Interviews

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Q&A: Sherman’s Lagoon Cartoonist Jim Toomey on Ocean Conservation with Comics

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Artist with cartoon shark and cartoon sea turtle looking over his shoulder

Cartoonist Jim Toomey with two of his characters, Sherman the shark and Fillmore the sea turtle. (Image courtesy of Jim Toomey)

Since 1997, a great white shark named Sherman has put a wacky spin on life underwater in the comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon. Jim Toomey, the comic’s creator and conservationist, uses Sherman and his (usually more intelligent) friends to reveal real issues facing the ocean. In this Q&A, Toomey describes adding humor to environmentalism, and what happens when Sherman’s Lagoon meets Chesapeake Bay. Edited for brevity and clarity.

Want to dive deeper? Watch Jim Toomey’s TED Talk online. You can also meet Toomey at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center October 17 at 7pm, for his free evening lecture, “Drawing Inspiration from the Sea.” Details here.

What first sparked your interest in the sea?

I was a little boy, maybe six, seven, eight years old….Some of the TV shows I used to watch, the Jacques Cousteau specials and things were somewhat unique. And it just fascinated me. It really captured my imagination to see this team of scientists explore this completely alien world. Click to continue »

Q&A Interview With Artist Tanja Geis

Friday, August 11th, 2017

by Ryan Greene

Two women stand in front of a painting on white wall.

SERC ecologist Chela Zabin (left) with artist Tanja Geis (right) at Geis’ exhibit at the Embark Gallery in San Francisco on July 17, 2017. They are standing in front of Geis’ piece “Layer Cake,” a drawing of an experimental native oyster restoration reef painted using pigment from the mud in San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

This summer, Oakland-based artist Tanja Geis teamed up with Smithsonian researchers for her multimedia exhibition, Lurid Ecologies: Ways of Seeing the Bay at the Embark Gallery in San Francisco. Born out of a collaboration with scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Tiburon laboratory, Lurid Ecologies’ explores efforts to restore the Bay’s only native oyster, Ostrea lurida. Geis works at the intersection of visual art and ecology. Her exhibit at the Embark Gallery includes oneiric drawings made with pigment from the Bay’s mud, a 3-channel video installation, and assemblages of tools used to study marine life. This exhibit will be free and open to the public until August 19 at the Embark Gallery in Fort Mason’s Center for Arts & Culture.

To learn more about Geis and her exhibit, check out this interview (edited for clarity and brevity).

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When did you start making art, and why?

My mom is a fashion designer and she went to art school, and so she’s always encouraged me to make art. So, in a sense, I’ve always been making art. But I think maybe the more relevant answer is that I started taking art really seriously about five years ago. It was at that point that I realized that it was pretty much the only thing that was going to check all the boxes for me.

For the past couple months, you’ve been working alongside SERC ecologists in San Francisco Bay. Can you talk a bit about your interest in ecology and how your collaboration with SERC scientists has shaped your recent exhibit?

I’ve always been interested in the nonhuman living world ever since I’ve been a kid. I guess I’m always curious about how these little behavioral differences come together and create a functional ecology. And I’ve always had this parallel interest in biology….I’m very interested in how we conceptualize all these complex interactions that we’re calling ecology….

What surprised me most was how often things don’t go as planned. There are many dead-end experiments, and it really requires this kind of dogged will and tenacity to discover new things, new patterns, new behaviors. I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t get to see. 

We have this idea of scientists in white lab coats with shiny new equipment working under fluorescent lights constantly having these new discoveries. And that’s really not the case. Ecological research is messy, it’s muddy, it’s full of things you can’t control.

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Q&A: Ian Davidson, Aquatic Inquirer

Monday, June 26th, 2017

by Joe Dawson

ICD at Cork Harbor

Ian Davidson in Cork, Ireland (Credit: Ian Davidson)

 Ian Davidson is continuing his work at SERC in a new role: as principal investigator of his own lab. From diving under massive cargo ships to studying an invasive organism ugly enough to be nicknamed ‘rock vomit,’ Ian Davidson looks at how human activities affect marine ecosystems. This includes the methods by which humans transfer marine life around the world (mainly shipping), the effects of coastal development on nearshore environments, and management and policy with regard to marine invasions and organisms.

This is the third of three profiles about the young scientists leading SERC’s newest labs. Edited for clarity and space.

How did you get interested in your area of study?

I grew up in Cobh (pronounced, “Cove”), a small harbor town on the south coast of Ireland, so I had plenty of time in rock pools when I was young. My mother grew up a stone’s throw from the shoreline, right in front of the main shipping channel there, so we were always keeping an eye on the to-and-fro of the port. My dad worked in a shipyard until it closed down too, so I suppose the ingredients were there to pursue a career that heavily featured marine biology and shipping! Click to continue »

Q&A: Katrina Lohan, Marine Parasite Hunter

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Katrina Lohan hiking in a forest

Katrina Lohan in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park. (Credit: Chris Lohan)

Weird truth: There are more parasites on Earth than non-parasites. Katrina Lohan would know, having spent over a decade studying them. After five years with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Marine Invasions Lab, Lohan is now in charge of launching the center’s new Marine Disease Ecology Lab. In this Q&A, meet some of the weirdest parasites she’s encountered and learn how DNA is helping her unlock their secrets.

This is the second of three profiles about the young scientists heading SERC’s newest labs. Edited for brevity and clarity.

What do you find most fascinating about parasites?

I really like it when stories are complicated. And adding parasites certainly complicates any story. But I’m also intrigued by the David and Goliath aspect of it, that parasites are super small, [often] overlooked, and most people don’t even think about them in terms of what role they play in ecosystems or what they could possibly be doing. Most people would sort of shrug off—oh, they’re probably not really that important.  And yet, they’re extremely important. The more we learn about parasites, the more we realize that they control their hosts. They can actually completely change the behavior of their hosts. Click to continue »

Q&A: Kim La Pierre, Ecosystem Conservation Ecologist

Friday, June 16th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Close-up of Kim La Pierre in prairie

Kim La Pierre in Konza Prairie, Kansas, home to one of the first Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) programs. (Credit: Arjun Potter)

Kim La Pierre does big-picture ecology. The newest senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, La Pierre is leading the center’s Ecosystem Conservation Lab. But while working on large-scale global experiments, she also delves into the microscopic world of bacteria. In this Q&A, discover how bacteria give certain plants an edge, and how she blends the very large and the very small.

This is the first of three profiles about the young scientists heading SERC’s newest labs. Edited for brevity and clarity.

You’ve done a great deal of work with legumes—plants in the bean and pea family. Can you talk about their weird relationship with rhizobial bacteria?

The [legume] plants and bacteria are in a mutualism where the plants fix carbon into sugar and give it to the bacteria, and the bacteria are able to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and give it to the plants. This is a source of nitrogen that no other plants have access to. Most plants have to take [nitrogen] up from the soil. Because of this mutualism, legumes can get nitrogen from another source, and that often makes them very successful in different, especially harsh environments….

It’s interesting to think about the different legume species, and how good they are at enforcing cooperation from the bacteria. Thinking about the bacteria as not only potentially being beneficial, but [also possibly] cheating the system—trying to take carbon from the plants and not give back as much nitrogen, especially under high soil nitrogen conditions. Click to continue »

Students ASSEMBLE! How comics can help with science learning

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016
Student learning science from science comic

Student learning science with Balliett’s comic

by Heather Soulen

Middle school can be a tough and unforgiving rite of passage, filled with raging hormones, ill-fitting highwater pants, voices akin to trumpet-wielding geese, and a multitude of distractions. Trying to learn while being swept up in puberty’s turbulence can be challenging. Equally challenging is trying to teach science to often-distracted tweens and teens. Right now, as most U.S. schools begin a new school year, some science educators might be looking for ways to engage their middle-school students with science. One science educator suggests meeting them where their interests lie – comics.

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Food for Thought: Cooking for Invasive Beetles

Friday, August 12th, 2016

by Emily Li

SERC intern Cole Caceres collects Japanese invasive beetles from hormone trap for his experiment

SERC intern Cole Caceres collects Japanese invasive beetles from a hormone trap for his experiment (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) intern Cole Caceres has two passions: science and cooking. He enjoys doing research and adding to the larger body of knowledge, but he hasn’t given up on owning his own restaurant. When he’s not studying nitrogen filtration as a laboratory assistant at the University of California, Davis, he’s probably watching Food Network or frying chicken wings in a sweet soy sauce glaze.

But Caceres found the perfect mix of his interests as an intern with SERC’s Terrestrial Ecology Lab. There, he cooks for invasive Japanese beetles, hoping to help shed light on their dietary preferences so that plant conservation initiatives can be more fully informed—one beetle bite at a time.

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Sink or Swim? Divining the Fate of Life-Giving Wetlands

Friday, August 12th, 2016

By Emily Li

You might have heard of The Giving Tree, a children’s picture book by Shel Silverstein about a boy and a tree. As the boy grew, he began to want more from the tree, and the tree happily gave and gave and gave: her apples, her branches, and even her trunk. While Silverstein’s heartbreaking story was a fiction, the plot is happening in wetlands around the world—and this time, it’s for real. Marshes improve water quality, mitigate hurricane damage, sequester atmospheric carbon, and serve as ideal habitats and nurseries for wildlife. In return, as sea levels rise, they’re in line to be the first casualties.

SERC intern Jefferson Riera shows off his sunburn.

SERC intern Jefferson Riera shows off his sunburn after a day in the field. (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

That said, marshes are hardly a serene paradise. To Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Jefferson Riera, wetlands are ruined shoes caked in mud. Wetlands are wasp stings on his lips. Wetlands are spider webs of scratches from marsh vegetation. Wetlands are sunburns so severe his skin doesn’t match itself anymore.

And yet, he knows that they’re worth protecting. That’s why he, and the rest of SERC’s Ecological Modeling Lab, are working to develop a baseline understanding of local marsh elevation to educate policymakers on the state of wetlands—before their fates are sealed by the sea.

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The Mystery of the Muddy Creek Restoration

Monday, August 8th, 2016
SERC intern Lauren Mosesso takes a water quality reading

SERC intern Lauren Mosesso takes a water quality reading (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

One year ago, a team of scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center set out to restore a stream running through its campus in Edgewater, Md. No one ever said it would be simple.

At first glance, the restoration of Muddy Creek seems to be a closed case. Before the project began, the creek’s severely eroded banks were disconnected from its floodplains, turning the stream into a raging river during storms that stripped nutrients from the system and dumped them in the Chesapeake Bay. Now, after a facelift in January, the creek is nearly unrecognizable. Its gentle banks cradle the wide, slow-moving stream littered with leaves, ferns, and an abundance of other plant life. Choruses of croaks fill the air, accompanied by the hum of insects, bird chatter, and the occasional splash of frogs retreating into the cloudy water.

But another layer of mystery is clouding the waters. A mat of red Leptothrix bacteria coats some sections of the site, leading SERC senior scientist Dr. Thomas Jordan and his colleagues to ask a host of new questions. Are the bacteria harmful to the ecosystem, or an important part of the food web? Are they a short-term phenomenon or a permanent fixture to the stream? Exactly how much area do they cover? One SERC intern is hoping to find out.

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Making Noise About Marine Sound Pollution

Thursday, August 4th, 2016
SERC intern Michelle Hauer sets up her soundscape ecology tank experiment

SERC intern Michelle Hauer sets up her soundscape ecology tank experiment (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

In high school, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Michelle Hauer fell in love with sound. She discovered the cello, which she insisted on bringing to her internship this summer despite having limited space and housing. But her affair with sound didn’t stop there, even as she was exploring her interest in science. While still in high school, she wrote a paper on the effects of naval sonar on marine mammals. Then, while attending DePaul University, Hauer came across the relatively new field of soundscape ecology through a Chicago-based organization called Chicago Wildsounds—and she hasn’t looked back. Now, as a summer intern in SERC’s Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab, Hauer is studying the darker side of sound by researching how noise pollution can affect marine wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.

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