Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ugly animals need love too!

Written by: Jana M. del Favero

Illustration by: Joana Ho

   What do a dolphin, a sea turtle, and panda bear have in common? They are considered flag species, meaning they are charismatic species that can draw public attention to a conservationist cause. This concept emerged in the 1980s as a way to ensure conservation of biodiversity. Since it is not possible to finance protection projects for all species of an area, we raise the status of a charismatic species as a means of supporting its overall ecosystem. When I was an intern for the Tamar Project, I was used to receive tourists at the Ubatuba base to talk about sea turtles. While teaching them about sea turtles, I ended up also teaching them about the fish that they consumed and the damages garbage and automobile use in spawning areas caused, etc. The main message always went through several other messages. Whenever we talk about the importance of preserving the flag species, we also talk about the importance of preserving the entire ecosystem.

   Although it is an efficient concept (who does not think about the Panda Bear when thinking about WWF?), its application requires caution. By prioritizing flag species, you run the risk of not preserving those who really need to be preserved. It is important to remember that several species are threatened with extinction. Some scientists even argue that we are going through the sixth major extinction of the Earth (episodes in which large numbers of species go extinct in a short period of time).

    According to scientists all prior mass extinctions were caused by natural catastrophes, such as the fall of a meteorite. However, WE (human beings) are causing the sixth extinction! Paradoxically, although WE are causing the sixth extinction, WE are also the ones that can prevent it from being more tragic.

   So, it was in thinking about the protection of a group of endangered and "disadvantaged" animals that the biologist Simon Watt created the “Ugly Animal Preservation Society.” No, that is not a type, this idea was quite contrary to the use of traditional flag species. According to the creator, it is not fair that the panda gets all of the attention.

   The innovative idea of Simon Watt did not stop with the creation of the society. To raise funds and save aesthetically unprivileged species, he and a group of artists ventured into the United Kingdom, performing shows and stand up comedy, in which each artist featured an ugly animal. At the end of each evening, people could vote on what should be the mascot of society.

 Among some strong competition of the weirdest frogs, salamanders, snails and insects, the winning mascot was a fish, the Blobfish. Besides being ugly, this fish, scientifically called Psychrolutes marcidus, inhabits the deep waters (between 600 and 1200 meters deep) of South Australia, including Tasmania. They have no swim bladder, only the minimum number of bones needed for survival, and their body has a gelatinous consistency. But these characteristics all contribute to being able to live in their high-pressure environment, with the water around them as their main structural support.

   But I confess that I found the vote somewhat unfair. Knowing that every 10 meters that we dive to find the Blobfish, the pressure increases by 1 atm. We would meet the ugly creature in an environment with more than 60 atm of pressure pushing down on us, and our organs would crush and we would probably look like paste (actually we would have died long before!). Meanwhile the Blobfish would look like an "ordinary" fish and not the gelatinous creature we thought so ugly while we analyzed it on the Earth’s surface, at only 1 atm.

Cover of the book written by Simon Watt with an image of the mascot of the "Society of Preservation of Ugly Animals," the Blobfish.

   Another marine fish that competed as the ugliest animal was the European eel (scientific name: Anguilla anguilla). Although it is critically endangered and it looks more like a snake than a fish, I believe that this species should not even be in this competition because they are wonderful! The European eel is a euryhaline fish, which withstands great variation of salinity, and is catdromic, meaning it grows in rivers and spawns at sea. In addition, it has leptocephalus larvae, which look beautiful, last about 3 years, and reach up to 8 cm in length!

European eel: adult (left) and larva (right)

   So, have I been able to convince you that the European eel and the Blobfish are not ugly, but that they do need our attention and protection?

   In your opinion, which endangered animal is ugly and should be preserved?

About the “Ugly Animal Preservation Society” (Come in and laugh a lot watching the videos):

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Why algae are not plants

By Gabrielle Souza

   When we walk along the beach and see seaweed, we associate it with terrestrial plants. Afterall, scientific evidence strongly suggests that plants evolved from green algae in the Paleozoic Era. However, they are quite quite different in many ways. Algae, like terrestrial plants, are eukaryotic organisms (the cell has several organelles including a nucleus surrounded by a membrane) and photosynthetic autotrophs (produce their own food through photosynthesis). 

