Jonas: Exploration, innovation and collaboration in marine science

Growing up in a coastal city in California, I took the ocean for granted because its constant presence was all I had ever known. Yes, I recognized its economic, ecological, and environmental significance, and had even participated in community efforts to protect this habitat and resource that we tend to treat so callously. However, it wasn’t until I headed inland to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, that I realized how much I missed the ocean, and that it was more a part of my identity than I had thought. Unlike some, I had never planned to make a career out of working in marine environments. Yet, the more I focused my sights on pursuing climate science, the more enticing that briny body became. Eventually, I found myself back in California, staring fondly out over the mysterious, churning water I had struggled to leave behind.

Jonas with fellow students Jackie (L) and Caitlyn (R) on the R/V Mussel Point

Jonas with fellow students Jackie (L) and Caitlyn (R) on the R/V Mussel Point

This summer, I had the unique opportunity of working at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab (BML) in Bodega, California. With golden and green hills on one side, and the crashing ocean on the other, BML sits on its own spectacular wildlife reserve that calls one to come outdoors. However, inside is where something else magnificent occurs; real live science! The lab serves approximately 100 faculty, staff, and students as a workspace for research and education. Its mission is to promote interdisciplinary scientific understanding of coastal ecosystems, to solve the increasing number of complex environmental issues that threaten our planet.

Going into this internship, I had a few specific goals, and some ambiguous expectations. First off, I needed to develop a reasonable and intriguing research question that would turn into my senior thesis, to complete all data collection, and conduct data analysis while I was at BML over the summer. In addition, I was interested in making connections with the professors and graduates students at the lab, and through their experiences and advice, explore possible career trajectories in scientific research or academia. While all of that was clear to me in my head, I wasn’t quite sure how these goals would be achieved. Furthermore, I had no idea what the other lab members would be like or how the lab environment would be structured. However, the BML community made my introduction to their lab extremely smooth and seamless, allaying any uncertainty I had about having a successful and enjoyable summer.

Everyone at BML is highly intelligent and thoroughly motivated about their work. Each scientist thinks deeply and broadly about the questions they tackle, places their research in a logical context of related issues, and excels at communicating difficult concepts to scientific and lay communities alike. Working alongside many of them, they have provided me with role models for the kind of scientist I aspire to be. This is especially true of my fantastic mentor Hannah. Acting as both an advisor and sounding board, she gave me guidance when I asked for it, but allowed me creative and analytical freedom with my own research project.

I came to appreciate and adopt some of the protocols and priorities promoted within the Hill Lab, especially those related to sharing scientific information. In the past, science was often approached with a protectionist attitude, where the prestige of scientific knowledge was reserved for those who had climbed the steps of the metaphorical ivory tower. Hypercompetitive lab environments promote this behavior, reinforcing the “publish or perish” mentality that deters scientists from conducting well-developed research, educating students, and sharing ideas for the benefit of science itself. However, BML has established a supportive and collaborative community that prides itself on the high caliber research they collectively produce. Within the Hill Lab, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of communication amongst fellow scientists, as well as making science accessible to the large audience that it must speak to—the lay public.

It was especially rewarding to be on both the receiving and conveying ends of this knowledge transfer. Starting at BML, my formal training in oceanography and marine ecology was very limited, even though much of the research in which I participated required a working understanding of these fields. Therefore, I took it upon myself to approach many of the professors and graduate students around me, hoping they might share some of the vast wealth of knowledge they possessed. Fortunately, they were happy to enlighten me on principles and processes in their areas of expertise in an easily comprehensible manner. On the flip side, I was able to practice what I had experienced when I presented my own research at the end of the summer, informing others who had a limited knowledge of my specific project. This allowed me to appreciate the significance of science education and clear communication, and the importance of cultivating this faculty in myself.

Working at BML, I was exposed to a graduate-level scientific environment that expanded my capabilities to be successful in not only a research lab, but any setting utilizing the skills that I acquired from my experience. I conducted research with a large degree of independence, practiced both field and lab work on a variety of projects, exercised critical thinking from a multidisciplinary approach, drew connections between specific results and large-scale trends, and presented empirical data to a highly-informed audience. All of these can be applied, in some way or another, to any future career I may have, be that scientifically related or not.

Having taken the opportunity to reflect on my time at BML, I’m very grateful for how much it grounded my attitudes towards science as a method of exploration, innovation, and collaboration. After spending my summer there, I have been able to redefine what science means to me. The pursuit of science is driven by one’s enthusiasm, intrigue, and investment in answering questions about the intricately interconnected, and widely unknown, world around us. Understanding how that world may change in the future requires placing the human experience in the context of deep time, providing both a broader perspective on these questions, and new possibilities for how they can be answered. Finally, the knowledge that comes from this pursuit is only the first step in problem-solving the many current issues that plague our planet, where the end goal is to promote awareness that leads to informed action by an engaged public.

Jonas Donnenfield is a Senior at Carleton College.

To learn more about student research in the Hill Lab, see below: