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

June 1, 2015

The Red Sea and Me

Filed under: Wrigley Institute — Jessica Dutton @ 8:32 am

USC Wrigley Institute

By: Michael Moreno

I am a sixth year graduate student residing within the Capone lab, where we focus on the cycling of nitrogen and carbon, primarily in the marine environment. Therefore, it is fitting that I am a student within USC’s Marine Environmental Biology program.

My interests lie in biogeochemistry and microbial ecology. Biogeochemistry. Sounds intense, right? That’s almost all of the major science words crammed into one. It’s less intimidating than it looks; it means that I examine how microbial communities affect the cycling of different N substrates (sources). My most basic questions are: who is doing what in the environment and how does this change with space and time?

I examine several different nitrogen substrates, i.e. ammonium, nitrate, urea, and N2, and identify which organisms are actively assimilating them and to roughly what extent. This can provide information on the metabolic diversity within the community and how it may respond to a changing environment. We have formulated ideas about the activity and community structure of the ocean, but recently many canonical views of have come into question as new evidence has been obtained. I hope to uncover more data that will further help to piece the picture together.

My work has taken me to many cool and interesting places over the years. I work primarily at the USC monthly time series, the San Pedro Ocean Time-series (SPOT), based in the San Pedro Channel. But, when given the opportunity, I like to compare what we see there with other environments. I have been way out in the Pacific Ocean, to the river plume of the Amazon River and, most recently, off the coast of Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea. Saudi is not very open to the outside world, so not many people get to travel to there. Because this makes it hard to do research in the Red Sea, we know relatively little about it. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore both this interesting and under-researched body of water, as well as Saudi Arabian culture.

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Center of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology campus in Saudi Arabia.

We spent twelve days out on the Red Sea, which is relatively short compared to the other cruises I have been on, but we were still able to get a lot done. The word “cruise” can make it sound like we were lounging on the deck playing pinochle, but in reality I worked about 14.5 hours a day. This workday would start by collecting samples around dawn and then catching a little breakfast. After breakfast, it’s time to set up that day’s incubations. After that, filtration of the previous day’s incubations needs to start. After a lunch break, the filtration of SIP samples starts. This brings you through dinner and up to bed. If you are lucky and get done a little early, you can sit in the lounge and watch a movie with the other people on board. The cinematic theme of this particular cruise was action movies…and I’m not bragging or anything but, over the course of the 12 days, we did watch all four Rambo movies. That guy is a machine.

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Me working at my filtration station. Picture courtesy of Ben Kurten.

This brings me to the boat, which itself was quite interesting. It was a retrofitted fishing boat. Let’s just say not ideal for ocean sampling, but we got it done. It was also made of aluminum so it is very light; when the seas kick up it can get pretty rough. We came across some very turbulent seas, the roughest I had ever been in, and without going into too much graphic detail…not many people made it to dinner that night. We were puking. There, I said it.

We had an eclectic group of people on the boat. Some were crew members, and some were other scientists. There were people from all over the world. The captain and many of the deck crew were from the Philippines, the first mate was from Ukraine, the chef was from Sri Lanka, and both of the boat’s research technicians were from Ireland. The scientists were a mixed group as well, with a couple Germans, Singaporean, a Frenchman, an Indian, and a few of us Americans, including a former faculty member of USC, Burt Jones. Having such a mixture of cultures made mealtime conversations quite interesting. And diversity is always important in great collaborations, as it combines many different areas of expertise and ways of thinking.

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Cruise picture of the science crew. Picture courtesy of Ben Kurten.

The big story toward the end of the cruise was a bloom of Trichodesmium (we tend to call it Tricho for short) that we happened upon during the last station. This cyanobacterium is able to fix (incorporate into biomass) an inert form of nitrogenous gas (N2) from the atmosphere into a useable form that helps fuel its metabolism and facilitate its growth. Most organisms, including people, must acquire their N needs through their diet or absorb it from their environment. Only certain prokaryotes, bacteria and archaea, have the ability to fix N themselves. Without this process, the world would eventually run out of new bioavailable forms of N and populations’ stocks would decrease. This makes diazotrophs (organisms that can fix N), crucial in maintaining global homeostasis. It also gives them an advantage in ecosystems that are low in N, e.g. the open ocean.

Tricho form large filamentous colonies, so they are bacteria that can actually be seen with the naked eye!!! This bloom of Tricho was so large that the first mate driving the boat at night thought that we were driving through another boat’s dumped sewage. Which would’ve been nowhere near as exciting, to say the least.

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Troy Gunderson holding up individual Tricho colonies in serum vials that were just setup in an experiment.

Tricho is often referred to as the ‘saw dust of the sea’ because the masses of floating colonies can resemble fragments of wood and many people mistake them for this. You may be able to see why from the picture above. These large slicks of Tricho could be seen all around the boat in every direction and it was believed that the bloom stretched over 10s of kilometers, if not more. It was very fortuitous for us to come across this mass of Tricho. It presented a unique opportunity to examine what may have caused this bloom to form and how it affects the ecology and biogeochemistry of the area, and ultimately the rest of the Red Sea. Looking forward to processing those samples!

