SEA Days: Polar Express

Written by: Lisa Gilfillan, Education Specialist

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego or local researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

Ever wonder what the most important organisms in a polar habitat are? The answer may surprise you – it’s plankton. Many types of plankton are specifically adapted to melting sea ice and therefore play a pivotal role in the food webs of these spaces. Many of us will never get a chance visit such extreme places as the Arctic or Antarctica, so we have to rely on scientists to relay their observations. One such scientist is Greg Mitchell from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Below are a series of questions that Greg answered that will give you a glimpse into his career path, experiences and areas of interest. Join us this Saturday to hear firsthand about his work.

Scripps Oceanography marine biologist Greg Mitchell shows off flasks of algae being investigated as a potential source of biofuels.

Scripps Oceanography marine biologist Greg Mitchell shows off flasks of algae being investigated as a potential source of biofuels.

Where did you go to school?

BS Aquatic Biology University of Texas

PhD Biology University of Southern California

What is your area of research?

Ocean photosynthesis, which is done by algae. Mostly microscopic algae.

So a combination of laboratory, oceanographic and satellite work to create understanding and models of regional to global scale ocean primary production

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

When I was 13 or 14, I read surfer magazine that said the marine biologists at Scripps were pioneering big wave surfing at Black’s Beach. I was learning how to surf in Texas and decided to come to Scripps and surf Black’s!

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

Perseverance, patience, careful analysis, open mindedness, objectivity and hard work

Why is your research topic important?

Microscopic algae in the ocean produce half the oxygen we breathe through photosynthesis. Land plants produce the other half. Also algae are the foundation of the ocean food chain, so all fish, shrimp, shellfish, sea birds, whales, etc. in the ocean actually live on biomass originally formed by algae through photosynthesis. Also algae and the ocean plankton system are part of the story for carbon cycle on Earth so we need to understand this for climate understanding.  Algae are very efficient at photosynthesis and could become a crop of the future that grows on salt water, rather than freshwater, and produces 5 times more protein to feed our animals and oil to fuel our cars than any terrestrial crop. So in recent years I have done a lot of work on algae for massive agricultural scale up.

What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

Posters, a special slide show, and scientific equipment we use to study microscopic algae.

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

Study all the core sciences and mathematics.  Calculus, differential equations, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, molecular biology, physiology, computer programming, statistics.  Then get a PhD in an area that inspires you.

What is your favorite ocean organism?

Diatoms – a group of photosynthetic microorganisms that have a huge impact on ocean food webs and carbon cycle.

Scripps researchers Kathy Barbeau and Greg Mitchell during a research expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula

Scripps researchers Kathy Barbeau and Greg Mitchell during a research expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula.

SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you there!

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego