Grace C. Chang, Associate Researcher, Ocean Physics Laboratory/University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, USA,
I am often asked how someone who grew up in the land-locked state of Minnesota became an oceanographer. Was it because of the mysteries associated with the infamous Scandinavian dish, Lutefisk, which is fish soaked in lye? Or was it an excuse to escape from a region where oftentimes, an increase in air temperature of 100°F would result in a cold index that is still below freezing? The answer is the latter (although I am curious about Lutefisk). I began my scientific career as a geological engineer/geologist, studying environmental issues associated with freshwater systems. Twenty-two years of Minnesota winters prompted my research shift from freshwater to saltwater and I fled to southern California. My research interest is interdisciplinary coastal oceanography, primarily the study of physical processes coupled with bio-optical responses. This research establishes an understanding of particulate movement and distribution in the water column and along the ocean bottom.
Generating funding can at times seem like a Catch-22: we need to prove feasibility and success of proposed research to be approved for funding yet a young scientist is unable to conduct research without financial support. Persistence is key to overcoming this challenge as well as broadening research interests and working closely with established colleagues.
The results have value for assessing various aspects of the global carbon budget, environmental impacts, and ultimately the role of the coastal ocean in global climate change. One of the major career challenges I have experienced as a scientist in academia was getting that first proposal funded.
Interdisciplinary ocean research affords many valuable and rewarding opportunities for collaborative projects. I find that the most gratifying aspect of being an oceanographer is the ability to generate enthusiasm for ocean research for non-scientists, particularly students. Residents living in or near coastal communities like Santa Barbara tend to spend much of their time staring out at the sea, forming questions in their minds such as: Why is the ocean blue? Where do waves come from? What causes a red tide and why does it glow? Many of them have extensive experiences above or below the sea surface as fishermen, divers, and/or surfers but lack the formal education necessary for understanding the oceanographic system as a whole. I enjoy conversing with these “recreational oceanographers,” whether offering informal lessons on oceanographic processes or learning about their experiences at sea. Interest in and knowledge of ocean science can promote conservation and environmental awareness of global processes.