The students learned first-hand about protein skimmers, sumps, calcium reactors, filter socks, chillers, and algae refugia, all tools they will put to use in aquaria at the school. The field trip highlighted the line this project is straddling: science and engineering. The scientific questions are important, but they won’t be answered unless the engineering and maintenance of the systems is impeccable.

One of the only topics agreed upon during the first presidential debate was that America needs to bolster training in hands-on skills in order to put citizens back to work. When this came up I couldn’t help but think of the students in Chris’ class and our underlying motivation for the coral project: establish something for which a wide range of skills—academic and functional—are required, then allow students to pursue the skills with which they most align. And by providing the leeway for exploration, we hope to not just grow the students’ skill sets, but also help them find their passion.

Note: This will be the last Science Minded post on UT-San Diego. I would like to offer a sincere thanks to my editor, Mike Lee, for the great opportunity to blog on the Science and Environment page and wish him all the best in his next endeavor. Science Minded will continue, though, and can be found at Thanks for reading.

Blending art and science

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Editor’s note: This week, Aaron Hartmann is preparing for coral spawning in the Caribbean. He arranged for a guest post from Nayantara Jain, a masters student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

When I was in high school, I thought science was all about memorizing the order of elements I would never see, figuring out the difference between direct and alternating currents and finding the boiling points of random liquids.

In a physics class once, I was asked to find the boiling point of one such highly-flammable liquid – toluene – and I nearly set my hand on fire. I ran out with a test tube ablaze in my hand. I doused the flame in the toilet outside and never fully entered a lab again.

More than ten years after that unfortunate incident I find myself in a masters program at Scripps.

I have always thought of myself as a humanities sort of person. I never even liked to be referred to as a “social sciences” student, because I thought philosophy – which was the focus of my bachelor’s degree – was about the mind and analytical thought rather than some method-based science involving hypothesis, lab experiments and disproving with a margin of statistical uncertainty.

This was my error, and I think many people share the same. So what changed?

Curiosity. It may have killed the cat, but it gave birth to a scientist. A series of events after my undergraduate degree led to me living and working as a scuba diving instructor in the Andaman Islands. Inspired by the beauty around me, my writing flourished.

I wrote about the different fish I’d see, about interesting dives, about amusing guests I encountered. I worked for a year assisting biologists collecting underwater data at an island ecology research base called the Andaman & Nicobar Environmental Team, and I began asking questions.

I wondered why nudibranches were so colourful. I wondered why the coral was dying in some places but thriving in others. I wondered why sometimes the ocean was murky, and why sometimes the currents were strong. I wondered why the surface was sometimes still as glass, and sometimes frothing and rough. I realized that the questions inspired art, and that the answers were found in science.

So I applied to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, where scientists were answering questions like mine. I arrived in San Diego only the night before my program began. Compared to a remote island with no running water, scarce electricity and sporadic dial-up internet, San Diego was an enormous change.

And yet what scared me most was not any of the lifestyle changes, but the fact that I was about to be surrounded by, compared to and working with scientists. I had a picture of science in my head, I guess, and while I wanted to know what they did, I was still wary.

What did I find? I found that science was all about finding out more about what you loved. I met a surfer doing a doctoral work on waves. I met a long-haired professor who has the most intriguing coral facts and looks just like a fellow diving instructor (missing only a tan).

I met a guy who has the immensely envious job of flying a small aircraft low over the ocean to photograph whales. I met a professor who tells the most beautiful stories about how life diversified, and knows more about worms than I thought there was to know.

I went on research ships where I held fish that had been brought up from thousands of metres under the sea and saw mola-molas and dolphins and whales at the surface.

The first time I looked under a microscope I saw a teeny-tiny little crustacean, replete with all his arms and legs and organs and colours. When I picked him out of the petridish with tweezers he looked no different than a grain of sand. Yet here he was, from hundreds of meters below the surface, a fully functioning living being with stories of his own to tell.

Stories — one of the main reasons why I am here. I think for every question that is thought of while looking at something dramatic in nature, there is a story waiting to be told. And the best stories are fantastical ones, based on true life. So while I am not quite ready to trade in my pen and my creativity for a Bunsen burner and a data chart, science is helping me bridge the gap between fact and fantasy.

