New job! Where I’m going and how I got here

Richmond, California’s Finances Remain Shaky
Richmond, CA from the air, showing the turbid waters of the SF Bay

Well folks, it finally happened. I found a permanent scientific job. On January 31st, I’ll be starting as an Environmental Scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), working on the Nutrient Management Strategy (NMS) program. NMS is a group trying to understand how nutrient supply in the San Francisco Bay works.

The SF Bay is an extremely nutrient-enriched environment (eutrophic) due to human pollution and natural factors, to the extent that if all other factors were equal, scientists would expect it to be a nasty green sludgy mess. Yet up to today, due to factors that are still debated, the SF Bay is in much better shape than it should be. It is not a dead zone, choked off by algal blooms and oxygen-starved in the way that other high-productivity regions such as parts of the Gulf of Mexico have become. Those factors may include the cloudiness (turbidity) of the Bay’s water limiting algae growth, naturally rapid tidal mixing with ocean water, and the influence of clams and other grazing animals keeping the populations of potentially harmful plankton suppressed.

However, there is also evidence that this resilience may be fading as water temperatures in the Bay increase and the ecology of the system changes with climate change. Oxygen levels are dropping and levels of harmful algae are rising, which endangers the health and livelihoods of millions of people in the SF Bay area who depend on a clean, ecologically functioning SF Bay. In my role at NMS, I will be assisting in processing and interpreting huge quantities of environmental data on temperature, dissolved oxygen, water flow, light levels, algae concentrations, and harmful algae toxins, to help figure out how the SF Bay works and how we can protect it. I will be assisting another scientist joining the team in deploying more sensors to monitor the Bay on a minute by minute basis, and also packaging the data to help create models which allow us to figure out the various moving parts that make it work.

In a way, this is oddly similar to the work I’ve done during my postdoc at Biosphere 2, where I’ve been growing giant clams in their 700,000 gallon ocean tank since May 2020. The clams are biological sensors have been recording the environment of the Biosphere 2 ocean through their shells and valve opening/closing activity, and I have had to decode their diaries through comparison with the environmental data we collect on light, pH, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll and other measurements. The SF Bay is a site of enormously influential research which has been important to understand estuaries around the world, but it is still a mysterious body of water in many ways. NMS is trying to understand how all its complex pieces fit together, much like I’ve been doing at Biosphere 2, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to apply for the job.

I also am excited to get involved in this work because it’s immensely important for everyday people’s lives. The SF Bay provides millions of people with food, employment, recreation and overall well-being, and the science that NMS produces has real-world value for making policy and a concrete plan to keep the Bay healthy. It represents exactly the kind of science that I wanted to do since I first jumped into environmental biology as a 19-year-old at USC. At that time, I was interning at JPL studying historical trends in California rainfall data, so this new job represents a homecoming of sorts to California water science!

This job will be a bit of a change of pace from my present work as at first, because I’ll be part of a scientific team with a shared mission, unlike most of my prior research, where I came up with ideas, pitched them to my advisors and funders and then coordinated the projects to collect and analyze data. There will be more teamwork, and while academic publications will still be one of our products, we also will be writing reports for policymakers and stakeholders who are deciding on how to regulate nutrient levels in the Bay.

I also won’t be working with clams on an everyday basis! But as I mentioned before, clams do play a major role in the Bay in terms of filtering the water, and so it is likely we will need to understand the activities of the clams and other grazers to explain the trends in nutrients that we see. I didn’t start as a Clam Man, but my curiosity about clams meant that my attention kept being drawn to these enigmatic but influential creatures, and I expect that dynamic will continue. I am, and always will be, Dan the Clam Man.

I will continue to get my present clam projects out the door as publications, so there will be lots of clamsplaining in the future months as those get out the door. Regarding the Biosphere 2 clams, we still have four individuals of Tridacna derasa (the smooth giant clam) growing in the 700,000 gallon ocean tank, and intend to leave them as long-term research subjects and an exhibit for visitors to enjoy and learn about. We also have proposals in the work for new projects to expand on this work. I hope I can continue to visit in the coming decades and see our clams grow to be true giants, two feet in length! I also hope to acquire pet giant clams of my own, with names rather than specimen numbers, to be my friends rather than my research subjects.

I’ll be starting the new job remotely at the end of this month, to give myself time to tie off loose ends in Tucson, intending to move to the Bay Area by March. I will really miss Biosphere 2 and Tucson, but this isn’t the last they’ll see of me, because my collaborations with people here will continue into the future. I knew from the start as a postdoctoral researcher that my position would not be permanent, but it is still bittersweet to leave. I will miss hiking in the Sonoran desert, swimming in the Biosphere 2 ocean tank and also my advisor Diane Thompson and her lab here, full of people who have been a joy to work with.

But I am excited for this new chapter, because the postdoc life has been lately losing its luster for me. I’ve enjoyed being a postdoc for the freedom it entails, both in my research topics and the way I structure that work. But postdoc work is emotionally exhausting, as I have been a journeying academic contractor on “soft money”. My employment for the following year has always been contingent on the next grant coming through. Moving between different institutions on different continents has been a big weight on my family and my partner, who I miss greatly.

As a postdoc, while I’ve had fun and wouldn’t change anything about it, I have felt like a plane trying to take off in unfavorable weather. I could see the end of the runway approaching as my current funding ends in May, which was a scary feeling. I’m willing to hustle and fight for research funding, but not my basic income. Looking back, I have applied to around 45-50 academic positions (including postdocs) since finishing my PhD and got interviewed for less than ten percent of those, and received offers for two postdocs. When I got the offer from SFEI, which was itself a rigorous, multi-stage process over months, I cannot describe what a relief it was to clear out my “job applications” folder in my to-do list. This SFEI job will allow me to pursue marine science that helps the environment and people, in a more emotionally sustainable way.

I’m excited to start my next chapter and share with you all the discoveries our team makes about the SF Bay, while also continuing to clamsplain here on my own time. Keep an eye out for my Biosphere 2 studies, which will be rolling out over the next months as the data arrives!

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