By Yasemin Saplakoglu
We stand at the edge of the ocean, looking into a tumultuous world. With every inhale of the waves, our feet sink deeper into the sand. The water turns murky beyond a few feet and all we see are waves of grey. We imagine that underneath lies a serene blue environment with elegant fish traversing the water and sunlight reaching the sandy floor in beautiful rays. But thousands of feet below the water, color becomes obsolete. There’s a darkness that intrigues but intimidates us. And we want to step in.
Do we know how much we don’t know about the deep sea? A dark matter of knowledge takes the form of unreachable questions and answers. Is there a way we can quantify un-knowledge? These questions lingered around Newport—a room full of scientists, artists and designers discussing biodiversity of the deep sea on the first day of NAKFI. Mystery catalyzed the deep philosophical discussions that would have Descartes and Rousseau living to pitch in.
We take a few steps into the water. Timid but ankle-deep, we continue to gaze.
Jules Vernes’ “living infinite,” is teeming with life. A dark abyss that’s far from empty. The mesopelagic zone is rooted in species and
microbes. It’s dark but with great biodiversity—home to creatures that have adapted to the darkness. Bioluminescence is a candle to their world, a language to their species.
What is a species? A microbiologist ventures. Does massive gene exchange in the form of bacteria, microbacteria, and viruses muddy the line between species? Would the deep sea have the power to change the way we classify beings? We could re-write the tree of life through discovering organisms we have never seen before. Maybe we can try to understand charismatic megafauna or tiny nearly invisible flecks of life. And perhaps, looking at their biology we can understand our own.
Our legs are now fully submerged. We have bones behind our ears that originated from fish. We started billions of years ago, deep in the water. And now we are realizing we don’t know much about where it all started. “How do we imagine our own part in the whole?” a microbiologist asks. Can the deep sea define who we are as individuals and as a species? The water crashes onto our shoulders.
Is human health linked to the ocean? We can study the genes and microenvironments of the
deep to help develop cures for human diseases. Microbes in the deep ocean are adapted to the cold and the dark, but have proven important for the survival of organisms through time.
Where does the energy in a place devoid of sunlight come from? Are organisms making it or just using it? If you were given a new piece of wood, how would you classify it? We try to imagine discovery in the deep sea in terms of terrestrial examples. The deep sea is wabisabi, a design student ventures, or beauty in imperfection.
Now we can’t look away. While our world focuses on worlds beyond, we glance downward and put our face in the water.
Fully submerged, we can’t see anything, but it’s quiet. We think a bit clearer. We move a bit slower. And we can almost sense the life teeming around us. There must be a memory of the deep sea. A history. We discover our curiosity and our curiosity extends itself into this mysterious world. And what we find is quite bizarre.
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Currently, Argo, an array of free-drifting profile floats, is the model for autonomous data-collecting drifters. They travel up and down in the water column, moving with deep-sea currents, and transmitting data at the surface via satellite before they sink and repeat. With more than 3,000 Argo floats seated throughout the oceans, scientists can get updated measurements of global water temperature, salinity, and velocity.
The Argo system has limitations. As with all electronic equipment, failure is probable. Like most devices, Argo is not designed with an integrated recovery system. The Argo floats travel via deep currents, going where they want to go and making recovery difficult. Deploying a boat and team to retrieve a broken-down drifter can be more costly than building a new one. This presents a conundrum where ocean-loving scientists on a limited budget have to ask the question of what is a more valuable; reducing marine debris by collecting broken drifters or investing in new drifters to continue ocean research.
The average failure time of an Argo drifter is about three months, noted Chris Scholin, president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute “What if we had an ambulatory system to recover them,” he asked, suggesting that scientists furlough the boat and crew and use robotics to rescue robotics. This prompted a spin-off group to build on the idea for a data-collecting drifter with an integrated recovery system.
The mesopelagic is an intermediate ocean layer that begins about 200 meters below the surface. We are ever more interested in the midwater ecosystem. But the biology of the midwater and how it changes over time is largely unknown. This team wants answers to questions about biodiversity in the midwater, from organisms as small as prokaryote to whales, the largest ocean giants. The team hoped their project would address questions from the scientific community about ecosystem organization, food web dynamics, surface to deep-sea connectivity, predator prey relationships, aggregations, and more.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” was Arthur C. Clarke’s third law. Would this deep-sea explorer, inventor, and futurist have predicted what the team proposed? Their solution may come across as magic to those new to ocean tech, but the team spoke so matter-of-factly about it that the “shoot for the moon” mantra at this year’s NAKFI conference seemed well within reach.
MESOS is an acronym for Midwater Ecological Sampling and Observing System. The two-part system is designed to observe biological ecosystems that reach from the surface to the midwater. It will address questions that scientists cannot with existing technology. Their unit/sub-unit components quickly became nicknamed the “mother duck” and “ducklings.”
The mother duck rests at the surface. It is portable and autonomous, allowing for deployment and retrieval by “vessels of opportunity,” commercial or recreational vessels that have volunteered to help with research or other work. It is also free-floating, increasing the range in which it can operate. The primary role of the surface unit is to act as the mother duck—nurturing her young. It will be a docking station for all the subsurface ducklings. It will use the energy from the surf to generate power and recharge sub-surface units as they dock, extending the duration for which they are deployed. In addition, the mother duck downloads the data from the ducklings and transmits them via satellite to scientists ashore. Its final role is to act as an ambulance for rescuing failed equipment. In essence, it becomes a charging/rescue station with a communication gateway to the rest of the world.
The duckling is the sub-surface unit. Like a curious youngster, the duckling explores and collects data on the world beneath the surface. It gathers information about animals and relationships in the deep sea. Also autonomous and portable, this unit can dive to great depths, find and follow interesting anomalies, and swim along a predetermined straight line. It gathers data at depths, at the surface, and through the water column. It can even track and follow an organism that is tagged with an acoustic transmitter.
The mother duck and duckling have a system of communication so that when the duckling is ready to surface, they will find each other, reunite, and share the data with the world. Topped up batteries and a clear data card free up common technology limitations, allowing the duckling to dive again and continue data collection. With these data, scientists can gain a greater understanding of biology in the context of change: daily, seasonal, episodic, and anthropogenic.
The mother duck and duckling analogy is the essence that makes MESOS one of a kind. If successful, its ability to take care of itself will be an advance that greatly expands biological research of the midwater. Scholin dubbed this the R-cubed system, meaning refresh, recover, and rescue.
“We want to see, hear, feel, and taste the ocean,” said Amy Mass, assistant scientist at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, as she presented MESOS to the NAKFI community. In order to do that they fully loaded the MESOS sub-surface unit with all the latest sensory devices. “The challenge of this group is that there is just too many great people with great ideas in one room,” said Victor Zykov, director of research at the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Ultimately, what the group agreed on was making biology the unique focus of MESOS.
They plan to equip MESOS with sensors that take integrated measurements of optical, acoustic, and physical samples. They will use a camera to take pictures or video of organisms for visual identification and studies on behavior and interaction. Active acoustic monitoring systems will locate animals, while hydrophones will record their vocalizations. They will also have “-omics” sensors for the various biological studies, including genomics, the study of genetics, or metabolomics, the study of metabolism. Components of the MESOS system exist already. They keep getting smaller, more affordable, and use less energy.
“This technology compartmentally exists. None of it is crazy,” said Mass, “but putting it all together has never been done before.”
The team realizes that there will be plenty of challenges while creating a device like MESOS. One question that arose was: Is the system changing the outcome? In other words, will the device that observes marine animals affect the results? The conclusion was yes. The sub-surface device could change animal behavior by scaring fish or interrupting interactions. The group’s aim would be to make the duckling as stealthy as possible.
Current systems like Argo can sample chemistry and physics. The group was set on creating a device with a unique biological focus. Organisms are constantly shedding bits of themselves into the environment. Feces, skin, or mucous are left in their wake wherever they go. The MESOS group proposes to collect this “ocean dandruff,” which contains environmental DNA or eDNA. Analysis of this genetic material could answer questions about biodiversity, animal range, and other biological processes. Yet, collecting and storing samples for long durations presented challenges of space, preservation, and stability. Tempest van Schaik, a bioengineer with Science Practice in London, who was not in this group, suggested a medical device as a solution. It is a small, index card–sized DNA sequencing device that could be installed in the MESOS. Using the medial device, the DNA sequencing could happen in-situ, negating the need for space to store samples.
As the group became engaged with ideas to build on MESOS, a reoccurring question reigned in the focus. “Are we trying to be all things to all people, or do we have a specific question and goal?” asked Kelly Benoit-Bird, a marine scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
Some people in the group thought it was best to broaden the scope of MESOS to include a diverse group of researchers, like those present. Others thought it was better to create a specialized system as they were concerned about overdoing it. Ultimately, they decided the scope of the system would be limited by keeping the focus on biology. Aside from that restriction, the sky was the limit, offering MESOS the potential for wide-scale adoption.
There are substantial conversations across the scientific community about open sourced data, and the MESOS team was no exception. They all agreed that they want to make the data openly available. To make the data useable, there needs to be a standardized way of presenting them, a challenge the MESOS team is not sure they are ready to take on. To make it even more challenging, the team needs to answer the question of what they should do with the biological samples.
The MESOS team will have plenty to think about as they prepare a grant proposal to explore this project further. They are already considering the long-term future of MESOS. They are considering expanding the flock of mother ducks and stationing them across the globe to create multiple data sets for comparative analyses geographically. Other groups at NAKFI are striving to create virtual reality worlds for public outreach and education. The data from MESOS could tie in with their worlds, creating real-time simulation experiences of the ocean. Finally, as stated in their final presentation, the MESOS team hopes that the scientific community will be able to use the MESOS data to “make it greater than what we envisioned here.”
By Teresa L. Carey
“This is one of the most dynamic conferences I’ve ever been to,” said Lillian McCormick at the NAKFI conference. She was referring to the opportunity to interact with people at every meeting, luncheon, or social gathering. One conference attendee was creating a science radio talk show. Another had already identified 200 new species. Yet another sets up laboratories in the forest and jungle where artists and scientists work together. Everyone at the NAKFI conference has a story of innovation and creativity to share and McCormick did not yet realize that she fit right in among them.
“At traditional conference settings I get intimidated,” she said, “but here at NAKFI it is a lot easier to meet those [accomplished scientists] and interact with them.”
McCormick is a third-year PhD student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Her undergraduate work focused on the dynamic eyes of an estuarine squid. Few cephalopods are found in estuaries, where dramatic light fluctuations characterize the demanding habitat.
McCormick studied the pupillary response in the squid’s advanced camera-like eyes, building the framework for her current studies.
McCormick is now asking the question of how climate-driven, low-oxygen environments will affect the biology and behavior of marine organisms. To find the answer she is once again looking deep into the eyes of a squid.
Land-based animals that go into high altitudes, or even human pilots, can get visual impairments such as loss of color vision or loss of night vision due to a lack of oxygen. McCormick wonders if the same thing will happen in marine animals with sophisticated eyes. Will hypoxia, low oxygen in the water column, have an effect on animal vision and ultimately animal behavior?
“It is challenging because most of the methods to measure this have been established in the terrestrial animals, but not yet in aquatic animals,” said McCormick. As a pioneer in this field, she is currently developing the methods for her study.
The mesopelagic is a dark space. Unlike many animals in the ocean, squid rely on their vision for many things such as finding food and a mate, looking out for predators, communication, or observing light cues for vertical migration.
McCormick has to be scrupulous when she talks about marine animal vision to nonscientists. Unlike humans, whose eyes are constantly surveying the scene and taking it all in, deep-sea animals see differently. They are less concerned about the big picture and more concerned about detecting bright flashes on short time scales or objects moving toward them.
Although she is looking into the tiny eyes of a squid, McCormick is researching big questions about climate change where large-scale and long-term ocean deoxygenation could become a problem in the future. Upwelling events in California, which bring up low oxygen, low pH water, could increase in frequency and intensity. The short life-span and sophisticated eyes of California market squid make for ideal subjects of her study on animal behavior.
Despite being a self-proclaimed introvert, McCormick appears right at home at NAKFI. “I feel much more comfortable putting myself and my research out there,” she said. “It’s all been about working in groups and figuring things out together.”
Maybe her work at NAKFI will help with her squid research? As a member of the MESOS team, McCormick is contributing to designing drifters that will collect biological data across the midwater.
“My research identifies places in the ocean that facilitate full vision function,” said McCormick. Recognizing that new technology takes time to develop, she hopes she will use MESOS in the future to understand animal distribution and abundance in relation to light and oxygen in the ocean.
By Yasemin Saplakoglu
In the past 3,000 years, large empires collapsed in part due to an excess of money and resources spent on defense, leaving behind starving, poverty-ridden populations. Hans G. Dam, PhD, an oceanographer at the University of Connecticut, said that history has a way of repeating itself in the most unexpected ways. He is studying the effects of Alexandrium’s emphasis on defense. But the Alexandrium is not an empire, it is a genus. The dinoflagellate organisms within this group are found in surface waters and they produce neurotoxins that contribute to the toxic algal blooms omnipresent throughout the world’s oceans.
Alexandrium makes neurotoxins to protect themselves from grazers such as copepods or small crustaceans. These neurotoxins block sodium channels, reducing the amount of nerve signaling, and leading to a physically impaired, slower-moving copepod. However, copepods exposed to these toxins for long periods of time become resilient, which forces the Alexandrium population to increase their toxicity levels.
“It’s like an armed race,” said Dam. “One side builds up an army and the other side retaliates by building up a bigger army.” This cycle, as he refers to it, can have a debilitating effect on Alexandrium’s ability to grow. His lab is studying the costs and benefits of this inducible defense on Alexandrium, at the expense of growth. “If you put way too much energy and resources into defense,” said Dam, “then you can’t sustain growth and so the mystery is why this strategy remains in place.”
Back home, he studies organisms on the surface, but Dam is intrigued by what the deep sea can reveal about all marine species. He flew from Connecticut to Irvine, California, to find out. “I wanted to see if I would get new insights into adaptations of marine organisms to global change,” he said.
Dam participated in a seed group that designed a deep-sea immersion experience for important decision makers—a project that could educate policy makers on the answers to questions such as those of adapting to global change.
In 1959 C.P. Snow argued in his essay “Two Cultures” that in order to solve the problems of humanity, we need to overcome its alienation from science. “This conference reminded me that this essay’s message is still valid after six decades,” Dam said.
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When you think of jellyfish, what comes to mind? For some people, the first thought may be of their stinging tentacles and an unfortunate run-in at the beach. But did you know that jellyfish blooms are increasing in magnitude in oceans across the globe? These blooms are an indicator that ocean ecosystems are out of balance and a source of controversy within the scientific community.
The immersive exhibition “The Trouble with Jellyfish” by contemporary artist Mark Dion and marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin merges art, science, and history to draw attention to this phenomena. The exhibition made its debut at Le Laboratoire in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2015 and was later mounted at the Beckman Center Irvine, California, for the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative conference on Discovering the Deep Blue Sea. Upon entering the exhibition, visitors encounter a dimly lit Victorian-style salon with period furniture upholstered in blue fabric and blue custom-made jellyfish patterned wallpaper. Early illustrations of jellyfish, many fantastical and inaccurate because scientists did not have direct access to the creatures, line the walls and an antique cabinet filled with books about jellyfish and jellyfish memorabilia is available for visitors to peruse. These resources and representations make us think about how ideas enter into our imagination and cultural consciousness and how newer visualizing techniques have replaced older ones.
Around a corner, much to everyone’s surprise and delight, is a tank with live moon jellyfish, giving visitors a chance to observe the marine creatures’ grace, elegance, and uncanny anatomy up close. A “Jellyfish Life Support Unit” gives marine biologists access to the jellyfish tank for caretaking and feeding and it gives visitors a chance to peek behind the scenes.
In a nearby corner, a video featuring Gershwin plays, in which she shares many fascinating facts about jellyfish: jellyfish can clone themselves in thirteen different ways, one species of jellyfish is biologically immortal, jellyfish can eat up the food chain, and more. Whimsical commercials created by Harvard University students also play in the video loop, suggesting creative solutions to address the jellyfish blooms.
What if we could harvest massive amounts of jellyfish and turn them into paper towels, capitalizing on their super absorbent qualities? What if jellyfish could be used as a fat-free egg substitute in baked goods? What if we could use drone technology to learn more about the logic and patterns of population explosions?
The trouble is not actually with jellyfish, but with human activity leading to conditions in which they can proliferate. A chart on the wall illustrates how a combination of overfishing, pollution, and climate change have created the perfect conditions for jellyfish. Overfishing and pollution have eliminated many jellyfish predators and competitors and climate change has led to a decrease in oxygen, known as aquatic hypoxia, creating dead zones where few life forms other than jellyfish can survive. As a result, jellyfish have earned the reputation of being the “cockroaches of the ocean.” They choke and disable the engines of large and powerful ships, shut down nuclear power plants, kill salmon, and clog fishing nets. “The Trouble with Jellyfish” drew attention to the issue, while also celebrating the beauty and wonder of these marine creatures.
This interdisciplinary installation raised visitors’ awareness about an emerging issue while leaving room for discussion. It posed and answered questions, while leaving other questions unanswered because much is still unknown about why, where, and when jellyfish blooms will appear. Art played an important role in the exhibition. Metaphors and symbols have the ability to strike you to the core in a way that pure data and facts cannot. For example, the jellyfish wallpaper gave visitors the queasy, visceral feeling that jellyfish were intruding everywhere, invading their space—even encroaching upon this safe Victorian salon—in a way that a poster by itself or even a graphic set of photos about the jellyfish problem could not. The artistic imagery and aesthetic space that visitors moved through, combined with the compelling scientific data, created a powerful experience that provoked questions and opened the door to further inquiry, discussion, and debate.
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By Kathleen Raven
In 2009, Tempest van Schaik and an artist collaborator delighted judges at a South African fine arts competition. Their interactive piece, “Cameos and Genotypes,” invited observers to push hard on a typewriter key, which in turn applied pressure to a custom-built digital keyboard beneath it. This second keyboard sent a signal via cable to a computer hooked up to a digital projector. When an onlooker pressed a key, an alphabet letter, or a symbol designed after things found in the artists’ mothers’ and grandmothers’ homes, floated across the projected white light on the wall. It looked as though black letters and symbols puffed upwards into air from an old metal typewriter. Through such creative use of technology, the artist duo wanted people to consider the success, or failure, of communication across family generations.
