The Eco-Evo Lab Blog

A letter to my students

The last couple of days have been pretty tough for me, and maybe for some of you too. Some of you might be fearful about what the future may bring, both personally and professionally. I’m concerned that we’re going to see more attacks on science, discrediting of scientists themselves, and personal attacks on groups of people that have already been marginalized in this country. We’re bound to see some dark days ahead.

I want you all to know that I will do everything in my power to prevent any of that from happening. The Biology department will always be a safe space for discussion of scientific ideas and rationale debate.  Women, men, people of color, underrepresented groups, people of any religion, people of no religion, people of any sexual orientation, or really any human, should never be subject to intimidation, abuse, or made to feel uncomfortable in this environment. If you ever feel that way, please don’t hesitate to talk to me about it and I will do whatever I can to solve the problem. I’m here to be your ally and support you.
We live in the Age of Enlightenment, where we are meant to be ruled by reason, rather than emotion or belief. The last year has made me fear that we’re moving out of that age and back to a more regressive stage of society, where gut feelings and irrational thought matter more than reasoned debate. There’s never been a more important time for scientists in the world. We just witnessed a total failure of “scientific” polls, which were not based on solid facts or good modeling. Much of what these pollsters are doing is stuff that we’ve been covering in Biometry. No matter what grade you get in the class, I want you to be able to understand some of these basic methods and be able to reasonably separate fact from fiction. You are all scientists, whether or not that’s your career goal. Be an advocate for science. I need you. The country needs you. And the world needs you. When you hear misinformation or poor reasoning, correct it. When you see or hear injustice, correct it. When you see or hear prejudice, correct it. It’s not always easy to do, but sometimes we have to choose between what’s easy and what’s right. Choose what’s right. Everyday. In your all of your interactions. Be an advocate. And in return, I will always be an advocate for you…as a scientist, as a student, and as a person.
Finally, let’s all support each other and remember that a lot of good things happened in the United States yesterday. Four women of color were elected to the Senate, meaning that our government is closer to representing the composition of our country and more minority voices will be heard on the national stage. California passed a reasonably progressive slate of legislation, although there is still work to be done there too. As California continues to pass legislation that is intended to mediate climate change and support science, the rest of the country and the world have often followed suit. There is no place in this country that I’d rather live than in California. In an open email, our legislature wrote: “California has long set an example for other states to follow. And California will defend its people and our progress. We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility.”
“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light”
     -Albus Dumbledore
Be good y’all.
Posted in Blog Posts, Featured
Leave a comment

Microbial landscapes

How much time do you devote to thinking about the microbial organisms that share our environment with us. Perhaps you think of them before washing your hands or when someone sneezes next to you in the bus. Perhaps you think about them all the time. Perhaps you are not willing to confess here, just how much you think about bacteria, fungi and protozoans swimming in the water, covering all surfaces, floating in the air.

Honestly, I would love to be able to see them. I realize that scale is an issue and I would need to be around 10um tall to be able to appreciate the marvels of the microbial world. Thus, I fully prepared for the advent of technology that will make us tiny. Here is my top 5 of sights to see if I ever get to be around 10 um tall.

  1. Colony on agar:

Early microbiologists relied on colony morphology to identify, describe and study microorganisms. They would report the size, color (pigmentation), shape, margin, texture and abundance. Importantly, each colony is made out of thousands of cells arranged along a density gradient from a dense center of the colony to a sparse periphery. If you were walking on top of the agar towards the colony, you would first see few cells, arranged seemingly at random – not unlike walking towards a patch of forest and finding trees are sparse at the edge. Then, cells will become more densely packed, probably one on top of the other, to the point where the colony is elevated over the substrate and cells are packed in dense layers. Interestingly, cells arrangements would differ across bacterial species as they differ across types of forests. But bear in mind that each colony grows from a single cell and all of its constituents are clones of one another. You have just walked through a forest of clones. See some spectacular pictures of bacterial cell arrangements here and, less spectacular but more informative, see here for electron microscopy of different sections of colonies of B. subtilis and B. cereus.

