Blue Crab Bowl 2015

Earlier this month, I spent all day Saturday on my feet, telling high schoolers to be quiet.  Maybe not my first choice on how to spend a weekend day, but it was all for a good cause.

Every year, in February, my university and another institution band together to host the Blue Crab Bowl.  It’s a high school trivia contest focused on all aspects of the ocean sciences, from physics and biology to marine technology and politics.  Teams from different high schools in the area come to compete in our regional bowl.  The winners are sent on to the national competition, the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, held this April in Ocean Springs, MS.

Match officials look on as two high school teams compete in the Blue Crab Bowl.  Source

To us, this competition is more than just another type of high school trivia games.  In most high schools across the US, students are not offered any courses on ocean sciences.  They can graduate without any understanding of the environment.  By holding the Blue Crab Bowl every year, we help encourage students to learn basic knowledge about ocean sciences and work to decrease the national gap in environmental studies.

Of course, our hope is that the students who participate will stay interested in the ocean and go on to have ocean-based careers.  Even if they don’t, we’ve helped prepare them for careers in any STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), and increased their basic understanding of science.

Check out the NOSB website and our local BCB website and Facebook page to learn more about the competition and see more pictures.

And, if you are up for a challenge, take this quiz!  It’s based on past ocean science competition questions.  How much do you know about ocean sciences?

Dive In: Geoengineering the Southern Ocean

This is the fourth post in the Dive Into Science series.  Here I’ll be explaining results from recent scientific papers.  Dive Into Science gives you a glimpse of current research in an easy to read format that anyone can understand.  To read more, just use the Dive Into Science tag.

Today’s article is “How deep is deep enough? Ocean iron fertilization and carbon sequestration in the Southern Ocean” by Josie Robinson, et al, published in Geophysical Research Letters, 2014.


One of the main factors influencing climate change is the amount of greenhouse gases, specifically carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere.  I’m not going to go into how greenhouse gases increase global temperatures, or what the sources are.  Instead, let’s jump ahead to: what can we do about it?

One major option is that we can store a lot of it in the deep ocean.  This carbon sequestration keeps the carbon dioxide in the ocean for maybe hundreds of years, giving us more time to cope with climate change.  How do we increase the amount of carbon sequestration?  By geo-engineering the ocean.

When phytoplankton bloom, they take up sunlight and carbon dioxide.  Some of the phytoplankton are eaten, and the nutrients and carbon dioxide they take up are eventually returned to the surface ocean.  Some of the phytoplankton sink out of the surface ocean and are exported to deep waters, maybe even to the bottom, storing carbon dioxide and nutrients deep in the ocean for long periods of time.

To geo-engineer the ocean to increase carbon sequestration, we would need to stimulate phytoplankton to bloom more, over longer time periods, and ensure a large portion of that bloom sinks.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has guidelines on carbon sequestration.  They suggest, that to be truly sequestered, the carbon needs to stay at least 1000 meters deep in the ocean for 100 years.

The prime location to geo-engineer is the Southern Ocean.  A large portion of it is iron-limited, which means we just need to add iron (called iron fertilization) to get more phytoplankton to bloom.  It also has certain locations where dense water sinks to the bottom of the ocean and stays there for hundreds of years.  Sounds promising, right?

This premise is what the authors of this paper tested.  Suppose we geo-engineer the Southern Ocean.  We add enough iron to the Southern Ocean at the right time, stimulating a massive bloom, which sinks to 1000 meters.  Everything goes right.  What happens to the carbon next?  Does it stay below the 1000 meter limit for 100 years?  Or do we need new guidelines for carbon sequestration?

Using an ocean model, the authors of the paper tested this theory.  They put in almost 25,000 tracer particles at 1000 meters all throughout the Southern Ocean.  Then they ran the model for 100 years to see where the particles ended up.  Particles that make it above the Mixed Layer Depth (MLD), or the depth to which surface forcing, such as wind, can mix the water, are considered to be exposed to the atmosphere and aren’t sequestered.

Figure from Robinson et al.  Panel a shows the starting location of all the particles that made it to the surface, and the color indicates how long it took them to upwell.   Panel b shows the percentage of particles in each block that stayed sequested for the entire 100 year simulation.

They find that after 100 years, 66% of the particles have been exposed to the atmosphere.  That means less than half of them that met the original standard actually stayed sequestered for 100 years.  On average, it took a particle 37.8 years to make it back to the surface.  However, if the particle got out of the Southern Ocean, it tended to stay in the deep ocean.  Of the ones that reached the surface, 97% were still in the Southern Ocean.

So what does this mean for carbon sequestration and iron fertilization?  Even if we manage to get all the geo-engineering aspects of iron fertilization right, it doesn’t mean that the carbon will stay down long enough for it to be useful.

From Robinson et al. Shows the percentage of particles that stayed sequestered at different time points over the model run, based on whether they started at 1000 or 2000 meters deep.

The authors also re-ran the same simulation, but this time set all the particles at 2000 meters, instead of 1000.  By requiring a deeper depth in order to be “sequestered”, they found that only 29% made it back to the surface ocean over 100 years, a large improvement.

Overall, this paper demonstrates the issues with geo-engineering the Southern Ocean.  It suggests that new guidelines are needed to define carbon sequestration – it must initially sink to a depth of 2000 meters instead of 1000 meters.  It also demonstrates that the Southern Ocean might not be the best place for geo-engineering, as the dynamics of the water cause a large portion of particles to rise to the surface, rather than keep sinking.

Starting the job search early

I’ve made enough progress, finally, in my grad school career, that my advisor suggested I should start looking for postdocs.  It’s probably still too early to apply, he said, but if I find a perfect position, they might be willing to wait for me to graduate.

Little did he know that I’ve been keeping tabs on job openings for several years now.

Early on I realized that I didn’t have a good grasp of what sort of jobs I could apply for once I got my PhD.  Yes, I knew I was looking for something with a strong research component, but I needed more information.  Could I do the sort of research I wanted in industry, or in a government lab as well as academia?  How applicable are my skills to other research areas; can I change my focus at all and by how much?

Instead of waiting until it was time to apply for jobs and researching the answers all at once, I decided to slowly gather information as I went.  It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Here’s why.

Know where to look.  Every time someone mentioned a job search website, a database, or an email list, I took note.  Every time a professional organization advertised their job board or search site, I signed up.  Instead of starting the search from scratch, I’m already getting notified about all the positions I’m eligible for – no extra effort required.

Know when to look.  Each of those email lists or job sites I signed up for sent out notices about various types of jobs.  Skimming through one or two interesting ones each week gave me a good idea of the lead time required for different positions.  A postdoc position in my field, for example, is typically advertised 1-2 months before the application deadline.  Start times are typically 1-6 months after that, although ASAP start times are quite common.  However, if I wanted to apply for my own funding, grants are only available at certain times of the year.  Also, I would have to find my own mentor, and start dates are closer to a year after applications are due.

Learn the right skills.  For each position, there is typically a list of required and desired skills.  Take a mental note of what is listed, and pretty soon you’ll have an obvious subset of skills you need for your desired job.  For example, I work with certain software and coding languages now, as a graduate student.  However, to do the same exact work at a different university, or in a different country, they require knowledge of different software.  Instead of waiting until I apply to make the case that I can learn these skills, I know ahead of time that I need them, and can take the time to learn them now.

Understand job options.  After you’ve been casually skimming job postings for awhile, you start to notice some trends.  Places that hire frequently become familiar to you.  A too-good to be true job sticks out like a sore thumb as soon as you glance at the salary range and realize its 20% below typical ranges for that geographic area.  And the best part is, you don’t have to put much effort into understanding these options.  You don’t have to perform extensive calculations on cost of living and value of benefits.  By the time you are ready to look for real, you will have seen enough that you know just by looking how the job fits in with what you expect.

Convinced yet?  Considering trying this method?  If you want to get started now, here’s how I carried out my job search way before I was actually searching for jobs.

Sign up for email lists or feeds.  A lot of sub-disciplines have their own email list to announce jobs, conferences, data requests, etc…  Find the ones that overlap with your interests and sign up.  Or, wait until you hear someone mention certain ones, then sign up.  Also, most websites that list jobs have a way for you to sign up for email digests or use a feed reader to notify you about new postings.  Sign up for these too.  And, while you are at it, go ahead and sign up for email notifications from professional-based forums that post jobs as well.  If in doubt?  Sign up.

Be prepared to skim and delete.  So now that you’ve signed up for a ridiculous number of emails, you need to manage them.  I redirect all of mine into a specific folder, bypassing my inbox completely.  Then, just scan the titles.  Anything that mentions a job you aren’t eligible for (too qualified, under qualified, wrong field) gets deleted.  Same with anything in a geographic location you aren’t interested in (although you may want to keep your options open at first).  I typically get 5-20+ emails in this folder per day, and at max I read maybe 3 of them.  And by read, I mean glance at the location, salary, basic requirements, and start time.  Then I delete those ones too.

Bookmark universities, companies or labs.  Since you aren’t actually searching for jobs, you don’t need to save interesting opportunities, because they won’t be there when you are ready.  However, as you go, you may notice certain universities, companies, or labs reappear quite often in the listings you actually read.  Go ahead and bookmark their websites (or add them to a list) for future reference.  Even if they don’t have job openings when you start searching for real, their past history suggests they might soon, or they might be open to talking to someone with the same interests.  These are the people and places you can contact even without a job opening, to possibly collaborate on a proposal, or just to express your interest.

By jumping on the job search years before you graduate, when it doesn’t matter so much, you can save yourself a lot of stress and learn ahead of time what you want to do when you finish.  So go ahead, put in the very little effort now.  It’ll pay off later.

What do you think about this method?  Have you started job searching for your next position yet?