That art exhibit came to mind again when van Schaik, a biomedical engineer by training and artist by passion, attended NAKFI’s Discovering the Deep Blue Sea conference. Throughout the meeting, the South African native observed how well marine scientists, non-ocean scientists, and artists communicated across disciplines. At the conference, van Schaik said, she considered herself a scientist foremost, but also an outsider. “It was freeing to be an outsider. You can ask naïve and really fundamental questions about the big picture, which is sometimes hard for scientists in a specialized field to do.” Because of her technology interest, van Schaik aligned herself with a group eager to develop cheap ocean sensors.
Back home in London, van Schaik is the lead scientist and engineer at Science Practice, a design consulting firm. Along with firm colleagues, she helped develop a paper lab test designed to detect soil nutrient levels. “I’m interested in low-cost solutions for chemical measurements,” van Schaik said. “There are similar problems on land and in the sea.”
Her NAKFI group included four ocean scientists, two design students, and herself. The team wanted to design cheap sensors to learn more about marine snow, which is biological debris that floats down from the surface and provides food for organisms in the middle
and deep ocean levels. “Understanding the speed, size, and location of the snow as it falls tells you about energy distribution in the ocean and a bit about the ocean health as a whole,” van Schaik said. If scientists could observe this information in real time, in a natural habitat, then they could gather more accurate information. Right now, most of what is known about marine snow comes from collecting water samples that are later observed aboard a research vessel, thus removing valuable in vivo information. The group wanted to create a sensor that would move effortlessly with ocean currents, capture information, and relay it back to a computer.
While brainstorming how to design cheap cameras for each avocado-sized sensor, Melissa Omand, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, recalled an Adam Maygar photography exhibit she visited the previous year. The Berlin-based photographer uses a technique called slit-scan photography first invented in the 1800s. To create what Carnegie Mellon University school of art professor Golan Levin calls “static images of time-based phenomena,” a moveable slide with a slit is placed between the film and the aperture. This allows a single aspect of an image to be captured during movement. “We thought this was actually perfect because we wanted to capture a small amount of data with our low-cost, low-tech sensors,” van Schaik said. She also noted similar challenges across disciplines for developing low-cost sensors: how to power the device, how to retrieve data from it, and how to build it strong enough so that it will not break down in the human body, in soil, and in the ocean.
More work remains to be done on the sensor, and the group plans to apply for a seed grant through NAKFI, van Schaik said. For her part, van Schaik says the conference expanded the edges of her creativity. “I wasn’t in my normal bioengineering field and so I was able to look at things quite differently,” she said. Biomedical engineers must think constantly about cost or material constraints while working through a problem. Designers focus on how a human will experience, and perhaps even enjoy, interacting with an object. “That’s quite a different way of looking at things,” van Schaik said.
By Kathleen Raven
A person can learn a lot from questions on conference application forms, explains Kelsey Bisson, a marine science doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Bisson recalls that NAKFI’s Discovering the Deep Blue Sea conference application asked potential participants to suggest significant ocean-related challenges that were not included in the original conference description. “It was clear the organizing committee was looking for specific, motivated applicants,” she said. Immediately, Bisson said, she knew she had to apply, even if that meant competing against more senior researchers. Just two years shy of earning her PhD, Bisson studies how phytoplankton affect carbon cycling in the ocean. She decided to pursue this area of research after a trip to Antarctica as a geology major and mathematics minor at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Below is a condensed, edited version of conversations held during and after the conference.
What did you hope to get from the NAKFI meeting?
Around the time I applied, a friend and I had begun producing a science radio show. We wanted to address a challenge: How can marine scientists improve current communication to the broader public, as well as to non-marine scientists, and engage them in pressing issues? At NAKFI, I wanted to know how scientists can collaborate with the media to get messages across. I’m coordinating a Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) at UC Santa Barbara and I wanted to learn how to put on a science and art event—which is basically what the opening session on the first day of NAKFI was about. Also, I felt excited to meet high-profile leaders in our field and have impromptu conversations with them. This is nearly impossible to do at larger conferences.
How did the experience affect you?
Being in a room with colleagues and watching ideas unfold transparently was cool. One group I was with proposed an idea for a modeling program aimed at the public to show how the biological pump—one mechanism of how the ocean sequesters carbon—functions and how it is affected by various changes like climate change or pollution. Just having conversations around that project triggered a lot of questions about my own research. I left with a massive amount of knowledge about how to think about art and science. I connected
with someone who will help us put on our LASER event. Also, I learned about a program where scientists go to artists’ studios and artists go to scientists’ labs (the nonprofit organization called Ligo Project based in New York City). Between the two, they suggest ideas and create things. That was inspiring.
Describe your doctoral research question.
We want to answer the question: How much carbon does the ocean export from the photic zone (uppermost level) into the mesopelagic? We know that most carbon settling into the ocean is strongly linked to changes in temperature, physics, and chemistry. This is called the physical, or solubility, pump and it’s estimated to account for two-thirds of carbon drawdown from the atmosphere into the ocean. The remaining one-third is attributed to the biological pump, which is what I’m studying. The physical pump is better understood and can be mathematically represented, but the biological pump is a lot harder to quantify. I’m using satellite data to study phytoplankton on the surface of the ocean. The satellite acts like a camera—it’s taking pictures at different wavelengths reflected back from the water. Things like particle size and type, as well as living or non-living status, will influence the wavelength reflected to the satellite. I’m using these data to simulate a virtual reality—to create a model—of what phytoplankton on the surface of the ocean look like and how affect carbon absorption. When we build global carbon budgets, a lot of uncertainty is related to the biological pump. This matters for climate reasons and also for food web reasons for the organisms that live in the mesopelagic and feed on phytoplankton biological debris—also called marine snow—that falls from the top layer. We think the biological pump exports between 4 and 12 petagrams of carbon annually into the deep ocean (one petagram is equal to one trillion kilograms). But that’s a big difference. If we could develop a better estimate through a more accurate representation of surface plankton, it would allow us to diagnose current ocean conditions and predict future ones.
What will be the lasting value of the NAKFI conference for you?
The things I research, carbon and ecosystems, are constantly in multidimensional flux, and yet I’ve been trying to understand them within the confines of math on paper. At the conference, I talked to several sound researchers and it made me interested in converting my data into sound. I’ve been working with massive satellite data sets and I have lots of data points. I was thinking it would be wonderful to use sound to pick out potential beautiful patterns of natural cycles. In other words, is there a way to convert the frequency of data to sound? When I returned to Santa Barbara after the conference, I opened a collaboration with a media arts and technology graduate student to work on answering this question. I hope that the results might give me more grounding in my research and maybe even help me understand anomalies better. I’m excited about the unknown and what we might discover!
By Yasemin Saplakoglu
Every autumn, thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of eels embark on a journey to the Sargasso Sea—an area that takes up two-thirds of the North Atlantic Ocean. These mysterious characters have eluded scientists for thousands of years, starting with Aristotle, who claimed that eels grew spontaneously from mud.
Beginning in the 1900s researchers collected eel larvae in fine nets and found that the youngest eels came from the Sargasso Sea. They inferred that this must be their spawning ground. Eels that hatch in the Sargasso Sea stay in a larval stage of life—only a few millimeters long—for around 9 to 12 months, during which time they journey back to the East Coast and into fresh water rivers. Larry Pratt, PhD, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is studying the migration of these larvae back to the coast.
“They don’t swim very well,” Pratt said. “Yet somehow they make it all the way back to the East Coast to the mouths of rivers in less than a year.” In order to do so, they must cross the Gulf Stream—a strong ocean current off the East Coast that affects waters all the way down through the Twilight Zone.
Using a computer model, Pratt simulates currents and different scenarios of eel navigation, including swimming capacity. He releases millions of eel larvae and observes which ones are successful in reaching the coast. “We found that they need to have the ability to navigate to have even a reasonable chance of success,” Pratt said. Perhaps they detect the Earth’s magnetic field as adult eels do, he added.
Whether on a computer screen or deep in the Twilight Zone, these mysterious creatures continue to reach the coast, against all odds. Alongside his eel research, Pratt often explores the interface between art and science. He participates in projects such as “Hoverdive,” a two-day dance production about ocean science performed by the modern dancers from Contrapose Dance in Boston. He recently started consulting with playwrights commissioned by the American Reparatory Theater at Harvard University to develop a play involving ocean science.
Pratt arrived at NAKFI hoping to gain more insight on the interwoven field of design and science. “I do a lot of work on the art/science interface, so the idea of getting together with a large group of artists and scientists, with lots of new faces, was appealing,” he said.
Pratt was part of the “A Day in the Life” seed group—a theatrical immersion project aiming to show audience members what it
would be like to be an organism living in the Twilight Zone.
According to Pratt, he sometimes has difficulty envisioning complex objects, such as images of twisted and interwoven surfaces in three dimensions that arise from his simulations on ocean currents. “The artists present [at NAKFI] gave me some ideas about how to visualize and understand these better.”
Pratt hopes this will lead to a collaborative project with the design students from Pasadena.
We will not remember every moment of this conference. We will probably remember the names of our team members and some of our discussions. We will be able to call up the memory of the roll of twine thrown across the auditorium. But we probably will not remember the color of the markers we used or the time we drank our third cup of coffee. We hope to remember where we last put our keys, but sometimes we do not even remember that. Memory is abstract. Memory is difficult to define.
Memory takes on different forms. It is the ability to recall or adapt. It is a personalized database that we can tap into for guidance and navigation. It is the ability to encode, store, retain, and recall past experience. It is the chemical and genetic imprint of past events on water or genomes of a community. “Let’s write this down, we are forgetting,” an oceanographer said. On the porch behind the Newport Room, a group of microbiologists, oceanographers, designers, scientists, and engineers budding off the biodiversity seed group took their markers in hand and began to explore the concept of memory in the deep sea. They started by defining the term “memory.” For most everyone, it meant something different. As the board filled up with definitions, the group inched closer. The problem was, which definition were they to pick for this project?
The Horizontal Hourglass
The discussion process for this group resembled a horizontal hourglass, with each idea as a grain of sand. They began on the left side of the hourglass, with very broad space to hold the ideas. Their initial questions seeped into the meaning of life, species, and our similarities with the deep sea.
The group grounded their abstract ideas by taping large pieces of paper on the walls of the porch for the purpose of scribbling. The first poster had a set of symbols: A • B • C. Each letter represented an event and if A to B was an expected, regular occurrence, then B to C was recovery from an event. The idea was that if a microbe had memory, next time they would avoid the trouble and proceed directly from A to C.
They thought about finding a model for the deep sea, like Pavlov’s dogs—a famous psychological experiment that conditioned dogs to salivate in response to a specific stimulus like a sound. It may be possible to condition or introduce different scenarios to short-lived organisms and examine whether their genetic or chemical structures change across generations, they thought. This could represent memory.
Maybe memory is not a structured event, but a random one. Random events in gene transcription and translation—the steps needed to make protein—is like creating an epigenetic memory for bacteria, they said. Another poster went up. They thought about engineering a bacterium to have a “forgetfulness” trait. Maybe if we look at genetic sequences, we can figure out what kinds of situations these species found themselves in throughout the years. Marker caps clicked off.
Is it still called memory if you cannot access it? They then got into a discussion of whether memory is always accessible. Memory is a signal worth recalling and it has to be transcribed and synthesized into a protein for it to count as memory, some thought. They soon narrowed down to the middle of the hourglass, a tighter space with less room to roam. They divided into two groups to focus on specific projects they hoped to accomplish. One group discussed what they wanted to achieve scientifically, and the other, artistically.
The artistic group, a combination of designers and scientists, hoped to come up with a project that would allow people to immerse themselves into the data. They thought about music and orchestrating rhythms that may represent memories of the deep sea. They talked about dance. “We will sing siphonophores and dance dinoflagellates.”