  1. Bacterioplankton

Bacteria floating in lakes, rivers and oceans are critical for chemical transformations providing resources for phytoplankton and zooplankton alike. Bacteria are capable of fixing nitrogen, providing critical nutrients for photosynthetic processes, thus fueling primary productivity. But bacteria are also important in recycling organic matter and in providing resource for bacterivorous species of ciliates, flagellates, and other eukaryotic microorganisms. This is an incomplete list of the role bacteria play in aquatic systems (they can also transform sulfur, iron, manganese and mercury, among many more). I can imagine immersing myself in this environment, to see them clump around copepod fecal pellets, colonize the surface of diatoms or turning into a nanoflagellate’s lunch. It has to be a fantastic view, tiny bacterial cells moving across an aquatic landscape of colorful eukaryotic plankton. It sounds terrifying to be chased by a ciliate, unable to swim due to drag. Perhaps I’ll bring a little propeller with me.

  1. Marine biofilm

Submerged surfaces in aquatic environments are readily colonized by microorganisms. In particular, bacteria attach to the surface and begin the formation of a three dimensional structure composed of exopolysaccharide (EPS) and protein secretions. This newly formed habitat can then house other kinds of bacteria, in addition to algae and diatoms becoming a complex tiny jungle, a mature biofilm. I imagine climbing through the bridges of EPS as one climbs across the roots of a mangrove forest. I wonder if we can see slow migrations of cells across the different layers, sudden changes in the chemical environment driven by quorum sensing or the death of an old biofilm, when all inhabitants leave and the structures degrade like an old, abandoned city.

  1. Gut bacterial community

The entrails of our bodies remain a source of inquiry for scientists and non-scientists alike. I vividly remember cartoons and drawings of voyages (accidental or on purpose) across the gut. Now we know that a large portion of the function of our stomach and intestines is facilitated by millions of bacterial cells that reside right there, inside of us (see here for the Human Microbiome Project). I can imagine being able to walk down the small intestine, trying not to step on large colonies of bacteria lining the floor, walls and roof around me. It would be interesting to see whether they are clumped, well distributed or completely randomized in their distribution across the surface. I would not want to be there when the food bolus coming in – a mix between the scene from Indiana Jones running away from a big rock sphere and a laparoscopic video of your small intestine.

  1. Hydrothermal vents.

I would like to see this full ecosystem thriving away from the sunlight. As columns of thick smoke seep into the cold waters, bacteria chemosynthesis provides resources for worms, crustaceans and snails in an oasis of productivity amongst a desert of darkness and emptiness. I would like to see yeti crabs waving their hairy claws full of bacteria, or vestimentiferan tube worms waving in the current like weird bald palm trees. I would like to see the bacteria on their tissues and the mats of bacteria covering the seeps. I would even settle for visiting while fully human sized, the deep see seems as a crazy place as the microbial world.

What microbial habitats would you like to see if you were 10 um tall?

Note 1: I have to confess I am aquatic in my heart which is reflected in the lack of terrestrial habitats.

Note 2: Michael Crichton is way ahead of me, and if this is all sounding interesting to you, you should probably read Micro too.

Note 3: But I did write a song about it.

Notice: before you go wondering around as a 10um sized creature, remember that drag, gravity and viscosity will work differently on a tiny organism. Practice swimming in honey.

Posted in Blog Posts, Featured
Leave a comment

The Versatile Ecologist

I spent most of the summer eagerly waiting for a piece of equipment (components of which we are still waiting on), and physically could not wait to start my thesis experiments. I probably wasn’t as prepared as I should have been when I was scuba diving with a friend for her project in the cold water of Santa Barbara, and impulsively decided to collect some kelp for my project. It wasn’t more than 30 minutes after getting out of the water that the panic started to set in. I immediately made a mental to-do list: fix shelves, hang lights, make nutrient media, set up microscope. Once the list started to overwhelm me, I thought, “We are so much more than ecologists.” Immediately one of those “What I Really Do” memes popped into my head. Do I even know what I do…?


Over the next 48 hours I went to Lowes three times, built 9 shelves, lifted an absurdly heavy cooler full of kelp, wired the cold room for heating pads and grow lamps, cried 6 times, oh, and I imaged 432 microscope slides. Every trip across campus with my Lowes buckets, extension cords, Erlenmeyer flasks, and plywood, I think to myself, “If these people had to guess what my career was, how many would guess correctly?” Here’s the list that I came up in the many hours that I have spent at the microscope since starting my experiment:

  • Electrician
  • Carpenter
  • Maintenance woman
  • Professional weightlifter
  • Undergraduate research assistant
  • Engineer
  • Chemist
  • Marine biologist?

In all of the moments that I spent dreaming of becoming a scientist, I never once expected that I would really be an engineer, electrician, and marine biologist. As stressful as running experiments may be, it is pretty awesome to realize how versatile we all are.  So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or unimpressed with yourself, sit back and think about how many skills you have that you don’t even realize.



Posted in Blog Posts, Featured
Leave a comment

Can a coral reef die?

Can a coral reef die?

An inaccurate (and possibly tongue in cheek) article went viral and triggered many crying-emojis on the internet over the past few days. Its bold claim? “The Great Barrier Reef is dead, RIP.” The reality is a little less bleak and more nuanced, but when is a reef, or any other ecosystem made up of thousands upon thousands of different species, “dead”? And can it come back?

img_6392Bleached corals dot the back reef in Okinawa, which, like much of the globe, experienced severe bleaching this year (photo by the author).


First, just some brief fact checking: the Great Barrier Reef is not dead. This claim arises, however, from an alarming fact: last Austral summer (so winter 2015-16 for us Northern Hemisphere folks), a record number of corals on the GBR, particularly in the north, bleached and died. This happened because the El Niño conditions at the time were among the strongest ever, making the ocean much, much warmer than usual. Corals can live in a wide variety of environments, but this sort of sudden change (which will likely become more common as the planet warms) upsets the balance between corals and the tiny algae that live in their tissues and provide the corals with food. The corals expel the algae, and then they starve to death.

This is also not the first time this has happened. The 1998/1999 El Niño was of similar strength, and sparked a similarly devastating global bleaching event. But while many reefs lost most of their corals during that El Niño, some recovered their hard corals and some did not. Some grew back as soft coral communities rather than reefs, while others were reborn as unsightly algae beds. Now that this El Niño has ended, the same will likely be true for the Great Barrier Reef. Ten years from now, corals will have grown back in places, and others will be unrecognizable, possibly barren, possibly replaced by ecosystems that are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Scientists will work hard to try to understand why some reefs are resilient and others aren’t, and these ecosystems will continue to die and regrow and change as the planet heats up.

We are entering (or, more accurately, have already entered) an era of great change for this planet. The ecosystems of 2116 will undoubtedly differ greatly from those today – but we may have the power to guide these changes. By limiting carbon emissions as much as possible, investing in scientific research, and using this knowledge to manage natural resources in new and creative ways, we can avoid the worst of all possible outcomes, and hopefully preserve much of the earth’s biodiversity. I believe this article achieved its goal of starting conversation about the perils faced by reefs among people who never would have thought about it otherwise. While some are worried that the article prompted fatalism among those who took it literally – were these people really about to save coral reefs anyway?

A reef can die, but it can also be reborn. We may not have been able to stop this bleaching event, but the actions we take over the next few decades will determine the fate of these ecosystems, and all ecosystems, as our planet continues to warm.

Posted in Blog Posts, Featured
Leave a comment

We’re looking for new graduate students

Eco-Evo Lab at California State University, Northridge is seeking outstanding candidates for the M.S. program in Biology. Research in our lab focuses on the interface between ecological and evolutionary processes. As community ecologists, we are interested in how species interactions affect species and genetic diversity in communities. In particular, we are interested in how rapid evolution affects species interactions, such as predation, competition, and mutualism. Moreover, as evolutionary biologists, we are interested in how interactions among multiple species in natural communities affect selection on traits and evolutionary trajectories. Our research combines theoretical and empirical approaches to tackle these questions.

Current research projects in the lab focus on (1) how evolution affects the diversity and stability of bacteria and protozoa communities that live inside carnivorous pitcher plants, (2) genetic variation and evolution of symbiotic algae living on coral reefs, and (3) genetic diversity in invasive species in California grasslands. Students are encouraged to develop independent research projects in any of these systems. More information is available at our website.

Northridge is located in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles and provides access to many different natural habitats. The location is within a short commute of Santa Monica and Hollywood. The Biology program at CSUN has a reputation of turning out excellent Master’s students who often continue on to top-tier Ph.D. programs. CSUN was recently recognized by Nature as one of the top 25 Rising Institutions for Research in North America. Our interactive group combines faculty and students from the Ecology & Evolution program  and Marine Biology program.

The ideal candidate will have previous research experience, familiarity with the R programming language, and a passion for science. Interested students should contact Casey terHorst ( In your email, please describe your research interests, any previous research experience, and your career goals. Include a CV, if possible. Formal applications are due on February 15, but interested students should contact me well before then. Members of under-represented groups in ecology are especially encouraged to apply.

Posted in Blog Posts, Featured
Tagged ,
Leave a comment

Scientist: A blessing and a curse

Recently, I was hiking on a trail near Los Angeles, enjoying the weekend and my days off from grad school. It was great to hear the crunch of leaves under my feet, feel the sun on my skin, and breathe in the substantially cleaner air of Topanga State Park. As a busy grad student, such moments of relief from stress and anxiety are often fleeting and hard to come by. At the end of the trail, I looked out over the beaches below and the ocean extending out from there, trying to take in the scenery, sounds, and wildlife—those birds chirping as they settle in for the night, the wind creating lines and waves on the ocean’s surface. Then, like the sound of a siren as it approaches from afar, the moment of silence was interrupted when the scientist portion of my brain slowly crept in to fill the void.

What sort of things are those birds trying to communicate? Are they trying to gather their young or warn friends about predators? They’re pretty close to me, how have all the human visitors to the park affected their behavior? Their survival? Their fitness?

Is there any kelp along the shore? Are those waves helping disperse kelp spores to supplement the population? Or are they building and building to break the kelp at the stipe and send the entire individual down to San Diego? How would that affect all the fish that use that kelp for habitat? Poor poor Dory, lost from her family…silly Disney, blue tangs don’t live in temperate waters!

Once my mind starts, it jumps from question to question with such rapid fire speed that I often forget what question started this whole death spiral…which makes me disgruntled. So now I’m disgruntled and surrounded by nature and I can’t just sit there in silence and appreciate it. This, to me, is part of the curse of being a scientist—there is no aspect of life where science can’t interject questions and hypotheses. However, this curse is also a blessing at times.

We go through life analyzing everything through scientific lens and constantly asking questions, but that’s just the best part—we’re always asking questions, thinking about the way that things work, allowing the gears in our curious minds to turn. It is this constant state of thinking and wondering and questioning that makes being a scientist a constant adventure, and emboldens us to keep doing what we’re doing. While having a critical mind may initially seem like a curse for simply observing the world, it is also the blessing that has led to so many great scientific discoveries by people who let their mind wander and acted on a wacky suggestion from the scientific voice in their heads.


Posted in Blog Posts, Featured
Leave a comment

Don’t picture this!

I spent a lot of time at academic conferences this summer where people were presenting the results of their research. One of the most noticeable changes at conferences in the last few years has been the prevalence of camera phones. It’s become routine that when a data slide comes up, several cameras, phones, and iPads go up into the air to take a photo. Personally, I find this pretty distracting during a talk, in part because people are effectively raising their hands in the middle of the talk, but even more so when the phone makes that fake camera noise.

