May SEA Days: Scientist Q &A

Matt Ruppel

Matt Ruppel

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.

Matt Ruppel is a second-year graduate student at UC San Diego in atmospheric chemistry. He is one of seven researchers and students who will represent the Prather and Bertram Research Groups at this Saturday’s SEA Days at Birch Aquarium. Join them from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Q. What inspired you to become a scientist?

I really enjoyed science when I was a little kid. I would watch “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and National Geographic’s “Amazing Planet.” It was inspirational to see people having a lot of fun doing science.

I’ve always been more interested in the physical sciences rather than the life sciences. What really pushed me over the edge into a science career was an amazing high school chemistry teacher who inspired me to pursue chemistry.

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

I study particles that are produced by breaking waves in the ocean. Specifically, I’m looking at the chemistry and physical properties of these particles. This is important because they  play a large roll in global climate, although their exact roll is uncertain.

For example, we know these particles interact with sunlight and are important in cloud formation. So, without these particles, there wouldn’t be clouds, which play a large part in climate. It’s really important that we continue studying them so we can better predict what is happening with the climate due to human activities.

I study these types of particles using a giant glass wave tank at Scripps. The wave tank is more than 100 feet long, which allows us to create waves similar to what you would find in the ocean. The reason we don’t study in the field (the ocean) is because we can enclose the wave tank, ensuring the only particles inside are caused by the breaking of the waves and are not affected by other influences.

Q. What do you enjoy most about being a student at UC San Diego?

Something really unique about studying atmospheric chemistry at UCSD is that we collaborate a good amount. The problems we research are so big that we need to incorporate biology, oceanographic chemistry, atmospheric chemistry, and many other fields.

UCSD and Scripps are also part of a collaborative nationwide group called The Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment (CAICE), so we have a lot of chances to interact with researchers in other fields. The problems we are looking at are so big and so important that you really need as many minds as possible to solve them.

Matt Ruppel

Matt Ruppel teaching students about clouds at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

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

First and foremost is reading and writing. Math is also important but it’s crucial to be able to communicate. These are key components for any scientist.

Also, if you’re conducting academic research, there is no real monetary profit for your knowledge; the “profit” you make is public knowledge and public good. It’s important to keep that in mind.

Q. Air quality and climate can be difficult topics to wrap your head around, how do you help people understand the science?

One of the biggest challenges of understanding human impacts to our climate is a sense of scale. As we sit here, looking at hundreds of miles of Pacific Ocean, it’s difficult to understand that we are having an impact. It’s especially hard with something that is basically invisible, like carbon dioxide.

Having hands-on experiments makes it more tangible. At SEA Days and other events, we like to show the public a side effect of carbon emission – ocean acidification, which is changing the chemistry of the entire ocean.

It’s a difficult concept to grasp – that emitting a gas into the air can make the ocean more acidic – but we set up an experiment that lets the public create a “mini” acidic ocean to see how carbon dioxide effects things like animals in the ocean that have shells.