The scientists focused on microbes and whether or not they remember where they’ve been. Their idea was to give deep water microbial communities experiences of various environmental conditions—such as differences in temperature, pressure, and even light—to see if they remember them. Remembering could take the form of community resilience to a certain change or an adapted phenotype. They would measure metabolites, respiration, and gene expression. A limitation, they said, was the sampling size. They would need a continuous amount of deep water pumped to the surface for these types of experiments.
When the two groups combined again, the width of the hourglass once again expanded. Together, they began to imagine a space where scientists can bring in their specialized knowledge of memory in the deep sea and musicians or painters can express that knowledge in the same place: an interdisciplinary, no judgment, collaborative, something-for-everyone zone.
By the end of this process, there was not a free spot on the wall. Posters with quotes, ideas, and drawings filled up every free space on the floor, the walls, and the porch. It looked very much like a design itself, perhaps an art studio.
They did not pick one definition of memory, or one question to answer. Instead, they imagined a space where multiple definitions and millions of questions could live.
They proposed a deep ocean research program observatory and artist studio. This observatory would be a place where artists and scientists can collaborate to both observe and express the memory of the deep ocean. The lab will use data analytics and visualization techniques from the field of neuroscience to inspire scientific projects—down to the level of microbes. Experiments previously done on surface models can be used to catalyze those for deep-sea organisms. Their hope is that by researching and creating artistic renditions of past events, they could help predict responses to future disruptions, such as environmental changes. The art studio will serve to visualize the abstract concept of memory in the deep sea in order to engage audiences and open up the floor to personal reflection on deep-sea science.
They ended their presentation with a deep lingering harmonic echo. Accompanying the music on the screen were the words, “The greatest oral history of the planet is trapped in a community we cannot see and in a language we don’t understand.”
The memory of the deep sea.
The idea of belief was what first grabbed Michael Sieracki, who asked, “Where does belief come from?” Hoping to fuel a parlay among science and anti-science, truth-based reality, and imagination, Sieracki joined the virtual reality group and titled the project, “Do you believe in plankton?”
“We are asking a yes or no question,” said Sieracki, “and you need to have an answer to it.” The virtual reality group passed through much iteration before finally coming together and defining their project … somewhat.
On the second day of the meeting, attendees presented numerous ideas that were generated from seed group conversations. Many people were driven to create a virtual reality midwater experience for the general public. After hearing more than 25 ideas across a myriad of topics, about 30 people chose to explore virtual reality together. Once in the same room, the large group of artists, designers, engineers, and scientists took a meandering path to finally settle on two prefatory ideas.
An ongoing discussion was one of the delivery vehicle—how to immerse people in an otherwise inaccessible environment. Some envisioned a walk-through experience of the mesopelagic. Others hoped the audience would experience the mesopelagic through “a day in the life” of a midwater organism. It was a discussion that ultimately split the group into two.
Sieracki’s group, titled “Do You Believe in Plankton,” aims to create a video-based experience with a captivating narrator who takes the audience on a tour through the mesopelagic. They drew up plans for an elevator with surround-sound and 360-degree video that would virtually take people hundreds of meters underwater.
By the last day of the conference, that elevator evolved into a 360-degree video headset, a project they believed would be more achievable and could reach a wider audience. The group’s objective is that the virtual reality experience will “connect human experience to the mesopelagic through expert charismatic guides.” They want the audience’s engagement to be both immersive and interactive. Participants will encounter the virtual reality midwater through visuals, sounds, and smells, as they are guided through on a narrated journey. Simultaneously, participants will interact in “free-play,” moving through the ocean, swimming, and touching things they choose on their own.
Three digital programs will run the virtual reality experience and are selected based on the audience. Each program will be tailored to a different audience: youth, scientists, or policy makers. The audience will meet many animals on their virtual journey, which will educate viewers about ocean science and advocate for stewardship and conservation. Participants might meet a pteropod, a sea butterfly, which are tiny, shelled creatures that are food for many animals.
Pteropods play an important role in ocean acidification research. Ocean acidification corrodes their shells, which serves as an indicator on the effects of the ocean’s changing acidity. Participants could also listen to the vocalizations of a sperm whale, as they come face to face with the ocean giant. Other experiences include groups of organisms, such as commercial fish or the vertical migration of zooplankton. All of these experiences will be created using footage captured with a submersible dive combined with computer generated overlays.
The other half of the group titled its project A Day in the Life. They are planning a more abstract yet tactile experience. Visitors would have a walk-through introduction to seeing, touching, and feeling what a mesopelagic organism does on a daily basis.
“You know when you are holding your breath or shallow breathing and you aren’t aware of that until you step out and take a deep breath—that’s what I want the visitors to feel,” said Steve Haddock, a marine biologist. “I would like people to come out of it asking questions and wondering about stuff,” said Heather Spence, a marine biologist and musician.
The group’s goal is to create a “day-in-the-life” experience where the visitor will empathize with how the animal copes with its environment and get a realistic feel for their lives, using all their senses. They propose a three-part project with components of an immersive performance, a live game, and a research laboratory.
Here is how it works. Participants will choose an organism from the Twilight Zone to embody. They then wander through a series of spaces experiencing life as a deep-sea animal. For example, they might choose to become a copepod, a microscopic crustacean. To understand how copepods experience the viscosity of the ocean, they will walk through a room with hanging sensory strings that will give them a feeling of moving through syrup. To embody a midwater fish, the group conceived of a suit that the visitor could wear that gives them a sense of how a fish experiences its lateral line, a sensory organ used to detect movement in the surrounding water. Or, to understand how whales communicate and navigate, the visitor may be challenged to walk through a tunnel of sound, which mimics the SOFAR Channel, a layer of water in the ocean where sound travels great distances before dissipating.
The exhibits are data driven and will be as dynamic as the data that feeds them. Visitors can experience the ocean in real time. Scientists can use this experience to further their
research, as it will allow them to inhabit the data they collect. Thus, this virtual reality world truly creates an experience where art informs science and science informs art.
The entire experience, wrapped up in a fleet of 18-wheelers that travel the country, will bring the mesopelagic world to land-locked cities and unite the potential to cross-pollinate between science and art.
