USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

November 20, 2014

Water Water Everywhere, And Not A Drop to Drink

Filed under: Undergraduate,Wrigley Institute — Jessica Dutton @ 8:00 am

USC Wrigley Institute

By: Elise Steinberger

Back in Chicago, if there’s one thing people complain about, it’s the weather. Only 5% chance of rain? Don’t fool yourself – it will rain. No chance of rain, you say? It mists all day long. The winter forecast predicts sunshine for the first time since July? Put those sunglasses away, because there’s actually a polar vortex bringing five feet of snow on its way. And when it’s finally June and you think you can take your down jacket off, instead an inexplicable can’t-see-your-own-feet kind of fog lingers for weeks. To keep from crying about our vitamin D deficiencies, we joke that there’s always something falling from the sky, even if we don’t really know what it is. Dr. Seuss would have a heyday describing all the different types of precipitation.


Precipitation in Chicago!

The situation here on Catalina Island couldn’t be more different. Coming to the Wrigley Marine Science Center for this internship, I knew the plight of the West Coast of the United States and I had routinely heard about fire risks as a result of extreme drought. However, the extent of the problem didn’t truly register – I was still trying to dry out after four years in Chicago.


The WMSC campus, in need of rain.

Here at the island, various measures are taken to maximize all available freshwater. I was instructed only half-jokingly to take “navy showers” and conserve water where I could. Around the lab, I was told about how apparatuses collect condensate from AC units to hydrate water-begging plants. Now that I reflect on the situation, over the last month I’ve been here I hadn’t even seen rain until last week. I can remember perhaps one or two cloudy days – but even that is pushing it. The clouds roll in, stay for half the day and then leave, as if even they have given up on rain.

two harbors

The town of Two Harbors, covered in dust

When the forecast announced that there would be rain last week, everyone from the area was cautiously excited as they had clearly been let down before. After all, who can trust a forecast that says there is 100% chance of rain. That’s a red flag. But we ‘rain-proofed’ the Institute before concluding for the day, and I thought about how foreign that concept was to me. Aside from occasionally forgetting your car windows down, in the Midwest we have everything ‘rain-proofed’ at all times because a rogue rainstorm is pretty much expected. To everyone’s excitement, it did rain at the island and we collected every last drop of rainwater that we could.


A rainbow after the showers

Along with taking rain for granted, people in Chicago don’t worry about water shortages. I still cringe when I see friends back there run the water from their sink as they brush their teeth. Every morning, sprinklers spin around flowering lawns and during the summer children throw brightly colored water balloons at each other. So the concept of collecting rainwater is unheard of. Though there are many environmentally conscious people who minimize the amount of water they use, their actions are based on principles they choose to support, not actual shortages. Here on the island the situation is much more immediate and it is assumed that it is everyone’s responsibility to conserve water. It is unfortunate that this kind of united mentality is often only seen when situations become serious – in the Midwest some people care about water conservation and others could not care less.

The old adage “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” is all too true. People are not roused to change their ways until circumstances constrict them. The little ways in which people conserve water on Catalina Island makes me wonder what state our natural resources would be in if everyone were to do this – with all resources. Rather than waiting for water, wood, and land to become depleted, if we respected them from the start and used only what we truly needed, we could prevent radically changing ecosystems all around the world.

Elise Steinberger is a fall intern at the Wrigley Institute, learning more about marine science before beginning her Master’s in Health and Science Writing at Northwestern University.

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November 12, 2014

A tour of the USC Hyperbaric Chamber

Filed under: Wrigley Institute — Jessica Dutton @ 8:45 am

USC Wrigley Institute

By: Elise Steinberger

A few days ago, I managed to find my way into a tour of the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber. I had met briefly with Lorraine Sadler to discuss an upcoming kayaking and snorkeling excursion, and she mentioned that she needed to hurry back for the 2 o’clock Hyperbaric Chamber tour. Turns out, in addition to being a WIES Education Specialist, Lorraine is a Chamber Technician and experienced diver. As an amateur diver myself, the idea of seeing how a hyperbaric chamber worked sparked my interest.

