Ocean Currents

Q&A with Sarah Cooley, Ocean Conservancy’s New Science Outreach Manager


Sarah Cooley, Ph.D. joined Ocean Conservancy as a Science Outreach Manager in the Ocean Acidification program in January. Previously, she was a research scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Why did you become a scientist?

I always really liked science, and most of it just made sense to me. In college, I started feeling like there was always one more interesting science class over the horizon, so I decided to major in chemistry. Four years later, I still wanted to know more, but I wasn’t ready to face the real world, so I went to graduate school. I studied marine chemistry because I love the ocean and there seemed to be plenty of discoveries left to be made in that field.

What type of scientist are you?

I’m  an earth scientist,  meaning I look at natural systems on our planet. I trained as a marine chemist, and I started by studying the speed and intensity of ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is a progressive shift in ocean chemistry caused when the ocean absorbs atmospheric carbon pollution from human activities. But my end goal for studying acidification was to figure out which human communities will be affected, and when.

Why do you think some people are wary/scared of scientists?

In the earth sciences, researchers often remind each other only half-jokingly that “there’s no room for adjectives in science.” When writing-up our research conclusions, we are supposed to be quantitative, explain everything and to stick to just the facts, ma’am. But what people don’t usually see is that behind the serious scientific papers, there are scientists who are really excited about the topic. It takes a lot of passion to see a project through all the stages – writing the grant, planning the experiment, doing the work, interpreting it and writing it all up to share.  Along the way we do have fun, though. The fullest sessions at conferences often feature funny scientists.

Do you have a scientist hero?

I can’t decide. There are so many scientists who have discovered amazing things, but more importantly, were interesting people, too.

You were a research scientist at an academic institution – what made you decide to join Ocean Conservancy? I’ve always been interested in why people do what they do and how they talk about their experiences just as much as my interest in science. In general, the earth sciences have tended to stay away from what’s called “human dimensions work”— research that deeply explores how humans respond to the physical processes under study. Human communities are messy. They behave unexpectedly, with unpredictable outcomes.

My hunger for exploring people’s experiences of global change has now lured me into the policy world. I’m excited to distill technical knowledge into lessons that real people can use to plan ahead. I’m eager to explain why decision-makers might need to think about ocean acidification. I’m also looking forward to doing that work here at Ocean Conservancy, which is filled with people who are passionate about the oceans, but who have very different skill sets. Here, it turns out, no matter what tools we use, we are all interdisciplinary earth scientists– we all ask hard questions about the Earth and people’s relationships with it, and we seek solutions every day.

Can you tell us a bit about some of the research you’ve been working on?

My research looks at which human communities or industries could feel a pinch from ocean acidification first. To do that, I collaborate with other oceanographers, fishery scientists, economists, geographers, policy specialists and more. We bring together data that shows how fast ocean acidification will change ocean chemistry, how it will affect specific marine species, how humans use those species, and how societies and economies could be harmed. Then, by looking at the effects of change in any of those links in the chain, we can come up with ideas about how human communities can take steps to avoid harm.

What’s your first project for Ocean Conservancy?

During the last week in February, I’ll be going to Honolulu, Hawaii to the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting. I’ll be presenting some of my own research, hearing about other people’s cutting edge results and talking with other scientists about new ideas. It’s kind of like going to camp because we get to hang out with old friends, focus only on research ideas and get excited about science all over again. I’ll be sharing pictures, tweets and blog entries about the meeting. Follow our feeds to learn about what a science meeting is actually like!

How do you explain to your son what you do? Do you think he’ll grow up to be a scientist?

My son is only two and a half, so right now he just thinks that Mama talks on the phone and types a lot on the computer. But when he’s ready, I’ll tell him that I’m working to keep the ocean healthy so it’s still nice for him and his friends when they grow-up. He might well grow-up to be a scientist – he’s already really into taking stuff apart with tools and asking big questions.

What’s your favorite sea creature?

I’ve got a couple winners. I love how colorful the poisonous nudibranchs (sea slugs) are. I love what marvels of engineering that diatoms (single celled algae) are – they’re like little powerhouse sugar factories inside a glass wall. And most of all, I love to eat blue crabs!

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