Inside this giant aquarium, a tiny speck treads water. The slithery, the charismatic, the wide-eyed, the narrow-faced, the bioluminescent, the alien-like, the green, the blue, the grey, the massive, and the quiet all press their faces against an impenetrable glass to observe us—the intruder.
We roam in the darkness, seeking the glass that separates us from the rest of this deep world. Our arms reach out and draw circles trying to find a “thing.” “Something” brushes against our legs. We feel around for it, knocking the water this way and that, searching. Maybe it’s a slow-moving Greenland shark. An eel or a hatchetfish—the zombie of the Twilight Zone.
“Something” pokes at our arms. We lunge for it. We can’t see but we move “whatever it is” around in our hands—it’s thin and gently glides. Dangling from our fingers, it turns out to be a long frazzled piece of twine. We pull it taught and begin to follow.
One after another our hands reach for the gently swaying line and our body follows behind. Newton smiles as we practice his third law—we pull the string back and we propel forward.
One hand after another. One after another. We glide across the Mesopelagic Zone.
We run into something with arms and legs. Mouth and nose. So bizarre to find another human down here.
On we go. Our other follows us from behind. Hand. Hand. Hand. Swish. Swish. We happen upon another aquarium exhibit that breathes from two nostrils. As we follow the length of the twine, we pick up scientists, artists, students, designers, and engineers. Our deep sea game of “Snake” lasts quite a while. Is time measured the same down here? We loosely define “awhile” as the length of time between our excitement of having found something and the strain we feel to keep moving.
After a few “whiles” we reach the diver holding onto the last of the twine. One hundred of us stand together connected in the darkness.
We don’t let go—the twine pulls us back and thrusts us forward. Some take the lead and begin to glide through the darkness, others follow.
We travel together as a spider web of humans. Days, months, years, and decades pass. Our status morphs from intruder to tolerable to neighbor. We travel back millions of years to the home we lived in before evolution sent for our relocation.
Soon, the slithery, the charismatic, the wide-eyed, the narrow-faced, the bioluminescent, the alien-like, the green, the blue, the grey, the massive, and the quiet let us attend their neighborhood gatherings, flip through their unpublished books, take a tour of their energy
plants, and tap into their undocumented culture. We have long since attached the twine to our diving gear so that we can tango through the mesopelagic zone.
Fifteen NAKFI participants were asked to answer the questions: What is art? What is science? Their answers show both discord and harmony between the two branches of knowledge. Sometimes their definitions of art and science are indistinguishable, and sometimes they are poles apart.
You decide if the expressions talk of art or science. Fill in the blanks. There are only two choices and no wrong answers.
- _______ is discovery and explanation and the incessant asking of questions.
- _______ is curiosity personified. It is blended. It is the joy of going out and finding something new every day.
- _______ is the same thing, but more visceral and expressed in different ways. It is taking what we see in our mind and putting it out there to share with the masses.
- _______ is knowledge of what we are, who we are, and where we are - back by soul.
- _______ is a method for understanding how the universe works. It is an organized systematic method of understanding it, that is testable and repeatable way of understanding how the world and the universe works.
- _______ is a verb. It is a process, a way of exploring things and making observations through all of our senses.
- _______ is also a verb. It is also a process.
- _______ is an interpretation of the world through a personal lens. It is based on representing a phenomenon through a medium.
- _______ is a way of exploring and explaining nature and the human condition and to rationalize that experience.
- _______ is looking for patterns in nature.
- _______ is what inspires you and what drives your interest. When you lose your interest - the game is over. It is exploring different options.
- _______ They are sometimes thought to be opposite ends of the spectrum or the coin. But I view them differently. There is a continuum of creative thought. ________ is a creative work, and so is ________.
- _______ is discovery. Exploration about the world that we never think about.
- _______ is freedom and feeling and an expression of that combination.
- _______ is exploring and explaining nature.
- _______ is knowledge of what we are, who we are, and where we are - backed by math.
- _______ is a philosophy of understanding the natural world. It extends directly from a natura philosophy of using the three vehicles of logic: deductive reasoning, adductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning.
- _______ is an old discipline an, old field, and it has evolved over time. And now it has evolved into a very detailed complicated field.
- _______ is a process.
- _______ is also a process.
- _______ is anything that you can create that elicits a genuine response in someone else. It makes you feel something that you otherwise would not have.
- _______ is a continuum of the thought process of humankind.
Science 1 Marine Biologist; 2 Marine Consultant; 5 Geologist; 6 Marine Biologist and Musician; 10 Scientist; 11 Illustrator; 12 Microbial Oceanographer; 13 Illustrator; 15 Mechanical Engineer; 16 Photographer; 17 Scientist; 18 Microbial Oceanographer; 20 Interdisciplinary Researcher
Art 3 Marine Consultant; 4 Photographer; 7 Marine Biologist and Musician; 8 Scientist; 9 Mechanical Engineer; 12 Microbial Oceanographer; 14 Marine Biologist; 19 and 21 Interdisciplinary Researcher; 22 Microbial Oceanographer
Participants generated 25 unique ideas from the original five seed idea groups. In addition to the three reported in depth in this publication, nine other groups explored topics ranging from underwater national parks to using fiber optics to illuminate the deep blue sea.
Ambassadors of the Deep
Just as the discovery of the great canyons of the western United States fostered the drive to explore, protect, and care about these treasures, this seed idea group proposes the development of an underwater park to encourage public curiosity and stewardship of the deep sea. Visitors will enter a research vessel—or the park’s visitor center—to learn about the park, and then be transported 50-100 meters under the water to an underwater pavilion—Mesophotic Park—to experience this unique habitat. Ambassadors of the Deep envision trips to Mesophotic Park becoming a routine part of beach visitors’ coastal experiences.
Bringing Light to Decision Making in the Deep Blue Sea
This team imagines using scientifically robust models in shared immersive environments to inform and explore decision making on issues that impact the deep blue sea. Visitors will enter an immersive chamber and dial into the macro and micro issues that interest them—from national security to ocean acidification and alternative energy—and experience the consequences of their choices on the life of this unique habitat.