   The word algae comes from Latin and means "marine plant," but you must be aware that not all algae live in the water. Some live in terrestrial environments associated with fungi, in a mutually beneficial relationship, or symbiosis, forming so-called lichens.

   One thing is important to keep in mind: while the plants belong to a single Kingdom, the Plantae, the term "algae" encompasses many distinct taxonomic groups in the Kingdom Protista, including the Stramenopila (brown algae and diatoms), Rodophyta (red algae) and Chlorophyta (green algae) (Nybakken & Bertness, 2005). 

  Thus, due to the complexity and constant taxonomic changes of these organisms, we will not go into details of classification of this polyphyletic group (they do not share a common ancestor) called "algae," but we will focus on its general characteristics.

Lichen on a granite rock of the Serra do Mar, Joinville City, Santa Catarina State, Brazil

   Algae have several forms of stuctural organization. They can be found in unicellular forms such as diatoms and dinoflagellates, or as multicellular filamentous forms. They can form colonies that are physically united, and their organization can be defined between amorphous colonies that do not have defined numbers of cells, or those that present complex organization in number of cells and defined forms. They can also take planktonic or benthic forms (learn more about these forms here: The stalk may be divided into cells, or it may not and instead take a tubular shape (cenocytic). Among these various forms, it is common to hear the term “microalgae” when they are microscopic, and “macroalgae” when they are visible to the naked eye.

   Usually, the macroalgae are confused with plants. One of the main characteristics that differentiates macroalgae from plants is their structure. They may appear similar, but the macroalgae do not have specialized organs and tissues, and they are not vascularized. They also do not have the capacity to form a structure with flowers, leaves, roots or a stem. The multicellular algae just have a stalk to support its filaments.

Multicellular algae; B) Unicellular algae (dinoflagellate); C) Multicellular algae; D) Unicellular algae

   Now, what about underwater plants? Are all of those green things in the aquarium algae? No! An example of an aquatic plant is Elodea, a common waterweed which is widely used to decorate aquariums and artificial aquatic environments. This plant belongs to the group of Angiosperms, of the Kingdom Plantae. 

 This kingdom is comprised of vascular and avascular photosynthetic organisms, that is, with or without the presence of vessels that are responsible for the conduction of mineral salts and water. Vascularization is also responsible for the presence or absence of the reproductive parts; in the case of Angiosperms these reproductive parts generate flowers, leaves and fruit. 

   The leaves of the submerged aquatic plants are generally very thin and stubby, allowing them to support turbulence and oscillations of the water, without tearing. The leaves of the aquatic plants also have a permeable surface, which aids in internal circulation of the air.

Elodea (scientific names: Egeria densa, Egeria brasiliensis)

Related posts


NYBAKKEN, J.W. & BERTNESS, M. D. 2005. Marine Biology: an ecological approach (6º ed.)

MIGOTTO, Alvaro E.. Dinoflagelado: fitoplâncton, dic, unicelular, planctônico, cebimar-usp. Cifonauta- Banco de Imagens de Biologia Marinha. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 06 dez. 2016.

LAS ALGAS EUCARIOTAS. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 06 dez. 2016.

PATTERSON, David J.. Algae: Protists with Chloroplasts. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 06 dez. 2016

AGUIAR, Celio. As Algas marinhas bentônicas. Projeto Ilhas do Rio. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 06 dez. 2016.

SIENA, Ádamo. Elódea: Alga? Não! Planta aquática. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 06 dez. 2016.

AOYAMA, Elisa Mitsuko; MAZZONI-VIVEIROS, Solange Cristina. ADAPTAÇÕES ESTRUTURAIS DAS PLANTAS AO AMBIENTE. 2006. 17 f. Tese (Doutorado) - Curso de Programa de Pós Graduação em Biodiversidade Vegetal e Meio Ambiente, Instituto de BotÂnica – Ibt, São Paulo, 2006. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 16 dez. 2016.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Seagrass: canaries of the sea

By Juliana Imenis, Juliana Nascimento, Larissa de Araujo, Natalia Pirani, Otto Muller and Paula Keshia

In the early 20th century, coal miners frequently carried caged canaries to work. The little birds saved many miners' lives because their sudden death or sickness indicated a possible gas leak. An alarm would sound and the mine would be evacuated.
We could say the canaries were bioindicators, or organisms that indicate a possible environmental problem through their behavior or health status. Today, we no longer have a need to sacrifice the canaries because we have electronic indicators that can tell us about possible mine disasters.