Most conferences now have a policy against taking photos of slides during talks, which I assume also applies to posters. But such rules are usually buried in the program somewhere, which most people won’t have read. This has been my pet peeve at conferences, until this summer when I noticed people taking photos of MY slides from the audience. Like a starlet on stage, I blushed and thought, “You like me. You really like me!!” It’s honestly pretty flattering to see…at least compared to watching somebody sleep through your talk.

So what do you think? Should conference attendees be allow to take photos of slides during the conference? Here are my arguments for and against:


-It’s an academic conference and people are there to communicate research results. The pace of publishing a scientific paper is very slow; results often come out years after the experiment was completed. Conferences are a way to present research results much faster. So why shouldn’t the audience be allowed to consume that research in the most efficient method?

-Pictures are much faster than trying to write down notes while listening to the speaker.

-Camera phones have become a way of life. They might be distracting to cranky old farts like me, but not to most people.


-These results aren’t yet published. Technically one could steal the research and publish it themselves, although I suspect there is almost zero risk of this in ecology and evolution, although this might vary by discipline. But it also opens the door to plagiarism of many other aspects of one’s presentation.

-What one presents at a research conference is not always the final story. Data analyses are often hasty and in the preliminary stage and may change significantly before the paper is published. I’d hate for many of my conference slides to be remembered as the final word on any particular research topic. If photos end up posted to the internet, they’re there forever. And it wouldn’t be unusual for one to tweet a photo of a talk that they liked.

-It’s really annoying! Partly because of the distraction, but also because of the broader trend in taking pictures rather than notes. As a teacher, I can say that the notes you take will stick in your brain much longer than a passing photo.


So what do you think? Am I being a cranky old man about this (highly likely) or is this a great form for people to quickly share research results?

Posted in Blog Posts, Featured, Uncategorized
Tagged , , , , , , , , ,
Leave a comment

Eco-Evo Blog Returns from Summer Break

As it’s really starting to feel like Fall in LA this week (don’t worry, it’ll be hot again next week), Eco-Evo Lab is returning from our summer “vacation”. Unfortunately, most academics don’t live the lives that most people think we do. While we get a break from teaching in the summer, that’s when research kicks into high gear. We’ve all been busy over the summer, but classes have started up again, and we’re about to get back into the mode of writing blog posts again. So stay tuned for those soon. Meanwhile, here’s a brief update on what’s been going in the lab this summer:

Conferences: Various members of the lab have been traveling to conferences to present our research. We spent time at the Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu, HI (really one of the best organized meetings I’ve ever attended…their conference app was really impressive…I’m looking at you, ESA!). A few of us attended the Ecological Society of America meeting in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Attendance was pretty low at the meeting, and it was HOT!, but we still had a great time catching up on what’s new in the field and getting reacquainted with old friends.

Research Trips: Melissa and Zoë spent a couple of weeks in Moorea, French Polynesia collecting microbial samples from different types of coral colonies. We’re now trying to get these samples analyzed in the lab, with the help of a colleague (Dr. Gilberto Flores) here at CSUN. Jamie spent most of his summer either traveling up and down the west coast of the US and in Japan collecting crab samples. He’s now looking at variation in claw color across sites and hoping to use genetic markers to look for signs of population structure.

Research at Home: Nickie wrapped up her second big plant experiment here in the greenhouse at CSUN, looking at genetic variation in an invasive plant species. She is now starting to analyze that data that will wrap up her dissertation. Zoë finished a summer-long research experiment on the effects of invasive species in fouling communities and is nearly finished with her year-round sampling of recruitment in these communities.

Frustration at Home: In an example of why science can sometimes be very frustrating, Melissa spent much of the summer anxiously awaiting the arrival of a piece of equipment from Denmark that is crucial for starting her experiment. Word on the street is that it may finally arrive next week, which is good, because she might explode if she has to wait any longer to get started. Nevertheless, Melissa’s taken advantage of the time to do a lot of research on potential molecular techniques that she’ll be able to use to look for signs of adaptation to heat stress in giant kelp along our coast.

