November SEA Days: Scientist Q&A

Professor Paul K. Dayton and friend

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.

Paul Dayton has been a professor of ecology at Scripps since 1971. He’s conducted research in Antarctica, temperate kelp forests, rocky shores, wetlands, tropical reefs, and even the deep sea. He’s studied organisms ranging from kelp and vascular plants to fishes and whales. Over the years, Dayton has received numerous accolades honoring his contributions to the field of marine ecology and marine conservation.


Q. What in your life inspired you to become a scientist?

I grew up outdoors more or less full time. My father worked in the mines of Arizona, and then the mines closed and he became a logger in Oregon. We didn’t have electricity until I was 10, so I was outdoors a lot and became interested in nature. I spent most of my youth in the Sonoran desert and the woods of Oregon. The ocean was just something that seemed strange – and it was strange in those days!


I think it was mostly Jacques Cousteau’s book and movie “The Silent World” that got me interested in ocean life. The ocean was such a different habitat than what I grew up in, and it appealed to me for its uniqueness and differences. Today almost everyone has seen pictures of the underwater world and understands what is going on in the ocean; when I was a kid they didn’t, and nobody knew anything about it. We didn’t have access to a lot of pictures or diving and it was all so new and exciting.


Q. What do you study?

I think all scientists want to figure out how the world works. We want to understand the cause and effect of the important processes that we see. Astronomers are interested in the creation of the universe or tiny bits of matter just to see how their universe works. The geologists are interested in figuring out how the earth came to be what we see now.

Biologists are broken up into groups; some biologists want to reduce life into physics and chemistry, and I am afraid that this school of thought has taken over biology. Ecologists are trying to understand the processes, the glue that holds it all together. I am very interested in relationships and how to tell the difference between important relationships in an ecosystem and the not-so-important ones. For example: if you take out a species from the ecosystem or you double it, do the other species see or care? You measure this, of course, by the population response. Do the populations go up, or crash, or nothing at all?

A natural history class with Professor Dayton

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

I honestly think I have the most enjoyable job in the world! What makes this job special (because I can do my research anywhere outdoors and be happy) is the amazing students. They are all so very smart and I don’t need to train them at all – I just stay out of their way and maybe facilitate a little. I learn so much from my students and my colleagues.

Q. What do you enjoy most about your research?


I chose to research the kelp forest because the ocean is so different from the terrestrial world that I understood, and my perception of the terrestrial biosphere was initially analogous to the kelp forest. The kelp forest has a canopy (like a terrestrial forest); there were fish that I initially thought acted very similar to birds and there were similar predators. However, in almost every case (except for the competition of light in the canopy), I was wrong – they are actually very different places. In general though, I like all the benthic habitats and would be very happy working anywhere!

Professor Paul Dayton as child

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

If you want to go into biology, my strongest advice is to go outside. Spend every minute that you possibly can outdoors. You can’t always see the big things like coyotes and weasels, but spend time looking at the things you can see like the plants, insects, and birds. Try to look at them from a sense of humility. Humility is the most important part of being a creative scientist. This allows you to learn from nature. In order to be a biologist you will need patience, humility, and observation skills.

Go outside and observe animals. You can watch the birds, track their behaviors, time them, and study what they are doing. Watch what is going on but also think about what you can’t see happening. If you see an animal’s tracks, do other animals see it and what do they do about it? Go outside and try to think like a plant or a spider. Pretend that you are a plant or a bird and imagine what it is like to be that animal or plant, imagine the relationships and how it survives.

If you want to be a scientist, you need to take some of the more difficult math and science courses in school, but to truly be a biologist you need to go outdoors!

“There is simply no substitute for actually experiencing nature – to see, smell,
and listen to the integrated pattern that nature offers an open mind.”

Paul K. Dayton, 2010




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