I am working on an educational app for children, where different reef fish will talk to them about their lives, their habits and their threats. I write a blog where I hope to share lessons about life from the deep. I intend to go back to teaching people to scuba dive – and to teach in a way that introduces not only the colourful sights of the sea, but also its deep mysteries.

Science is not about absent-minded, grey-haired, short-trousered professors looking at obscure particles and measuring them in units we’ve never heard of. Well, at least, it’s not all about them.

It is also about incredible creatures, adaptations to extreme conditions, winds, storms, oceans and the atmosphere in which we all live and must all protect. And this is what I hope most to share.

Hope for coral reefs

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Next week I’m returning to the island of Curaçao for the final field research season of my Ph.D. The trip will mark my fifth fall spent in the southern Caribbean, as well as my fifth time rearing baby corals to better understand what makes these unique animals tick.

The island has become a second home to me, and one that I’ve grown to appreciate deeply. Curaçao is perhaps more industrialized and built up than other Caribbean islands, but its pockets of great beauty make it the gem that it is. This perspective, though, may even better depict the state of the island’s coral reefs: patches of magnificence.

In early July I attended the 10th International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia. This coming together of coral reef scientists happens once every four years and provides a venue to assess the health of the ecosystem on a global scale. Most of the news was dire: reefs are declining throughout the world and it’s largely the result of human activities like pollution and climate change.

Retired SIO professor Dr. Jeremy Jackson was awarded the Darwin Medal for lifetime achievement and during his acceptance speech he presented preliminary results from a compilation of all the available data for the number of live corals throughout the world.

His message was that all hope isn’t lost. Despite what Caribbean-wide averages suggest, vestiges of reefs abundant with corals still exist. And Curaçao, the data show, is one such place.

In addition to sheer numbers, Jeremy spoke of variability in coral abundance, imploring scientists to consider reef health at the scale of islands rather than ocean basins. By not considering islands on their own we miss the greatest conservation successes and the worst failures, he argued, going on to say that locales can be fundamentally different from one another for reasons that are natural in addition to human-induced. In other words, natural conditions as well as the human footprint make certain places good or bad for corals.

My colleagues and I are taking Jeremy’s advice one step farther. When we look among the many reefs of Curaçao we find that the number of live corals varies dramatically reef-to-reef—some are teeming with life while others are graveyards. The crown jewels are the reefs of Easpoint, a sixteen-mile stretch of untouched chaparral wrapping the eastern tip of the island. Offshore live more corals than anywhere else on the island and their abundance more than triples the Caribbean-wide average.

Eastpoint has become the focus of my dissertation work both because of its great health as well as the growing risk to that health. Land ownership may change hands there, allowing the area to be developed and likely bringing with it many of the human-caused ills that have led to the demise of other reefs.

Efforts to conserve Eastpoint are alive, though, and one of my contributions is to add to a growing body of knowledge explaining why this area is so stunning. My colleagues and I are finding that certain species of coral produce more babies at Eastpoint than at other reefs. This not only bolsters local communities but it likely reseeds ailing reefs at other sites.

The larval phase, when corals are babies, is the only period during which these animals can move, much like seeds of trees. But instead of being pushed by the wind, coral larvae are pushed by water currents, drifting with the sea until they find a place to settle down. As the fates would have it, currents consistently push water east to west along Curaçao, rendering every other reef on the island down current from Eastpoint’s seemingly abundant supply of offspring.

So in Curaçao we see a positive synergy of what Jackson described as the factors controlling coral vitality: nature and humanity. Eastpoint is vibrant and healthy in the absence of people and its physical location is of great fortune for the island as a whole, holding on as a shining example of the hope that still exists for Caribbean coral reefs.

Photo: © Paul Selvaggio

Exploring close to home

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Click here to read and comment on UT-San Diego or read on…

Marine scientists, myself included, often cite exotic travel as one of the many perks of our job. While it certainly is, there is much to be said for making discoveries in our own backyard. And that’s exactly what twenty of my Scripps peers did this past month.

A core group of graduate students planned and executed a research trip that became known as the San Diego Coastal Expedition. Their purpose was to venture into the Pacific in search of extraordinary ecosystems on the ocean floor called methane seeps, all the while tracking interesting marine life and ocean conditions off our very own coast. As they did, the team communicated what they discovered via the internet, making their findings readily accessible to everyone back home.

As Gary Robbins reported in the UT San Diego last Thursday, the San Diego Coastal Expedition was a success. The team found clear traces of methane in sediment cores, strong evidence for a previously unknown methane seep just twenty miles off of Del Mar.

At these seeps, the chemical methane can naturally flow upward through cracks, or faults, in the ocean floor. Being that it is rich in carbon, the backbone of all life on earth, methane serves as the basic unit of food in these extremely unique ecosystems.

The team’s discovery required interdisciplinary science: geologists examined the structure of the ocean bottom, biologists identified creatures common to seeps, and chemists detected chemical signatures in sediment cores.

While finding the seep was hard, getting the opportunity to be there in the first place may have been even harder. Traveling to exotic locales for research is expensive, and while this trip was local, the need for a ship changed the game. Research vessels, such as the 279-foot R/V Melville used by my peers, are expensive to operate, leaving few opportunities for student use even when exploring our local waters.

Fortunately the team was able to apply to UC Ship Funds, a program specifically set up to provide student time on ships. Through the experience, which was overseen by a faculty adviser at Scripps, the student group went through a very similar process to that of senior scientists: applying for funds with a plan and budget, and after receiving funding, organizing and completing their sea-going research goals.

The core organizers, led by chief scientist Christina Frieder, seized upon this rare opportunity. They recruited scientific colleagues, undergraduates and volunteers from a number of nations, conducted great science and got the word out about their work.

This final point—their desire to communicate their findings—was a powerful and somewhat unique endeavor. The San Diego Coastal Expedition team created a blog and a Facebook page, and coined a Twitter hashtag. Before, during and after the trip they posted pictures and blogged often in order to keep anyone with an interest informed about their discoveries.

Through the combination of research, outreach and rapid communication the team is actively advancing an important new trajectory in science, and one that is a priority of the National Science Foundation.

In recent years, additional impetus has been put on science communication. A majority of our research is funded with federal and state dollars, thus we owe it to everyone to provide glimpses into our work. What’s more, engaging the public is an important vehicle for gaining interest in science. With a science-educated public, we can all enjoy and understand the fascination and fragility of ecosystems in our own backyard.

In December the San Diego Coastal Expedition team will return to the newly discovered methane seep to further unravel its mysteries. Stay tuned for later posts about their ongoing discoveries.


Reaching into the classroom


Click here to read and comment on UT-San Diego or read on…

During the coming school year I’ll be part of an NSF GK-12 program at UCSD, which teams Ph.D. students with K-12 teachers in classrooms throughout the county.

We’re in the throes of a four-week course that preps the grad students and teachers for our collaboration in the classroom. We began with simple communication: the grad students had to strip jargon from our research explanations while the teachers had to clarify the array of acronyms used in education. Then we, the grad students, began our training to be effective teachers.

The program’s aim isn’t solely to make us better at presenting Powerpoints to a general audience. We’re pushed to dig deeper and make our research both intellectually and physically accessible to our high school students.

With the help of my mentors, I’ll develop a series of lessons drawing on coral ecology and biology, using coral reefs to teach ecosystem interconnectedness, coral energy reserves to discuss macromolecules, and coral skeletons and tissue elements to talk about isotope chemistry.

On top of that, my teaching team plans to implement a full-scale scientific experiment in the classroom, guiding, but not instructing, our students through the process of defining questions, developing hypotheses, and planning experiments, then implementing and collecting data, and finally analyzing and interpreting findings.

I’ll have the privilege of working with a team at High Tech High North County— environmental engineering teacher Chris Morissette and biology teachers Matt Leader and Parag Chowdhury — along with fellow Ph.D. student Mike Lovci. Because High Tech High is a project-based school, we have the flexibility to tackle the ambitious undertaking of studying coral health in the classroom as we attempt to build a bridge between professional science and high school education.

Our project will challenge everyone, students and teachers alike. Through the process I’m certain that the students will learn critical truths about science, such as the importance of working together, the value of detailed planning and the necessity of problem solving on the fly.

