Friday, April 4, 2014

Comfort in thermodynamics

My previous roommate (and great friend), Cael, and I ate dinner together almost every night. He was the first member of my now large and amazing San Diego network, my West Coast family. Both of us having been trained in mathematics & engineering and being natural visual learners, many of our conversations turned into attempts to represent whatever worldly phenomenon we were discussing as simple formulas and graphs. Everything was an oversimplification, obviously, but I think we did a decent job of convincing ourselves that our ideas could be communicated without needing too many words. Maybe we just have poor vocabularies.

I'm writing today as I try to recall the mathematical details of one of the most memorable conversations--a conversation about life and death. We were talking about the passing of a close friend, the same friend who inspired me to start this blog, the same friend from whose memorial bench I took the photo shown in my first post.

Our conversation centered around the word "potential." When someone leaves this world too early, we always talk about how much potential they had, how much they could have accomplished. We decided that night that talking about potential really only covers half of the issue. Or in our terms, half of the First Law of Thermodynamics: the law of conservation of energy. The other half, of course, is kinetic. When someone who is such a positive influence on our lives, on the world, is taken from us, that potential isn't buried; it's converted. What was potential is now kinetic. It's our responsibility to ensure that the conversion is complete, that the energy is conserved. I strive to do my part to convert Tim's potential into kinetic energy, into positive action, a force for good. I don't think of the conversion as a burden. In fact, it's a privilege to know that there is so much potential energy out there and all we have to do is learn how to harness it for good.

The project I've written about in this blog, SUP, Science, is my attempt at converting potential into kinetic. SUP, Science was born during conversations with Tim just over three years ago. It is probably not exactly the course of action he would have chosen, but this is my attempt to obey the law of conservation of energy. I'd always choose to keep all of my friends and family around forever but I'm comforted by my belief that their potential isn't lost when these loved ones move on.

This is a sad week for my Scripps Oceanography family. Almost three years since Tim's passing, we lost another classmate, another friend. I'm glad that I had the good fortune of meeting Rachel but sad that I never got to know her better. My heart goes out to her close friends & family.

From everything I've heard over the past couple days, Rachel had a tremendous amount of potential. She and Tim were on pretty similar paths, both members of Scripps' most prestigious conservation cohort. Tim studied how low-lying island nations would be affected by human-caused climate change through changing precipitation patterns (that is, changing flood/drought cycles). Rachel's research was in the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, focused on protecting valuable marine ecosystems. They were both passionate science communicators, perhaps one of the most valuable skills & interests in our time of rapid change.

I wish only to honor the memories of our close friends in this emotional time. I hope to do the best I can to ensure that their potential is appropriately converted so that it can have the most positive, energetic impact on the planet possible, the impact that I think they wanted to have. I don't wish to oversimplify anyone's life or the positive impact that they had on us, I only strive to ensure that their legacies live on. Rest in peace, Rachel.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

On water

“We are not like blocks of ice, conducting ourselves as solid individuals as we move from place to place. We are like water flowing freely.” 
~ Soko Morinaga, Novice to Master

Many people hold water in a special place in their cultural beliefs and rituals, from baptized Christians to surfers. This statement is almost too obvious to be worth writing, but there's no other way to start. There's a reason for water's high regard that extends deeper than the anatomical fact that we consist mostly of water. Water has a tremendous amount to offer us, in essentially every aspect of our lives.

Morinaga's analogy highlighted above encapsulates the essence of Zen Buddhism as I understand it (and that's a far-from-perfect understanding, to be fair). Many of the repeated lessons throughout his work can be distilled to the name of the corresponding chapter: We are like water. In fact, a further simplified version – we are water – could (to the best of my limited understanding) serve as a complement to the popular Zen koans: “What is your original face?” or “Where did you come from when you were born and where will you go when you die?” From a deeper appreciation for life and understanding of death to an increased respect for our bodies and surroundings to an improved ability to confront the difficulties of life, Morinaga’s plainly powerful metaphor gives us a strong foundation for our understanding of Zen.