A Day in the Life
A Day in the Life is a project that is part immersive performance, part research lab, and part live game. It is a traveling sensorial experience that is designed to invite the public to embody creatures of the Twilight Zone in order to empathize with how they interact with their environment, adapt, and survive, and for humans to feel the scale of these creatures’ lives. The goal is to prompt curiosity, interest, and questions about this otherwise unreachable world.
Deep Dawn: Tree of Light
How can the light-giving surface of the ocean be transported to the mesopelagic to create new ecosystems, while simultaneously transporting data about the effects of this illumination to the surface? This group proposes using fiber optics to do just that. It is hypothesized that the light will create conditions ripe for new ecosystems that create new food sources and data, engaging the public through the sales of food products and “do-it-yourself” fiber optic trees that could be installed in local lakes and ocean environments, for example. What if it does not work? “Flip the switch and turn it off,” the group said.
Exposing Existence: Identity Through Relationships
What does it mean to survive in extreme, dynamic environments? This seed idea group proposes sampling and sequencing of mesopelagic microorganisms over time and in different locations to identify the biodiversity and understand how these mesopelagic organisms adapt and interact, for example. Comparing these organisms to other communities such as the human microbiome could uncover a glimpse of the similarities and differences of how these communities adapt, communicate, and survive. Why should we care? The Earth is a shared ecosystem. What we learn about the functioning of one system may inform our understanding of others.
Mapping Changing Habitats in the Deep Blue
This team proposed harnessing the power of global climate models to create an interactive data visualization platform for scientists, conservation biologists, and fisheries’ managers to map projected changes in ocean habitat; infer climate constraints on current species range; explore future or past changes in niche, size, and location; and analyze species interactions and habitat intersections. Public interfaces for policy makers and others would be shared in aquariums and science museums, possibly using sentinel species that indicate climate change.
Mesopelagic Playgrounds for a Resilient Future
How can we measure resilience in the mesopelagic to help us reimagine our own resilient future? This seed idea group suggests that demonstrating and teaching the notion of cooperation—through primary research and play—can lead to resilience in society. Studying mesopelagic species—such as a specialized fish and copepods—can inform the design of playgrounds.
For example, climbing structure designs could be inspired by the delicate tissue networks forming fish gills. Challenging mazes based on the circulatory of copepods might require cooperation of multiple children.
What does food and snow have in common? “Marine snow” is the tiny rain of microparticals in the ocean that feeds the entire deep sea. Key to understanding the largest habitat on Earth is monitoring its food source. This seed idea group envisioned using slit screen technology to collect data on marine snow—and inexpensively transmitting these data via satellite—through swarms of small, low-cost, water-following sensors to monitor marine snow in the Twilight Zone.
Handle with Care
Not much is known about small, gelatinous midwater animals. In fact, they are almost entirely overlooked because they are too fragile and soft to capture for analysis without harm. This seed idea group proposed constraints that are portable, adaptable, and soft to gently immobilize the animal, and possibly even release the animal unharmed.
Before taking a deep dive with their solution, this group plans to distribute “Jellysticks” to citizen scientists at beaches around the globe. Experimentation with these “soft hand” sticks on shore would prepare next stage designs for the deep dive—ultimately leading to solutions that aim to reveal the secrets hiding in these elusive mid-water animals.
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David M. Karl
Director, Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education (C-MORE), and Director, Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE); Professor of Oceanography
Department of Oceanography
University of Hawaii
Mark R. Abbott
President and Director
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Stephen R. Carpenter
S.A. Forbes Professor of Zoology; Director,
Center for Limnology
Center for Limnology
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Jody W. Deming
Inaugural recipient of the Karl M. Banse
Professorship in Oceanography
School of Oceanography;
UW Astrobiology Program
University of Washington
David A. Edwards
Professor of the Practice of Idea Translation; Core Member, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering; Founder and Director, Le Laboratoire in Paris, France and Cambridge (USA); Faculty Associate, Center for Nanoscale Systems
Paul G. Falkowski
Bennett L. Smith Professor of Business and Natural Resources, and Director of Rutgers Energy Institute
Depts. of Earth and Planetary Science and Marine and Coastal Sciences
Morteza (Mory) Gharib
Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bio-Inspired Engineering; Director, Graduate Aerospace Laboratories
California Institute of Technology
Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography;
University of California, San Diego
Jonna AK Mazet
Professor of Epidemiology & Disease Ecology; Executive Director, One Health Institute Global; Director, PREDICT Project of USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats Program
UC Davis One Health Institute
University of California, Davis
Thomas C. and Joan M. Merigan Professor, Depts. of Medicine, and of Microbiology & Immunology; Co-Director, Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; Chief of Infectious Diseases, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Healthcare System
The Explorers Club
W. M. Keck Foundation Staff
Executive Director, Programs
W. M. Keck Foundation
Mercedes V. Talley
W. M. Keck Foundation
National Academy of Sciences Staff
Marcia K. McNutt
National Academy of Sciences
Kenneth R. Fulton
National Academy of Sciences
Director, Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences
National Academy of Sciences
Senior Program Associate, Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences
National Academy of Sciences
National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Staff
Kimberly A. Suda-Blake
Senior Program Director
National Academies Keck Futures Initiative
Anne Heberger Marino
National Academies Keck Futures Initiative
Cristen A. Kelly
Associate Program Officer
National Academies Keck Futures Initiative
Associate Program Officer
National Academies Keck Futures Initiative
Web Specialist/PC Analyst
National Academies Keck Futures Initiative
Artist and Film Director
Doug Aitken Workshop
University of California, Davis
Co-Founder and Vice President,
Designmatters, ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena
Design and Innovation Fellow, Weatherhead
School of Management, Case Western Reserve University
Louisiana State University
Ballengee Studio LLC
Associate Professor of Music Technology
School of Music/School of Theatre
The Pennsylvania State University
Stephen J. Beckett
School of Biological Sciences
Georgia Institute of Technology
Vice President, Engineering
School of Architecture
University of Waterloo
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences
University of California, Los Angeles
School of Marine Science and Policy
University of Delaware
Department of Geography
University of California, Santa Barbara
Timothy J. Broderick
Chief Science Officer
Wright State Research Institute
Deborah M. Brosnan
Biology (Global Change Center and The Resilience Forum)
Deborah Brosnan & Associates
Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Margaret L. Byron
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of California, Irvine