At the start of my internship with the Wrigley Institute, I had been given a waterfront orientation and heard about the Hyperbaric Chamber. However, the Chamber remained the mysterious unicorn of WIES – a place I heard stories of, but never seen in action. I casually asked Lorraine who the tour was for and she invited me to join. Forty minutes later, I was in a semi-circle of people listening intently as the facilities were described.

Here’s the science: As divers breath air under water, more gas dissolves into the tissues of their bodies due to the higher pressures underwater. When the diver surfaces, these dissolved gases should be expelled through the lungs. However, when a diver ascends too quickly, the dissolved gas can bubble out of solution in the body before it can be exhaled. Having these gas bubbles in your tissues is extremely dangerous and can block arteries or veins, causing an embolism. Thus, treating a diver with decompression sickness or an embolism involves integrating knowledge of the human body with the basic physics principles of gases under pressure.

Chamber back

The Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, as seen from the outside.

To the layperson, the Hyperbaric Chamber looks like a large, blue submarine – complete with little round windows. The Chamber is 25 feet long and 9 feet in diameter and can simulate the pressure of dives as deep as 165 feet. Operators accomplish this pressure change by pumping air into the sealed chamber until the desired pressure is reached. The Chamber is ready for emergencies at a moment’s notice, and staffed by a rotating crew of local and global volunteers 24 hours a day, all year. Moreover, a backup generator allows the Chamber to function even in the case of power outages.

After hearing an overview of the functions of the Chamber, we were invited to step inside to ‘test it out.’ We filed into the Chamber and shut the 400-pound door behind us. As we stood inside, we learned how they operated the Chamber, what medical supplies were available, and heard stories of lives saved. After a few moments, a volunteer operating the chamber on the outside communicated to us – via a telephone on the wall – that we would be going ‘down’ to one foot. Sure enough, as they pumped air into the Chamber it felt just like diving, as my ears verified to me that the pressure was increasing.

Chamber inside

Inside the Chamber. Oxygen hoses hang from the walls, and a patient bed is visible in the back.

At a ‘depth’ of one foot, we were instructed to try opening the door. As the person standing closest to it, I gave it a whirl. After a joke or two about asking the smallest person in the Chamber to try opening the sealed door, the man standing next to me also tried to muscle it open. Needless to say, the increased pressure in the Chamber meant the door was firmly shut.

I spoke at length with Max Brummett, a Physician’s Assistant from the mainland of California and the volunteer who operated the Chamber during our tour. He explained more about the Chamber and its volunteer program. Max comes here to Catalina for a few days at a time, working a ‘shift’ at the Chamber and waiting on stand-by for any emergencies. Max was familiar with the ins and outs of the Chamber and was enthusiastic to share his experiences as a volunteer.

I was intrigued to learn from Max that the Chamber was once used to support test pilots when trying their SST and SR-71 prototypes. Historically, sterile hyperbaric chambers have also been used to treat burn victims as the environment can accelerate the tissue recovery process. The Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, in particular, was home to the hyperbaric and decompression research done by Dr. Andrew Pilmanis – an assistant professor of physiology – that led to the implementation of the standard 15-foot safety stop used by divers today.

Styrofoam heads

A comparison of two Styrofoam heads – both initially the same size – after one was compressed during a pressurized ‘dive’ in the Chamber.

Max explained how this living piece of history is used to treat patients. He explained that all staff involved in the treatment process are well equipped to confidently handle an emergency. Also, he said that any doctors that stay with the patient inside the Chamber and ‘dive’ down to depth are not allowed to make decisions about the course of treatment. As Max explained, this is a precautionary measure in case the doctor inside the Chamber experiences a foggy mind as a result of mild nitrogen narcosis.

I was impressed that, even if the patient receives hours and hours of treatment, he or she is never left alone. For this reason, volunteers are crucial to the operation of the Chamber. The Chamber and its crew have performed almost 1000 treatments since it was ‘opened’ in 1974. To build on the volunteer base, people from all professional backgrounds – divers or not – are encouraged to go through training and donate a few days each year to help run the Chamber. This page explains how to become involved as a Chamber volunteer!

Elise Steinberger is a fall intern at the Wrigley Institute, learning more about marine science before beginning her Master’s in Health and Science Writing at Northwestern University.

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