Seeking the Science of the Garbage Patch

July 27, 2009
The R/V New Horizon

The R/V New Horizon

It’s finally time to announce why I’ve been neglecting the poor Oyster’s Garter all summer. This Sunday, August 2nd, the first Scripps expedition to study plastic accumulation in the North Pacific Gyre will depart San Diego. A collaboration between Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the nonprofit Project Kaisei, SEAPLEX (Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition) aims to quantify exactly how much plastic is a lot, and what effects the debris might have on the base of the food web.

And I’m SEAPLEX chief scientist. Eeek.

But I couldn’t possibly lead a blog-less Twitter-less cruise. And I especially couldn’t work on this issue without giving people a chance to see the problem (virtually) first-hand. So you’ll be able to follow along with SEAPLEX through our blog and our Twitter feed. You can also sign up to receive email updates by joining the SEAPLEX Google Group.

Though our internet access at sea will be limited, we will be able to respond to your questions and comments. We are incredibly excited to go on this cruise and even more excited to share our observations with you. So get your RSS feeds ready – it’s going to be an interesting three weeks.

More on scientists in GQ

June 12, 2009

In my last Double X blog post, I wrote about the Rock Stars of Science campaign. Dr. Isis has a different take:

The point of the campaign is to show people that science is hip, and cool, and sexy, and [insert other adjective here], but in each shot the scientists are fawning over the musicians.  The message this photo campaign sends is, “Yeah, being a scientist cool but, if I could be, I would really want to be [insert rock star name here].”  Thus, people looking at this campaign aspire to also be rockstars.  Not scientists.

And (via Isis), Bora scooped GQ back in 2006:

In this day of mass communications, it is logical to use modern technology to further your aims, so popularization of science should do the same. Turning some scientists into radio personalities, talk-show hosts, TV stars, movie stars and Internet stars (MySpace and blogs, for instance) should be a part of a multi-prong strategy to spread the scientific reasoning and rationality, as well as excitement for knowledge about the natural world.

What do you think? Could scientists become as famous as rockstars (and get featured in US Weekly – “Scientists! They’re Just Like Us!”)? Will this help change the perception of scientists as boring and science as a high-status but low-income career path? And frankly, do we actually need more scientists when there’s few decent jobs for the PhDs that we already have?

Is there a shortage of oceanographers?

May 13, 2009

My father (Hi, Dad!) sent me this NYT article on the Rutgers University glider program. Gliders are little ocean-going robots that dive down, take measurements, and surface to email their data back to you. Since ship time is so expensive, having a glider noodling about on its own is incredibly helpful in figuring out what the ocean is doing. The NYT article definitely brought home the “gliders! yay!” message, but what excited my father was this:

Through its novel glider program, Rutgers is trying to drum up interest in ocean science at a time when federal officials are alarmed about a shortage of scholars in a field considered crucial because of growing concerns about ocean health as a result of climate change and overfishing.

The federal Departments of Commerce and Education, in a report last fall focusing on a branch of marine science that assesses fish stocks, said the National Marine Fisheries Service was “now experiencing a perfect storm.” Citing many imminent retirements, an increased workload and a “decreasing supply” of such scientists, the report called on Congress to bolster financing to expand the number of graduate students.

Really? This doesn’t really jive with the grad student scuttlebutt about the job market – it’s hard to find reliable work. Many of the federal agencies hire postdocs on 1-year contracts, which is extremely stressful for people who need a steady income to raise their family. But nothing would make this grad student happier than the promise of good employment in about 3.5 years, so tell me I’m wrong!

Award for best cephalopod paper

April 18, 2009

The Cephalopod International Advisory Council is sponsoring an award for the best cephalopod-related scientific paper published since their last meeting in 2006. They don’t say exactly what the award is, but if you’ve published a cephalopaper, why not?  Nominations are due July 15.

Mia Tegner, who spoke for the sea

March 25, 2009

This month’s Diversity in Science Carnival coincides with Women’s History Month, so the theme is Women Achievers in STEM: Past and Present. I’m going to write about a woman who I really, really wish I could have met: Mia J. Tegner.

Mia Tegner received her PhD from Scripps in 1974. Though she came to Scripps as a sea urchin microbiologist, she soon started to wonder about the ecological role of sea urchins in the kelp forest. At the time, overfishing of large coastal fish that prey on urchins had led to massive starving urchins fronts which had eaten the entire kelp forest. Correction: Actually, she was interested in the ecological effects of the urchin and abalone fisheries. Urchin barrens were not an issue at the time. 

Alongside her longtime collaborator Paul Dayton, she teased apart the biological and physical factors controlling kelp forest dynamics. Their monograph on kelp forest patch dynamics is a classic in the field. Dr. Tegner also showed that harvesting different urchin species had different ecological effects, and studied the decline of local abalone species due to overfishing and disease.

Later, Dr. Tegner got more involved in marine policy. She found that the outfall of San Diego’s sewage treatment plant had no impact on local ecosystems, and wasn’t afraid to say so. But she also found that overfishing had devastated her beloved Point Loma kelp forest and spoke out against overfishing and shifting baselines syndrome. She said, “People deserve scientists’ time and efforts to provide data on which to base decisions regarding the environment.”

The current mandate to create marine protected areas in southern California in part stems from Dr. Tegner’s work, but she did not live to see them. She died in a diving accident in 2001, when she was 53. My office is two doors down from where hers used to be (though I never met her; she died five years before I came to Scripps). Not only did her premature death deprive the world of  her deep understanding of marine ecology and love of the ocean, but I bet she would have been quite a mentor as well.

A day in the life of three marine biologists. Really.

March 21, 2009

Dr. M at Deep Sea News was all “ZOMG! Ocean science is so much work and reading and computery stuff!” Whatev, Dr M. I don’t know about YOUR science cruises, but MINE are totally like this.* Manta net? Check. Niskin bottles? Check. T-Pain? Check.

*Editor’s Note: The Oyster’s Garter is aimed at a general adult audience and hovers around PG-13 for strong language and some sexual content. Certain awesome yet underage ocean bloggers & their moms should take care. This particular video happens to have strong language, but don’t count on me to remember to disclaim everything.

Martini-Corona, this video changed my life. Thank you, oh thank you.

Restore a habitat, save the economy

March 9, 2009

NOAA is seeking “shovel-ready” coastal and marine restoration projects. You can restore valuable habitat while virtuously stimulating the economy (not to mention having your research actually get funded.) Proposals are due April 6.

From the press release:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is seeking applications for projects that will restore coastal and marine habitats under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, in an unprecedented effort to jumpstart the economy, create save several thousand jobs, and restore valuable coastal and marine habitat. Congress has entrusted NOAA with up to $170 million for habitat restoration in coastal areas including the Great Lakes. NOAA is accepting applications for a variety of habitat restoration projects – including wetlands restoration, dam removals, shellfish restoration, and coral reef restoration.

Pondering the lack of diverse sexualities in the ocean sciences

March 3, 2009

I started this post while writing up the diversity section of my Science Online presentation, but it’s been languishing in my drafts folder for over a month. However, Dr. Glitterbear’s sad comment over at Deep Sea News prompted me to dig it out again. On a post on how to become a deep-sea biologist, Dr. Glitterbear said:

To do deep sea research, it also helps to be white, male and hetero. I was once in that field but grew weary of the homophobic attitudes. And after a prominent researcher told me that people like me don’t belong in science, I stopped fighting and switched to a field less insular and bigoted.

Now, I’m not a deep-sea researcher, but I am at an oceanographic institution with five research vessels and I do go out to sea. I agree with Peter and Kevin that it’s a lot easier to be female in the sciences these days, but I have no idea if it’s hard to be gay. That’s because I know very, very few LGBT scientists, grad students, or even undergrads. In fact, I think that I’ve only met three LGBT ocean scientists ever – Rick MacPherson, a former master’s student at SIO, and a friend in Boston who is just starting to get into marine resource management. (Along with Joan Roughgarden, but I’ve never met her.)

Since I bordered on haggery in college, it’s not for lack of knowing tons of LGBT people outside of science. But even at my very LGBT-friendly undergrad institution, I think there was only one gay undergrad in the ecology department.  And currently at SIO, I don’t know a single LGBT person.

I can think of a couple possibilities:

1) I have met lots of LGBT scientists, but I didn’t know them well enough to know about their personal lives. I’m sure this is true to some extent, but after hanging around the same place with the same people for several years, you do tend to meet most people’s SOs at happy hours and graduation parties.

2) There aren’t that many LGBT people to begin with (<10% of the total population), and there aren’t that many ocean scientists, so it’s just a function of statistics.

3) Ocean sciences are unfriendly to LGBT people, so they are not out at work or leave the field altogether. I’m also sure this is true to some extent.

What do you think?

Survey on sustainable seafood

February 24, 2009

One of my classmates, Cathy Preston, is doing her master’s project on sustainable seafood. She wants to know what kind of seafood you consume and how you chose it. Take her 30-second survey here, and you’ll have both the satisfaction of helping a student to Save The World and a chance to win $25.  All info will be kept confidential.

Dr. Tyrone Hayes speaks for the frogs

February 22, 2009

Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a professor at Berkeley, was happily going along being a world expert in frog development. Then he met atrazine, a widely used herbicide. In a study funded by atrazine’s manufacturer Syngenta, he found that atrazine caused genital abnormalities and severe hermaphroditism in frogs. Syngenta subsequently tried to buy him off, bury his results, and discredit him.

In spite of his harrowing experience, Dr. Hayes has continued to study atrazine. He’s recently been working on pesticide mixtures, which turn out to be far more toxic than individual pesticides. And he’s an amazing speaker. He gave a talk at SIO last year and brought down the house.  (Full disclosure: I was organizing the seminar series at the time, and I invited him. Because I think he is awesome.)

And he has an atrazine rap!

Dr. Hayes first fell in love with frogs growing up in South Carolina. In a Discover Magazine article about him:

Hayes has always been fond of frogs. He grew up in a modest neighborhood of brick houses outside Columbia, South Carolina. The development had been drained of its marsh, but snakes, turtles, and amphibians abounded. Hayes followed them and learned their ways. As a teenager, he dug a pond in his backyard, hoping to breed turtles. He kept lizards…When he began dating, he took girlfriends to the Congaree Swamp, nine miles away. The young women assumed he had other things in mind, but his motives were always the same: He wanted help catching frogs.

He went to college at Harvard, got his PhD at age 24, and went on to be the youngest tenured professor at Berkeley. He’s won many awards, including being deemed a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Dr. Hayes has also mentored many students. From the Discovery article:

From the outset, Hayes’s lab attracted minority students and soon became far and away the most diverse in the department. The department of integrative biology is only 3 percent black and has produced just four black Ph.D.’s in its history… Now nearly 20 percent of his lecture class is black. Hayes says he concentrates on selecting talented students who need nurturing.

Want more Dr. Hayes? Check out his full lecture, “From Silent Spring to Silent Night” on YouTube.


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