Interviews

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Q&A: The Heart of the Ocean

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
Before joining MarineGEO, Emmett Duffy did research in waters from Australia to Siberia. (Photo: College of William and Mary)

Before joining MarineGEO, Emmett Duffy did research in waters from Australia to Siberia. (Photo: College of William and Mary)

by Kristen Minogue

It’s “the largest, coolest marine biological project on Earth”, according to its new director, Emmett Duffy. On Sept. 16 Duffy came on board the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, a.k.a. MarineGEO–the Smithsonian’s global network to monitor the oceans. So far it has five stations tracking the ocean’s chemistry and biology, from SERC in Maryland to STRI in Panama. They plan to add at least 10 more in the next decade. Now, after two  months on the job, Duffy shares his vision in this edited Q&A.

What’s the main purpose of MarineGEO?

The overall goal really is a very ambitious one. In my mind, it’s to understand what’s at the heart of how marine ecosystems work…and that is biodiversity. The living web from microbes to large predators that are responsible for ecosystem processes like fish production and habitat creation. So basically what we want to do is map marine biodiversity and what it’s doing across the globe.

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Once an invasive, always an invasive?

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

by Monaca Noble and Paul Fofonoff

The European green crab has been on the east coast of the U.S. since 1817. (SERC)

The European green crab has been on the east coast of the U.S. since 1817. (SERC)

The title question was raised by one of the readers of last month’s feature story on green crabs (Carcinus maenas). The reader asked, “If the green crab was first seen here [the East Coast of the US] in 1817, is it still considered an invasive species 200 years later? How far back do you go to claim something is invasive vs. native?” Several groups of people have drawn their own lines in the sand, but we wanted to examine current thoughts and perceptions. The following article is based on views expressed in a recent listserve discussion.

The term invasive was used in the green crab article because the crab is on the list of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. But it is also commonly used as a synonym of introduced. Which brings us to the importance of terms and definitions.

As one respondent pointed out, there are different interpretations of the term “invasive.” Some people define invasive in terms of a species’ ecological impact or behavior, while others use it to refer to a species’ origin, and sometimes both are part of the definition. If a species’ characterization as invasive is based only on its ecological behavior, then it is possible for a species to be both native and invasive. But if the species’ origin is part of the definition, then only nonnative species can be invasive. Others add another dimension to the word by making the mode of introduction important. Species can be spread naturally through dispersal and/or through human-mediated transport. Some people use invasive in reference to human-mediated introductions of nonnative species. Unfortunately, when we hear the word “invasive” we rarely know the definition behind it.

But whether something is considered invasive appears to be largely a matter of perception rather than just definition, and there are many contributing factors that muddy the water. Most responses from the discussion fell into three perception categories represented by these questions:

1) Do we benefit from the species, or is it harmful?

2) Is the species part of what we consider the natural landscape?

3) Is the species native?

Maybe our problem is that we view nature in the time frame of a biologist’s career-span.”

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Intern Logs: A Soldier and a Scientist

Friday, August 19th, 2011

This summer the SERC interns had a unique addition to their ranks – Iraq veteran Kiel Edson, a former Marine finishing his last year of undergrad at California State University, Sacramento. In this edited Q&A, the 28-year-old shares thoughts on Iraq, SERC and the transition from soldier to researcher.

Edson1

After five years working as a Russian linguist for the Marines, 28-year-old Kiel Edson started college and discovered his passion for conservation biology. (Credit: Michael Tobias.)

What kind of work did you do for the Marines in Iraq?

E: I was part of a group of what’s called Signal Support Team. We basically go out onto missions off the base, closer to the main cities, and we collect intelligence on what’s happening within the city. And then anything relevant that we find, we basically just write-up in situation reports or intelligence reports and send them off to the commanders who are making decisions as to how to handle the situations in that city. We just tell them, hey, they know that you’re going to ambush, or they know about the convoy going through on Thursday, so that they can change the way that they operate to avoid taking casualties, or they know going in there’s going to be a firefight, so everybody’s prepared for it. It’s not a surprise.
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Five Minutes for Mangroves

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Hallmark may not have a card for it, but today is International Mangrove Action Day.