​With respect to our environment (in this case meaning all of our surroundings, material possessions, and humanity itself), the metaphor serves the purpose of pointing out the fact that all is one. Morinaga wants us to realize that there is no way to harm something other than our ‘self’ because there is no individual self separate from the whole. To expand upon his metaphor, it is as if our bodies of water are streams whose source and destination is one ocean. It is impossible to pollute a distinct stream without affecting the ocean and ourselves in the process. There are many instances in which this metaphor applies to our daily lives: throwing a piece of litter on the ground, saying hurtful words, getting involved in a physical fight. This lesson seems to be growing in importance every day, as humans continue to destroy our physical environment and engage in wars while neglecting to look beyond the immediate gains to see the imminent consequences.

Even worse, in some cases, people understand the eventual results of their actions but choose to consider themselves to be separate from those consequences. For example, it is common to overhear people who choose not to recycle or opt to purchase a Hummer saying that it won’t make a difference to them or they just don’t care. It is hard to imagine that there would be nearly as much violence (physical, verbal, destruction of environments/ecosystems, etc.) if everyone realized that there is no distinction between self and other. Morinaga’s words not only agree with, but also give an easily comprehensible rationale to the well known saying, “Do unto others as you wish to have done unto yourself.” Namely, we must obey this rule because by polluting the water, we are polluting our own ‘self.’

Keep the water clean, my friends.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Day 1: Hangin' out in kayaks, talkin' ocean chemistry--gotta love Saturdays.


I am grateful for all organizations that strive to improve their communities but there are some that stand out above the rest. The difference, at least in concept, is simple: they see the big picture.

Outdoor Outreach is one of those organizations. I had the privilege of volunteering with them last weekend on their kayak tour through the La Jolla Kelp Forest and caves (AKA the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve). From their website, their stated mission is to “empower at-risk and underprivileged youth to make positive lasting changes in their lives through comprehensive outdoor programming.” But they don’t stop there. They don’t pretend that this concisely stated goal is so important that they can just ignore the other details. Details like eating a healthy lunch during the outings, not just ordering fast food; bringing reusable water bottles, not adding more plastic to the oceans; talking about science on a Saturday morning, not just splashing each other and trying to flip each other’s kayaks (although there was still plenty of that…).

Learning the differences between and sea lions & seals and
pelicans, gulls, & cormorants.
Cormorants can hold their breath down to 170 feet to go fishing!
Photo credit: Jason Ward Studios, 2013.
Outdoor Outreach is a group with a vision for the big picture. I was quite lucky to have had the chance to kayak with OO in the local kelp forest, just south of Scripps Pier. Not only did I have a blast paddling around, but it was really fun to talk to the kids and other volunteers, everyone stoked to be spending their weekend on the beach and ocean. I thought I was volunteering to teach, but I learned a lot! People often assume that all oceanographers know about everything that lives in the ocean. We don’t. Well, at least, I know I don’t. I learned about the different types of kelp that reside in La Jolla (giant, elkhorn, & feather), sat above the Rose Canyon Fault, and discovered that only sea lions bark, not seals. To a chemist, learning this biology and geology was pretty cool, especially since it’s right in my “backyard.”

Outdoor Outreach's Adventure Clubbers answering questions about ocean acidification, pollution, and conservation.
Photo credit: Jason Ward Studios, 2013.
I had a couple opportunities to talk about chemical changes in the ocean as a result of human pollution, notably ocean acidification (OA). OA is the result of human-produced carbon dioxide dissolving into seawater, decreasing the ocean’s pH. Many creatures have a harder time surviving in these lower pH waters and many of them are either creatures we like to eat (like oysters) or form the bottom of the food chain for other critical (and tasty) species. We played a quick game where kids had to figure out whether certain common activities contributed more to pollution or conservation, and to what degree (for example, eating fast food produces much more pollution than eating fresh, local fruits and veggies and biking to work or school instead of driving an SUV counts toward conservation).

At the end of the day, though, I learned far more from the experience than I could ever hope to teach. Thanks again to Outdoor Outreach for doing such an amazing job and letting me play a small part. I can’t wait to get back out there!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

SUP, Science


Many people think that scientists are just geeks who like staring at beakers in the lab. We’re not. At least we're not just that... We’re (grown-up?) kids who love exploring. We like surfing, rock climbing, hiking, biking, running, sailing, diving, paddling, and, most importantly, learning about the world around us.