One of the major themes I’ve tried to thread into Science Minded is that science can be best learned by doing. When students have to combine book smarts and hands-on ability they have the potential to advance rapidly, and in doing so realize both their strengths and weaknesses.

To conduct the project our students will have to read and engineer, write and design, and interpret and build; it’s unlikely that any are skilled in all of these areas, but through the diversity of roles necessary to complete the project we hope that each student will find their niche.

Throughout the year I’ll use Science Minded to communicate our progress—conveying what I’m learning from the students and my mentors—both scientifically and as a budding educator. On a broader scale, I hope that our hands-on approach will engage high school students and push them to be science-literate citizens.

I’m certain that there are multitudinous teachers out there using interactive lessons in and out of the classroom. My exposure to the array of such strategies is only in its infancy and my team could certainly use your help. So please offer feedback, thoughts and suggestions as we navigate this ambitious and exciting project.

Getting from A to B in a science career

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I often hear students say that they want to be marine biologists but they don’t know how to make a career of it. Many are concerned with what and how: What jobs can you get? How much do they pay? What type of a degree do you need? How hard is it?

As I highlighted in an earlier post, marine science jobs are diverse. But what I didn’t talk about was how to get from point A to point B—from school to a career. So for this post I’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of jobs in science. I’ll focus first on career options for those with a Ph.D. degree, and will address masters and bachelors-level options in future posts.

University Professor: Nearly all professorships require a Ph.D., and to get such a job you often also need experience as a postdoctoral researcher, or “postdoc”. During a postdoc, which can last for months to years, the primary goal is to expand your scientific skill set.

At the end of one or two postdocs, the hope is to get hired as a professor. Once this happens you can expect a higher salary with robust benefits and the chance to move up in pay and title. As a professor you’re afforded the opportunity to research the topics that interest you and continue to advance your chosen field. One big advantage is that once you get promoted from the junior (assistant) level, you have tenure and thus job security for the rest of your career.

While professorships are sought-after, they aren’t for everyone. Professors can work long hours to maintain a lab, teach, write grant proposals, perform service for their university, and mentor students. Besides, there just aren’t enough professorships for everyone with a Ph.D. Fortunately, there are other options.

Government Scientists: The government employs scientists at both the state and federal level. At agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, natural resources divisions, US Fish and Wildlife, and the National Science Foundation, scientists conduct work that straddles the scientific and policy realms.

While a number of government scientists do a postdoc term first, there are often openings to move directly into a full-time job. As with most government professions, workers receive a set paycheck, as well as health benefits and pension plans.

From what I know about salaries, many Ph.D. level government scientists receive pay that is comparable to that of university professors. Government scientists seem happy in their jobs, enjoying the stability, set work hours, and steady paycheck, in addition to the intellectual stimulation that comes with their position.

Environmental Consultant: When companies want to build something new — be it an office building, parking lot, or manufacturing plant — they must first assess how construction will impact the environment. To make such assessments they need an outside party to take a look, and this is one of the many roles of environmental consultants.

These experts straddle science and industry, and thus their jobs are influenced by the ups and downs of each. Pay can vary and is in large part determined by the ability of their firm to secure work. My sense from environmental consultant colleagues is that some are better paid than professors and government scientists, and like the latter they enjoy the set work hours of their job. But compared to those professions, environmental consultants have much less freedom to study the scientific questions that interest them.

Biotech: San Diego is a center of biotech research, where scientists develop new medicines and useful materials by tapping into the biology of the natural world. Some Scripps Ph.D. students move on to biotech companies immediately after graduation and many report back that they are happy and very well paid. My sense is that biotech jobs offer much more freedom for scientific discovery than do consulting, but research topics and paycheck size still remains driven by the overall success of the company.

Above are examples of just a few career tracks for those with a Ph.D. degree and I hope I’ve done a fair job of describing some of the pros and cons of each. Remember of course these are just my observations and I imagine those working day-to-day in each area might have a slightly different take on things.

In a couple weeks I’ll put my own spin on it—weighing the pros and cons of a few of my own options as I look toward graduation—and in later posts I’ll detail job options for masters and bachelors degree-level scientists.

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