By Kathleen Raven
The 14th annual National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) brought together 170 marine scientists, professional artists, engineers, biomedical researchers, oceanographers, music professors, and undergraduate design students. The charge issued to this group was no different from previous conferences, whose history stretches to 2003. Attendees collaborated to find solutions to overarching social and scientific research problems tied to a burgeoning science topic. In previous years, researchers chewed over genomics, smart prosthetics, nanosystems, and synthetic biology, to name several. The 2016 meeting, which took place at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine, California, November 9-12, tackled “Discovering the Deep Blue Sea: Research, Innovation, Social Engagement.”
Over three intense days, attendees brainstormed ideas around five sub-topics: aquaculture and energy; technology; climate-related change; biodiversity; and communication, adaption, and resilience. For the first time in conference history, NAKFI organizers invited 14 undergraduate students from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena to problem-solve alongside established artists and scientists.
“When grappling with a foreign frontier like the deep ocean, ‘we are artists and scientists alike.’”
Pushing scientific thought into new realms through collaboration with colleagues from disparate disciplines has been the goal of NAKFI meetings since the beginning. Before “transdisciplinary” became a buzzword, the meeting’s organizers recognized that scientific conundrums could be better solved by breaking down academic silos. Founded nearly 15 years ago by the National Academies, with support from the W. M. Keck Foundation, the annual conferences give attendees an opportunity to see their worlds differently.
The 2016 meeting topic asked participants to dive deep into the mesopelagic zone, also known as the middle layer, which extends 200 to 1,000 meters beneath the well-known surface zone. Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the planet, but they remain “the least understood and least sampled” of environments, said David M. Karl, professor of microbial oceanography at the University of Hawaii and conference chair. Until technology like deep-sea submersibles and pressurized dive suits became more affordable and reliable, this middle layer remained difficult to study. Oceanographers nicknamed it the Twilight Zone, a fitting moniker for a world where photosynthesis stops, pressure increases, and temperatures drop.
Before the conference, each attendee received a printed binder jam-packed with traditional information like speaker biographies, daily agendas, and a roster. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, attendees were encouraged to involve themselves in the conference topic through pre-conference tutorials in the form of online stories, podcasts, and videos that covered basic background information on the ocean’s middle layer, as well as tips on how to collaborate creatively in groups. These tutorials allowed attendees to hit the first day at a sprint. NAKFI organizing committees meticulously curate tutorials so participants can enter conversations with a shared language and core knowledge, no matter their previous interactions with the topic. Attendees are also motivated to learn and work. There’s an opportunity to apply for grant funding based on ideas from the conference. In this way, perhaps more than others, NAKFI stands out as a conduit for real-world impact, and not just another meeting of minds.
In the opening session, the artist Doug Aitken helped attendees think about the intersections of art and science. “Can artwork launch you into the present?” Aitken asked. When grappling with a foreign frontier like the deep ocean, “we are artists and scientists alike,” said David A. Edwards, professor of the Practice of Idea Translation at Harvard University and a conference steering committee member. The 2015 NAKFI meeting, chaired by Edwards, posited that by ignoring artificial—and somewhat recent—boundaries between them, art could inform science, and science, art. The Discovering the Deep Blue Sea conference took this premise further: artists could nudge scientists toward tangible solutions. For example, they could sketch and mold prototypes freely, while scientists might tend to get weighed down by logistics.
Marine scientists at the conference shared basic facts about the mesopelagic zone. The ocean, as land, has no boundaries. Humans have delineated different zones, but they melt into each other. We know that surface-level phytoplankton—the microscopic, plantlike organisms that form the basis of the marine food web—contribute between 50 and 85 percent of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. These plankton also absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air—by some estimates, up to one-third of all carbon dioxide produced by humans. “The ocean is trying to help us out, but is poisoning itself in the process,” said attendee Patricia L. Yager, professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia. The excess levels of carbon in the surface level have caused the mesopelagic to turn more acidic. Scientists want to know how much carbon might be sinking from the surface level into the Twilight Zone. They also want to know more about the life that thrives in the middle layer, from microbes to marine creatures. For example, there is more to learn about siphonophores, a type of species that make up this part of the world. These are actually a colony of different organisms that together can grow up to 100 meters long. They have the appearance of a giant peacock feather trailing a piece of Spanish moss, which has been tacked onto a molted snake skin.
After breakfast on the first day, the keynote discussion, “Conceptual Collisions: When Art and Science Merge,” covered a range of ideas around the two subjects. “The unexpected is a powerful trigger,” said panel speaker Bruce H. Robison, senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “We often approach a challenge thinking that we know the context—the framework—within which we are going to examine something. Then you come across something and it doesn’t fit…. It can either leave you flatfooted or it can draw you into a whole different way of thinking about things.”
Robison’s words foreshadowed the experience that participants would have exploring subtopics in teams called “seed idea groups.” The climate-related change group, which turned out to be the biggest, gathered at an enormous conference table in the Board Room. Ideas flew back and forth. Before lunch, it seemed nearly impossible that people would agree to specific project ideas by the afternoon. Slowly, consensus emerged among pockets of researchers and artists. Everyone could see themes that
covered common concerns: how to raise public awareness about the mesopelagic, measure marine snow, and better organize publicly available data about the ocean. By the end of the day, groups wrote out a brief description of their project and compiled a one-minute presentation of their idea to share with everyone.
On Day Two, after these quick morning presentations, the groups began to self-organize. Attendees could choose to join projects that stirred up the most passion. Some stayed with their original groups; others left to become new team members elsewhere.
Angst circulated as attendees wanted to be sure they were in the right group. How to choose from so many options! With no time to ruminate, the new, mostly smaller groups reconvened in rooms throughout the Beckman Center. Before breakfast the next morning, the groups were expected to have made sufficient progress to share their ideas. Some groups took a working dinner and others returned to the drawing boards, literally, at the end of the evening. On the last day, group members rehearsed their presentations before lunchtime. After lunch, everyone convened again in the auditorium. Even though only a day-and-a-half had passed since the opening talks, the constant collaboration and repeated rehearsing made collaborators feel like old friends.
For tools, attendees had modeling clay, pencils, pens, butcher paper, construction paper, interlocking bricks, markers, scissors, and tape. Some art students relied on special sketchbooks or their iPads.
The final presentations took on a theatrical tone as teams abandoned slideshow presentations and embraced dramatic lighting, computerized drawings, or short 3-D rendition films to convey their ideas. In one project, an artist inspired by the photography of Adam Maygar helped scientists design a prototype sensor that could capture information from marine snow. Marine snow made appearances across several groups. This decayed biomass made up of plankton, plants, and other biological
debris floats down from the ocean’s surface level to the mesopelagic. Marine snow resembles terrestrial snow in that it appears as a steady stream of white or gray stuff drifting through water. But its small size does not negate its importance in the ocean ecosystem as a source of food and as a means of drawing carbon down to the soil and storing it there. The group’s proposal consisted of a swarm of sensors, “each the size of an avocado,” that would drift with currents to capture one pixel width of marine snow and then transmit the information wirelessly to computers aboard a research ship. “This lets us capture a glimpse of the snow and reconstruct an image of the snow to study it,” said Tempest Van Schaik, a biomedical engineer at Science Practice, a London based design and research firm.
Before taking the stage, another group, called “Soft Robots,” had enlisted the help of a handful of design students who listened carefully to marine biologist David Gruber of the City University of New York as he outlined the challenges involved with obtaining specimen samples from the mesopelagic. First, the creatures that need to be studied, like gelatinous zooplankton, are so fragile that any human contact might damage their transparent bodies. Second, the flow physics of water at that level is such that any resistance might force samples out of reach. The design students quickly caught on. David Hollo sketched a capturing tool modeled after the kitchen colander. The group sketched another design called the “double-flower” that was also designed to swiftly capture a specimen while keeping it safe. The sample would stay in the center of the sampling tool, while two layers of soft material would envelop it.
A third group, named “Ambassadors of the Deep,” leaned heavily on design student Janet Hwang to help form its idea of an underwater, enclosed mesopelagic marine park. After exchanging ideas and building a prototype out of interlocking bricks, Hwang created a 3-D video rendition of a boat and submarine that transported passengers to the underwater park. With such a visualization, the idea and logistics of a marine park became clearer.
In the opening session, Robison encouraged participants to suspend disbelief if they could. “We are here to cut loose from tradition and free ourselves from convention,” he said. “The creatures that live in [the Twilight Zone] have the freedom of movement that is vastly different than ours. To understand what is going on in that habitat, we have to free ourselves from our own experience and past.” But participants must have also felt an urgency brought on by past decisions—in many cases poorly made—by humans related to the ocean. It is so vast, and so removed from daily life for many, that most people never need to give it a second thought.
In the last scene of Aitken’s film of wildlife in worn hotel rooms across America, an unblinking owl perches on a double bed. Aitken juxtaposes the owl with a flashing red light on a telephone. The owl stares. The red light keeps buzzing as ominous music rises in the background. But the owl remains impervious. Suddenly it launches into flight. Humans have no choice but to stay tethered to the blue-green Earth, covered in oceans, and work to quickly rescue the health of seas.
The attendees of the NAKFI Discovering the Deep Blue Sea conference embraced and advanced the daunting challenge with rigor and daring imagination.
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