Theoretical Ecology Has no Season: Peter has been working on a mathematical model in the lab, which is about to turn out two different publications. The good thing about modeling is that you can do it any time. The bad thing is that the work never seems to be done. There’s always some new aspect of the model to explore and it’s tough to know when to say enough is enough.

So, we’ve been busy. Look for more blog posts in the near future with tales of our adventures, thoughts on scientific topics, highlights of research we find interesting, or just rants about things we find frustrating. Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook (@evolutionaryecology) or Twitter (@EcoEvoLab) for more updates on things we find interesting.

Posted in Blog Posts, Featured, Uncategorized
Leave a comment

Microbes in Paradise (Round 2)

Last month Zoë and I were lucky enough to return to Mo’orea, French Polynesia as a follow-up to Casey and Zoë’s trip last year. Last year’s exploratory trip sparked a larger and improved version of the project: investigating the microbial communities of 3 different color morphs of the coral Porites rus from two different locations on the reef (the fringing reef and the back reef). We spent two weeks collecting countless samples, completing 180 DNA extractions, and setting up a reciprocal transplant experiment. The time spent on extractions in the overly air conditioned lab made our fieldwork and free time even more rewarding. Anticipating a potential blog post, I decided to keep track of some of our notable events from the trip!

On May 18th, we arrived in the beautiful and pleasantly humid Tahiti as the sun was rising after an 8-hour flight. It took me at least an hour to truly understand that I would be in paradise for the next 2 weeks. Our first day was a tired blur of unpacking, assisting fellow CSUN graduate students, and taking far too many pictures of the same stunning scenery.

Our accommodations, a water-front bungalow, far surpassed my expectations.  With a quaint outdoor kitchen, a 5-step walk into the Pacific Ocean, and a stunning view of Cook’s Bay, Zoë and I often asked, “How could you ever be unhappy here?” The birds would wake me up early, but it gave me time to enjoy my coffee while watching the sunrise. Who wouldn’t want to wake up like that? At sunset, we would sit at the kitchen table eagerly watching the water for sharks and rays. One night I saw a blacktip reef shark and a nurse shark, along with several large rays during our stay. At night we often walked in the shallow water in front of our bungalow with our headlamps on observing the various fishes and crabs, that is until we saw a not-so welcomed visitor. This eel-like fish (seen in the slideshow) would swim stealthily along the shoreline every night, and its eerie, glowing, eyes were enough to keep us out of the water at night. 

Although our quiet bungalow was the perfect place to relax with a glass of wine after a long day, there were some interesting moments. One night I was washing the dishes from our surprisingly delicious lasagna, when a black, hairy object fell out of the window right in front of me, running away in a panicked scuttle just as I did. At first I thought it was a bat, but we quickly realized that there was a rat nest above the kitchen sink, the rat running across the beam above tipped us off. It must have been the night of falling objects, as my mosquito net also fell on me right after I tucked myself into it, and this was promptly followed by the startling bang of a coconut falling on our metal roof, just in time to wake us as we were finally drifting to sleep.

The best memories from our trip were certainly made in the field. We were in the water almost every day, and despite the hard work that we were doing, I made it a priority to take in my surroundings. Life’s beauty can often pass you by if you don’t focus on the small things, such as curious gobies in the sand or the playful sounds of nearby spinner dolphins. For all of the great experiences we had in the field, we also had several stress inducing ones. For example, I never realized how much corals could stress me out until I was in charge of directing Zoë around bommies (stand-alone coral structures) as she drove the boat.

For our reciprocal transplant experiment, we used Z-Spar to adhere coral nubbins to cinder blocks, which would either stay at their home reef (fringing or back) or be transplanted to the other reef. These were very long days, as they required both collecting and adhering the corals to the blocks. In the excitement of completing all of the gluing, we tucked our coral nubbins in between two bommies for the night and went for a relaxing swim, took some pictures, and drove back to the station…thinking we could easily find our blocks in the large expanse of the back reef. Hah. We searched for 2 days, and a total of 6 hours via snorkel and the boat, and even looked at the pictures we had taken both underwater and above (seen in the slideshow) for clues as to where we left them. We almost gave up, until, thanks to a diligent search pattern, Zoë spotted the blocks on our way back to the station. We jumped up and down, danced, and could not stop shaking our heads in disbelief. And of course, we promptly took GPS coordinates of the blocks so that this never happens again. Neither of us will ever forget a GPS, that’s for sure. This was, hands down, our happiest moment of the trip. We completed the transplant that afternoon, and could now relax for the remainder of our trip.

We took full advantage of our free time by kayaking, tagging along on collection trips with other students, and enjoying paradise. We swam with countless rays and blacktip sharks. We moved our hands through the water, and watched the surface light up with bioluminescence.  We watched a spotted eagle ray, one of the most stunning and graceful animals on earth in my opinion, off of the station dock. We went out for crepes with our friends at the station. We stargazed in silence, in disbelief that the Milky Way could be so bright. And, of course, we went to happy hour to celebrate our accomplishments. No wonder it was so hard to say goodbye.

Posted in Blog Posts, Featured
Leave a comment

Science Waste

In the weekly meetings of my graduate seminar on Marine Pollution this semester, topics like plastic pollution, derelict fishing gear, and noise pollution stimulated a great amount of discussion among fellow graduate students. During a lot of these (sometimes heated) discussions, buzzwords like “policy”, “sustainability”, “funding”, or “public awareness” came up frequently as we put our heads together to figure out what could be done to manage and mitigate marine pollution. This seminar taught me a lot about how intertwined policy is with a lot of these marine pollutants, whereas before I tended to focus on the ecological effects each pollutant had. Beyond that, however, this seminar pushed me to reflect on how I contribute to the problem—both as a scientist and as a human.

I’ve taken measures at home to reduce the amount of waste I produce by recycling (glass containers to cups), reusing grocery bags, and reducing the amount of plastic-packaged goods I buy. While these things are easy enough for anyone to do in their day-to-day life, the simple switch may not be as apparent for scientists. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to reuse a lot of materials from colleagues for my experiments, but many scientists do not have that option. Take geneticists for example—there is no non-plastic alternative the petri dishes or pipette tips they use in their research. Because so much of their research is sensitive to contamination, the prospect of reusing any of those materials becomes practically impossible (see picture below from our research in Moorea).

To a lesser degree, field ecologists face a similar issue; the amount of PVC piping, zipties, tiles, and general hardware we use is absolutely insane! For marine (and likely terrestrial) experiments, we build rigs, quadrats, and permanent transects, put them in the field, and hope they’re still there when we come back. From my experience, much of this material does not get reused, mainly because of the grunt work (*cough* undergraduates *cough*) required to clean and prep materials for redistribution into the field. Even then, there’s probably a good amount of experimental gear that gets lost at sea and accumulates somewhere.

Okay, so maybe as individual scientists we may not toss that much into the ocean to do our research, but think about how much marine research is going on worldwide answering all sorts of fun questions about ocean acidification, oil spills, invasive species, etc…it all adds up pretty quickly. This, along with the carbon footprint we make through travel to/from research sites and conferences (see Casey’s blog post about your ESA footprint), means that we don’t necessarily practice as much as we preach. That’s not to say you should limit your research by only using recycled materials, just that sustainability should be factored into the experiment somehow. Think about that next time you’re scrubbing stubborn barnacles or gooey tunicates off of field instruments.

Just *half* of the waste we produced from our DNA extractions

P.S. Melissa and I are in Moorea, French Polynesia right now researching the coral microbiomes of a widespread coral with several color morphs (last year’s trip post). Even though we’re only halfway through our extractions (and we’re conserving pipette tips where possible), we’re still producing a substantial amount of plastic waste, and can’t deal with our trash the same way as the resident tahitans do (burning daily/weekly in their yards).


Posted in Blog Posts, Featured
Leave a comment