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April 16, 2015

Aquaponics: Food for Thought

Filed under: Undergraduate,Wrigley Institute — Jessica Dutton @ 9:30 am

USC Wrigley Institute

Below are two posts from students in the WIES 2015 Spring Break Aquaponics Workshop. Thank you Jacqueline and Crystal!

Blog Post #1, by: Jacqueline Hernandez

A good friend of mine grew up in South Los Angeles, never graduated high school, but lives one of the healthiest, most conscious and relaxed lifestyles I’ve come across. Every day after work he comes home to customize his surroundings for artistic and functional purposes. He primes his canvases, paints found sculptures and carves faces into tree stumps that he repurposed into indoor planters. Recently he tore down part of his second-story wall and installed a door to create a rooftop patio and, per my suggestion, build an aquaponics system.

I once told him that the charm of his room came from it being so DIY.
“DIY? What’s that?”
“It stands for Do-It-Yourself. It’s trendy to make your own things now.”
He laughed incredulously.

This spring break, I took the Wrigley Institute’s aquaponics workshop, led by EVO Farms’ David Rosenstein and ended up with a wealth of information on the endless facets of aquaponics. Much of it built on my previous biology education– I now better understand the nitrogen cycle, for example, and I know that pH levels in these systems are a compromise between fish and plants. And though I’ve yet to test my knowledge on this one, I do understand the procedure for humanely killing your soon-to-be grilled catfish.

david

David explained plumbing, sunlight, and dissolved oxygen in the classroom, while we privately visualized designs for whatever outdoor space we might come across. What if I want to integrate frogs? What would it take to feed two blocks’ worth of families with the raft method? I can’t kill a catfish…maybe I’ll go with inedible fish varieties. However, whatever abstract ecological models I envisioned during lecture gave way to the lesson I learned while actually building the systems out in the sun, with dirty hands, surrounded by other students and experienced adults.

cutting

My biggest realization was one that humans depended on for tens of thousands of years: I am physically and mentally capable of constructing structures for a common good.
The academic life is one I enjoy very much (even at 3am at Leavey Library) but being highly sedentary, it isn’t conducive to making full use of our evolutionary adaptations. As it turns out, hands are useful for more than typing, flipping pages, and pointing to the kale and kumquat salad at the store. Hands are a key actor in operating chop-saws, clipping at hard plastic, and washing residue out of hydrocorn. Fingers are especially well-equipped for threading plumbers tape around a pipe. Several large muscle groups were also necessary, but I consider hands the quintessential poster-child of versatility, especially for creating physical solutions that we tend to pay someone else to complete. There’s empowerment in building big things yourself, and there’s a shared enthusiasm when building with peers.

AQ_addFish

I recently pulled out a statistic for an environmental law paper– 72% of restaurants in South Los Angeles are fast food establishments. The “food desert” problem exists in USC’s area. The situation is often discussed within the confines of a classroom, where the conversation leads to theoretical solutions time and time again. David’s lectures encompassed the role aquaponics can play in providing decentralized, healthy and –as the non-profit Community Services Unlimited calls it– “beyond organic” produce and protein in our own neighborhoods. Though much of the workshop was about decentralizing our food sources, it was also very much about decentralizing the work that goes into it–to the point where people like me are no longer hesitant to carry wood planks and wield power tools.

By the conclusion of the three-day workshop, our diverse team of two-dozen ended up with two medium-sized aquaponics systems with plumbing successfully installed and decorated with wood and PVC skirting. Our three days of work won’t solve the food desert problem, but they were a tangible answer to it. And my hands have since gone rogue. The Microsoft Word and my iPhone keyboard no longer hold a monopoly over their time and aspirations. These hands still write essays but they also redo the floor of my new room, they sketch out the food justice-themed murals they will paint, and they are getting ready to build my own aquaponics system on my equally DIY rooftop patio.

Jacqueline Hernandez is an undergraduate student at USC

planting

Basil

 

Blog Post #2, by: Crystal Smith

Aquaculture, agriculture, and plumbing have never been things of interest to me, in fact I knew very little about any of it. But what I did know, was a strange contraption that could grow vegetables vertically in your backyard that grew three times faster than it could out of the ground, and watered itself! When I received an email about an aquaponics workshop at USC, I immediately signed up and counted down the days to receive what I expected to be, magical information. Little did I know that I would be so fascinated, inspired, and extraordinarily excited to get started on my own system after just the first hour of the three day workshop.

Every moment of the workshop I felt one of three things: one, smitten with awe with simply everything David Rosenstein said; two, occupied with thoughts about how to build one at home; and three, how I could make aquaponics a part of everyone’s lives and not just my own. The workshop’s lecture material was the best time I’ve ever spent sitting in a chair and staring at a lecturer, hands down. Building the system with the team and completing the work on day three was not only fun, but was in such an amazing environment with people and plants that anyone would love to spend a Friday afternoon with.

group

I am so excited to start designing and making one of my own and have been sharing the stories and information I’ve learned at this workshop with everyone I can catch a few minutes with (sorry guy on the bus who probably didn’t want to talk to anyone). If the Wrigley Institute offers this workshop, or another like it, TAKE IT. Best advice possible, guaranteed.

Crystal is an undergraduate student in the USC Annenberg Communications program, Class of 2015

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