SUP, Science is all about the adventure. SUP, Science is an engaging oceanographic research program designed to take advantage of two very powerful things: (1) the nascent developments of fast-response chemical sensors and (2) the pure enticement of playing in the waves. We are strapping chemical sensors (to measure pH, oxygen, temperature, and salinity, to be specific) to Stand Up Paddleboards and paddling through the local surf zone and near shore waters. Paddleboards are ideal for near shore measurements because they are extremely mobile while barely disrupting the natural dynamics of the water—critical for accurate recordings of our environment. Equally importantly, SUPs are accessible by people of essentially all ages. This means that our scientific discoveries won’t be hidden in the lab; they’ll be on the water’s surface where all can see and even participate. Ocean chemistry is changing at a rate that hasn’t been "experienced" for over 20 million years. We have at our fingertips a unique opportunity to begin recording these changes in a tangible way. 


As a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, an avid waterman, and engaged environmental volunteer, I see an immense opportunity to bring my interests together to match the world’s need for a better understanding of our role in global change.

Model of the SurfpHOx: a pH, oxygen, temperature, and
salinity sensor developed by the Martz Lab
@ Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Coinciding exactly with Ocean Hour, April 13, 2013, we will kick off SUP, Science with a paddle through the La Jolla Kelp Forest and a brief lesson on changing ocean chemistry. As part of my volunteer experience with Outdoor Outreach, students will learn how to clean up their waste, not just by picking up garbage, but also by discovering how their daily decisions are connected to the ocean. Fresh, local, organic food choices produce significantly less pollution, much of which would end up in the ocean. Going for a bike ride is good for our bodies and minds and produces less pollution than playing video games. As Mother Ocean’s founder and Quiksilver Waterman Justin Riney writes, “every person on this planet, regardless of location, is affected by the ocean in some way; likewise, the ocean is equally affected by our actions as individuals and collectively as a society.” 

Justin captures the essence of SUP, Science’s message: we have a powerful opportunity to change our planet for the better. It starts with awareness. It continues through experience. Get outside!

Acknowledgements: The birth of SUP, Science comes as a result of generous support from Timothy Ray's family and the Scripps Foundation for Science & the Environment. Thank you!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sensory Overload

Again, I'm reposting an entry I wrote during BLOOMCRUISE 2011. Check out the full BLOOMCRUISE blog to see what my colleagues were researching.

Life on a research vessel is a strange conflation of simplicity and almost overwhelming stimulation. On the one hand, it’s essential that we bring only what we need to avoid excess clutter. In the labs, we tend to bring spare components for just about everything possible in preparation for the inevitable malfunctions but there’s always much more that we need to leave behind (such as our highly-inclined-to-seasickness advisors). Personal belongings are even more constrained:
-“Hey, isn’t that the same shirt I saw you wearing a few days ago?”
-“Um, nope. That was yesterday…”
Despite our attempt at modest packing, though, the sensory environment on board is far from limited, in every category.

Let’s start with taste. Mike, Erskin, and Thomas have done a deliciously fantastic job of fattening us up with every style of cuisine and an incessant supply of desserts and freshly baked breads (we have regularly scheduled breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a snack before lunch, cheese and freshly baked bread before dinner, and an evening snack every day—I’m not kidding). I have a difficult enough time making my meals taste fresh after I’ve had the food stored for a week so I’ve been amazed by how fresh everything has been here, especially now that we haven’t seen land for three full weeks. I am very impressed with the variety, too. I expected to be eating variations of the same meals after the first few days but I don’t think I’ve seen the same thing twice at any lunch or dinner. Matt talks about this culinary phenomenon more in his post, below.

In the olfactory and vision categories, the stimuli can bring either a flooding calmness or an emptying loneliness. We see the same ship, same faces, same clouds, and same five foot waves every day, accompanied by an irreplaceable smell that only the open ocean can bring. At times, this can be the best combination imaginable. It’s quite peaceful to be out in the middle of nowhere with new friends and an infinite view of the horizon yet there are times when it’s easy to forget the soothing feeling and wish to be back on land, back in a more familiar setting where it’s possible to walk more than fifty steps in one direction (without falling off of a boat into near-iceberg-temperature (or, freezing) water).

The feelings sensed on board can create some strange problems. With the ship’s constant rocking, the disconnect between what we feel and what we see can be quite an uncomfortable combination. Even for those who don’t get seasick, it takes a few days to get used to the rolling and pitching. And no matter how much you adjust to the feeling, it’s simply impossible to learn how to predict the onslaught of every rogue wave and avoid stumbling into the nearest wall. These waves, by the way, have an incredible ability to know exactly when you’re carrying soup or a recently refilled mug of tea.

And finally, we have the sounds, without a doubt the most overwhelming of the five. A complete list of these would span pages, so I’ll highlight just a few. The obvious ones include the sound of the water buffeting against the hull, the whirring of the motors in everyone’s instruments, and the steady hum of the ship’s engines. The ones for which I wasn’t as well prepared include the cacophonous drilling, rust removing, sanding, and paint chipping of the non-stop boat maintenance (don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, I’d much prefer a well-maintained ship and a little extra noise than the opposite), the gym’s radio dialed all the way up, the fog horn that blasts every two minutes, Cyril’s chatter, and, of course, the dragon. We must have acquired the dragon when we were up near Iceland (naturally). The dragon’s quarters, apparently, are directly below mine and she is clearly not happy to be on board. She intermittently roars loader than I could have imagined possible, bangs into the walls, and occasionally hisses (letting the built-up steam escape, presumably). I mentioned my discovery to the Captain and he looked at me strangely and quickly mumbled something about stern thrusters, large waves hitting the hull, and the engine’s cooling system. I shouldn’t be surprised; I’m sure I’d manufacture a response like his too if I were trying to smuggle a dragon into the United States. Anyway, this new addition to our ship has kept me wide awake during the past two nights, it being far too noisy to consider sleeping or even thinking, for that matter.

After three weeks of nonstop sensory overload, I’m looking forward to a real bed in a silent, dragonless room but I’ll certainly miss the peacefulness of the open ocean. Twenty-four hours left! (But who’s counting?)

What are the smallest things in the ocean?

Here come a few entries from an oceanographic research cruise opportunity that I had in the summer of 2011. This one is a reposting of my entry from BLOOMCRUISE 2011...

When many people think of oceanography, they picture the whales, sharks, waves, coral reefs, and submarines. Most think of the large things, whether they're organisms, phenomena, or machines associated with the water. Many of us learn about the microscopic plankton that live in the ocean in our early school years, but those things are, at least for most of us, the smallest that are out there.

We're on this trip, however, to study things even smaller: the chemicals in the ocean and those in the air just above the ocean as well as the forces that cause them to move back and forth between the two. My own research involves inorganic carbon--basically carbon dioxide gas that has dissolved into ocean water. There are two main things that we can learn from studying dissolved inorganic carbon: 1) there was always a certain amount of inorganic carbon in the water but a very large quantity of the carbon dioxide that humans have emitted has dissolved (and is dissolving) in the oceans; we can use dissolved inorganic carbon measurements to help determine where and how quickly the CO2 is entering the ocean (it doesn't occur at equal rates at different places across the globe). 2) Just as humans & other land heterotrophs (things that eat stuff, quite simply--like a hippopotamus) respire by intaking oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide and plants & other land photoautotrophs (things that make energy from sunlight--like dandelions) produce oxygen and capture carbon dioxide, so to do ocean creatures capture carbon dioxide (phytoplankton) or release it (zooplankton, fish, etc.); we can estimate rates of respiration and production with our measurements.


My type of oceanography is unique. I don't watch or listen for whales or collect samples of water from the ship. Instead, I let the water come to me. Oceanographic ships (as well as many other ships, named volunteer observing ships) have small intake pumps on the hull at the bow of the ship which deliver water directly to instruments inside the ships' labs. In this picture, you can see that there is quite a bit of sophisticated equipment; all of it is inside the Knorr's lab and will never need to leave its location since the ocean water is coming directly to it.

If you look closely, you might notice that every piece of equipment is meticulously tied down. While the conditions we've seen so far have been quite mild, the ocean is a powerful (and potentially destructive force). It's better for us to be prepared well in advance of any bad weather that could suddenly arise. We aren't searching for storms out here but it would certainly be interesting to see the changing chemistry during violent weather patterns!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Irish-American Oceanography


I've been in Galway, Ireland for two months now due to a scientific collaboration among my lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, NIBEC at the University of Ulster, and the School of Physics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. We're preparing for a scientific expedition to the sub-tropical Atlantic, leaving a volcano in the archipelago of the Canary Islands (Spain) and landing on a volcano a few thousand kilometers north in the archipelago of the Azores (Portugal). We'll be at sea for exactly one month, studying the chemical properties of the ocean over which we pass.


I'm a chemical oceanographer. I am part of a team inventing a sensor designed to measure dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater. Carbon dioxide is increasingly well known and discussed due to its role as a greenhouse gas: a molecule which helps to keep heat inside of our atmosphere. Without CO2, the planet would be drastically colder; some CO2 is needed for life as we need it. However, we're now drastically altering natural cycles. The additional CO2 in the atmosphere largely comes from fossil fuels which took eons to be created and trapped below the Earth's surface. We're now extremely efficient at sucking it up from below the surface, using it for quite a few different purposes, and, in the process, putting it into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide gas. It's not novel to have CO2 in the atmosphere, or even to have very high concentrations of it there, but it is at the very least worth considering the celerity at which which humans have managed to alter nature (day-by-day, year-by-year, century-by-century), especially when compared to the speed at which nature alters nature (day-by-day can happen, sure, but most changes of comparable magnitude take tens of thousands up to tens of millions of years).

I started this post talking about oceanography and seemingly became distracted by atmospheric chemistry. I strongly believe that it's critical to understand a bit about the atmosphere to know the rationale for what I do. Approximately one-third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere (I'll do my best to keep my facts straight here; if I'm wrong in speaking about specific numbers, it was an honest mistake) ends up dissolving into seawater. While this is good at buffering atmospheric climate change (AKA global warming), it has its own deleterious effects on the ocean.

When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it creates an acid (specifically, carbonic acid). This is called ocean acidification. The resultant shift in chemical balances causes some life-critical molecules to be in shorter supply in the ocean. For example, some shell-building organisms have a much harder time finding a principal component of their shells, making it harder for them to protect themselves, survive, and reproduce. Remember the experiment that most of us did or at least learned about in elementary school where we saw a tooth dissolve in soda? That experiment has a lot in common with what we're doing to the oceans now. The tooth in the soda and the creatures in the ocean both dissolve due to higher levels of acidity than they're evolutionarily designed to handle.


If we already know that this is happening, then, why is it worth my time to invent a new sensor to detect dissolved carbon dioxide levels? That's a great question, one which I hear quite frequently, and for good reason. I think it's important for all scientists (in fact, anyone with a job, from students up through CEOs, presidents, professional athletes) to ask themselves regularly why they do what they do. In finding the answer to this, we are able to motivate ourselves to do our jobs far better. For me, the answer in its shortest version that I can manage is the following... While we know it is happening largely from data collected by retrieving water samples from all over the world and analyzing them on a ship or back in land-based labs, it is very difficult, time consuming, and expensive to bring ships all over the world to collect measurements and impossible to do it with high regularity. A sensor that could be left out in the ocean to drift around, float up and down, collect carbon dioxide data, and send it back through satellites to labs on land would drastically improve our understanding of how we're altering the global chemical environment. Information like this will in turn help to inform biologists how organisms are responding so that we can track ecosystem health and, ideally, manage ourselves accordingly.

I spend the bulk of my time trying to make various components of this sensor operate correctly. There are quite a few electrical signals that are used to control the sensor, measure the characteristics of the seawater, and record the data. All of this work is quite new to me; despite my background in chemical engineering, actually engineering a chemical sensor is an entirely unique process. While this novelty makes it challenging, it also makes it quite manageable and rewarding because I know that only hard work will make the device function correctly.

I also spend a significant amount of time testing the sensors that I build. This frequently takes me out to beautiful and peaceful remote places in the ocean for long periods of time. I am leaving for a cruise in just a few days and will undoubtedly have plenty to share about my experiences at sea.

Written August 2012