February SEA Days: Scientist Q & A

On the third Saturday of each month, a scientist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography or elsewhere in the community joins our special SEA Days program to share their exciting research with aquarium visitors. Visit Richard Seymour at SEA Days this Saturday, Feb. 18 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Richard Seymour diving in Santa Cruz.

Richard Seymour is a research engineer and head of the Ocean Engineering Research Group, which operates The Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) at Scripps. CDIP measures, analyzes, archive, and disseminates coastal environment data for use for coastal engineers, researchers, mariners, surfers, and anyone who is interested in knowing what the waves are now or will look like tomorrow.

Q. What inspired you to become a scientist?

I remember a specific moment – it was on the deck of a dive boat during a scuba trip in the Gulf of California as the sun was going down. I was talking to an oceanographer on the boat and she was telling me about her scientific cruises to the Seychelles, Galapagos, and Great Barrier Reef. At the time, I was running a pipe company and I thought, “Wow. This scientist is getting paid to do what I spend my two weeks of vacation doing each year!” It was then that I decided to pursue a degree in oceanography.

I went back to my job at the pipe company and wrote a letter of resignation. For years I had been telling people that what I really wanted to do in life was to be an oceanographer. At age 40, I decided to actually pursue that dream and apply to Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Q. What do you study and why is that important?

I measure waves all around the country stretching from Alaska to the Mid-Pacific Islands and Hawaii. These measurements are the most important weather indicators in the ocean. Other indicators like tides are important, but they are very predictable. I can tell you what the tide is going to be tomorrow within a small margin. Before CDIP, no one could tell you what the waves were today or going to be tomorrow or the next day.

Richard Seymour studying wave models as a graduate student.

Waves affect many aspects of our society. Knowledge of wave conditions is important for ship captains, tugboats cruise ships, fisherman, lifeguards, and surfers. The CDIP website gets more than 100,000 visits per day!  That’s one of the ways you can measure the value of this Program.

In the early days, we recorded wave data on paper. One of the great things about the website is that this data is now stored in a searchable format, accessible to anyone in the world. If you wanted to know what the waves were like at a certain beach in the 1970s, you can find that out easily.

I have used this data in my own research, too. By looking back in the records, I was able to establish a link between climate cycles and the size of waves.  Using this data, I can show the largest waves occur when we are having a strong El Niño; the smallest number of big waves happen during a La Niña event.

Q. What do you enjoy most about being at Scripps Institution of Oceanography?

Compared to other departments and places I have worked, the breath of knowledge is amazing. If you have a question about something outside of your field of study, the expert is right down the hall.  The location is also a benefit to working here. Where else can you body surf during your lunch break?

Q. What are the most important things for a future scientist to learn?

If you want to be a useful, productive and successful oceanographer, you will need some specialized training beyond an undergraduate degree in the form of graduate level work.

You will also need to absorb and experience as much knowledge as you can in all sorts of scientific fields. Oceanography is a very broad subject, and it is important for scientists to understand a lot beyond their narrow area of study.

For example, a chemist will need to know not just chemistry but also about the effects of chemistry in the ocean on the animal life. The people studying waves need to know about turtles and what the impacts of waves moving sand along the beach might have on nesting sites. The broader your interest and exposure into how the world works, the more likely it is that you will be successful as an oceanographer.

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