Photo of a creek surrounded by a mangrove forest

Photo: Ilka C. Feller/Smithsonian Institution

The occasion is a small but vibrant tradition that has been observed annually on July 26th for nearly a decade in countries around the globe, including the U.S., India, Ecuador, Micronesia and many others. To celebrate, some communities organize protests or restoration projects. Some convene discussions or offer educational lectures about mangrove ecology. Others simply take a moment to appreciate the importance of mangrove forests.
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Plants, climate change and the importance of being curious, an interview with Bert Drake

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

If you’re looking for a good conversation about science, history or life – talk to Bert Drake. He’s a plant physiologist and renaissance man who’s been with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center for nearly four decades. Drake retired in January, but will continue his investigations as an emeritus scientist. We caught up with him before he took well-deserved vacation.

Wideshot of Drake on the boardwalk that winds through his marsh research station.

Drake's research unfolds at the Kirkpatrick Marsh, located in Maryland on a subestuary of the Chesapeake Bay.


How did you earn a living before you became a scientist?
I was a drummer in a jazz band, a ski guide, the host of a jazz radio program and a high school science teacher.

How did you get drawn to the world of plant physiology?
Nature has always fascinated me and science is about discovering how nature works. I grew up in northern Maine. My father was a barber, but loved the outdoors. I was outside year-round: skiing, canoeing, trapping animals, fishing and taking photos. I knew I wanted to do something connected with biology. I became a science teacher, but it wasn’t until I attended a summer course in ecology that I wanted to get inside a lab and practice science.

In science you almost always get an approximation of an answer because an experiment is only an approximation of reality.

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Wetlands on the rise, a conversation with biogeochemist Pat Megonigal

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Pat Megonigal is a biogeochemist here at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). The following is an interview with him about his recent research.

Smithsonian biogeochemist Pat Megonigal

Smithsonian biogeochemist Pat Megonigal

Climate change scenarios are driven largely by greater concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One common narrative includes faster-rising seas and the potential drowning of coastal regions. You recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that gives hope to some coastal wetlands. Tell us what you found.
PM: We conducted a study for two years on the Kirkpatrick Marsh, here on the Chesapeake Bay. We discovered that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 actually stimulated the surface elevation of saltwater marshes. The additional CO2 caused them to basically pop up, or rise in elevation, because the plants developed more roots. It’s kind of a silver-lining story.

How did you simulate climate change?
PM: We put out clear open-top chambers that are about two yards in diameter. They allow us to manipulate the atmosphere around a chunk of marsh. Then, in some of the chambers, we pumped in extra CO2; we raised it to a level that will be roughly what the whole world will be exposed to at the end of the century. And then we measured the changes in the soil’s elevation throughout the growing season.

When you think of measuring elevation, mountains come to mind, not soil. How did you measure the soil’s height?

PM: Well, we needed a stable point of elevation reference, so first we drove a steel rod about 20 feet into the ground. Then came the hard part. We had to design a tool that would give us not only precise, but multiple measurements of the soil elevation – both in and outside of our chambers. We came up with an instrument we dubbed the “monster arm.”

Technician Jim Duls measures the soil elevation with the 'monster arm.'

Technician Jim Duls measures the soil elevation with the 'monster arm.'

The monster arm?
PM: The technical name is “surface elevation table.” Basically it’s a long metal bar with 90 fiberglass pins running perpendicular through it. It looks like a big comb, but instead of the teeth being fixed in place, they can move up and down. So by gently placing the monster arm across the chambers we could measure where the top of each pin was in relation to the main crossbar. So if a pin rose 100 millimeters above the bar in April and in August it rose 102 millimeters, the soil elevation increased by two millimeters.

Your study showed that the marsh receiving the extra CO2 rose by an additional 3mm a year. Is that enough to keep pace with the rising sea level?
PM: It should help for a while, but we don’t know how much sea level rise a marsh can handle before it will disappear. We do know that rising sea level is one reason that some marshes in mid-Atlantic and around the world are disappearing right now. Our research indicates that some of these wetlands literally have an organic ability to fight back by building new soil. This is especially true for wetlands with brackish water, like Kirkpatrick Marsh. Saltier coastal wetlands won’t be able to accumulate as much soil because their plants are different and don’t respond to CO2 in the same way. But we’re now conducting a new experiment to look at sea-level rise and its effect on soil elevation. We think the pop-up effect we’ve observed will be even more pronounced when the water level rises. We’ll see!

Intern Logs: Methanogenesis and nail polish

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Q&A with David Gonzalez, 2009 Summer Intern
Major: Evolution, Ecology and Biodiversity
School: University of California-Davis, Class of 2011

Intern David Gonzalez poses with some of his <i>Phragmites australis</i> plants

Intern David Gonzalez poses with some of his Phragmites australis plants


What drew you to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center?
The big-picture research that the scientists do here interested me, particularly the experiments relating to global climate change. Among other things, scientists of my generation are going to have to understand how climate change will impact organisms. We talk about it a lot in my classes, so it was cool to have the opportunity to have hands-on experience exploring some of these issues as an undergrad.

You were here for ten weeks. What was your research project about?

I worked on a global change project that examined the relationship between microbes in the soil and Common Reed, or Phragmites australis. Through a process called methanogenesis, the microbes produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which the plants help to emit into the atmosphere. Because Phragmites australis is found in wetlands worldwide, it’s important to look at how its methanogenesis rates might be affected by global change. Basically we wanted to see if rising CO2 and nitrogen levels exacerbate the problem of methane emissions. So I spent the summer growing Phragmites australis under conditions of elevated CO2 and nitrogen and then measured the response of the microbes and plants.

Do you feel like you spent your summer being an active scientist?
Half of the summer I felt like a scientist; the other half I felt like a gardener. There were a lot of day-to-day chores like watering the plants, counting them, giving them fertilizer, and weeding them. I had to make sure these plants grew to the best of their ability in the short time we had to grow them.

So you learned about the challenges and realities of doing science?

A lot of things I learned this summer relate to how many little things go into doing scientific research – from going out and buying fuses for a machine when it broke down, to purchasing nail polish at a drug store so we could take a peel from a leaf to count stomatal density.

What exactly did you do with nail polish?
We used it in some pilot studies. You apply nail polish to the leaf, let it dry, put scotch tape on it, and then pull it off. This creates a kind of caste of the leaf that you can put on a microscope slide so you can examine a leaf’s cellular structure. For instance, we can go through and count the guard cells, which lets us figure stomatal density and helps us understand how the leaf is responding to the treatments we applied.

You were in the biogeochemistry lab. Did you interact much with the other labs at SERC?
Yeah, one of the great things about SERC is that you’re surrounded by scientists with all these different areas of expertise. I got a lot of help from the forest ecology lab; they let me use some of their instruments for measuring leaf area. But we also got to go on lab exchanges. I spent a day on the water with the “Crab Lab;” I helped them catch and tag blue crabs. And then I also spent a number of evenings setting up mouse traps in the forest with a friend who was interning in the Terrestrial Ecology Lab. In general, we were encouraged to find out what the other labs were up to, which I often did just by talking with the other interns.

What are the dorms like?
The Green Village is awesome. It has a kitchen, a common area and feels like a nice cozy dorm.

How much independence did you have?
Usually you put in eight hours of work a day; occasionally you work more. After that though, you’re free. We cooked dinners together in the evenings. Some of the interns had a garden with a behemoth of a basil plant – that made for a great pesto party. And then we spent weekends exploring the East Coast. I saw fireworks in Washington, DC, on the Fourth of July; camped in Shenandoah National Park; and swam in the Atlantic Ocean.

SERC's summer interns on a day-trip to the Shenandoah Valley

SERC's summer interns on a day-trip to the Shenandoah Valley


Was it difficult to get around?

A lot of the interns had cars. That was something I was worried about in the beginning, but everybody turned out to be really friendly. If you needed groceries, there were always people going to the grocery store. If you wanted to visit Washington, DC, it was easy to round up people to hit the Smithsonian Museums. The weekend excursions were great.

You’ll graduate in 2011. How do you want to use the knowledge you’ve gained here at SERC?
I’m definitely planning on doing more scientific research – maybe related to climate change, maybe not. Something that I’m very interested in is communicating the importance of environmental science to the general public and to policy makers. I want to be able to convey why it’s important to think about things like climate change, where your food comes from, farming practices, carbon emissions and things like that. That’s sort of my long-term interest – which I hope will go hand-in-hand with my future studies and research experiences.

Visit our web site for more information on internships and fellowships at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.