Like the canary, some organisms are extremely sensitive to pollution and habitat alterations; their populations tend to diminish or even vanish quickly after environmental modifications take place. Other organisms may be very tolerant to poor environmental conditions and can sometimes have a population boom in areas where the conditions would be inadequate to the majority of other species. One of these bioindicators is the marine phanerogam, also known as marine seagrass.

Image by Joana Ho

This particular group of plants grow on the sea floor, have elongated straight leaves, and subterraneous stalks, called rhizomes. Seagrass may live completely immersed in water, and they are found in coastal waters of nearly every continent. Despite being known as “seagrass”, this group is closer to the lily and ginger families than grass (Figure 1). They are an important part of the diet of manatees and sea turtles, and they are used as habitat by many other sea animals (Figure 2), including commercially important fish and crustaceans. Although difficult to quantify, seagrasses have a large aggregated commercial value, estimated to be up to 2 million dollars a year. They also play an important role in sequestering carbon into their biomass and sediment, thus decreasing the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere. This helps promote nutrient recycling, coastal protection, and improve overall water quality.

Figure 1 – Morphology and occurrence in the natural environment of genera Halophila. Despite being known as “seagrass,” this group is closer to the lily and ginger families than grass. Adapted from Sarah Lardizabal schematics.

Figure 2 – Many animals visit the seagrass fields searching for food.

In Brazil, despite controversial information and the necessity of more genetic studies to differentiate the species correctly, there are so far, five known species of seagrass (Figure 3): Halodule wrightii Ascherson; Halodule emarginata Hartog; Halophila baillonii Ascherson; Halophila decipiens Ostenfeld and Rupia maritima Linnaeus. Seagrass are considered to be great environmental quality indicators, because they are very sensitive to light and nutrient availability variations.

Global climate change has many impacts on the marine environment, including the rise of global average sea surface temperatures, variations in pH (ocean acidification), and alterations of ocean currents. These are some of the rapid changes in marine environment that have been seen by researchers, and their consequences are still little known. There are many factors involved in the interactions between environmental variables and biological communities, making overall consequences hard to forecast (Figure 4).

Figura 2.jpg
Figure 3 – Identification of seagrass species can be controversial, but nowadays it is defined that there are five species along the Brazilian coast. Marques & Creed 2008.

Figure 4 – Many studies have been developed in this rich environment, but more research is needed if their importance and probable environmental changes are to be considered.

Seagrass need specific environmental conditions, like low turbidity and high incidence of light. They are suffering local reduction and in some places completely vanishing, indicating that the anthropegenic environmental changes are happening fast, not giving the organisms enough time to respond to the new conditions. The capacity of ecosystems to respond to impact and return/maintain their original conditions is called resilience.

Although the degree and type of impact on seagrass may vary with geography, some hypothesis were generated by the Benthic Habitat Monitoring Network (ReBentos) about how climate change may affect them: (1) the increased concentration of nutrients, given the increased quantity of rain, may cause changes in the community composition, favoring the occurrence of opportunistic species, which can be damaging for the local species; (2) changes in sea surface temperature can affect tropical species, favoring the extension and displacement of their occurrence limits towards higher latitudes; (3) extreme events, like floods and storms, may cause reduction or disappearance of seagrass in a quick and abrupt way; (4) the increased quantity of continental matter in estuaries may affect the abundance and composition of the communities, due to the increased turbidity and salinity changes. On the other hand, the reduction of rain and/or increased penetration of seawater into continental waters could increase or alter the estuarine seagrass' area of occupation; and finally (5) days or week-long heat waves, derived from external events, may reduce or extinguish fields in shallow areas.

As an example of evidences that support these hypothesis, we can mention a study published by the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology by Ricardo Coutinho and Ulrich Seeliger, that, in 1984, observed that the species R. maritima, although tolerant with eutrophicated conditions, was shadowed by epiphytes and macroalgae that grew due to an excess of nutrients in the water. Those organisms tangle in this seagrass species, causing reduction on its photosynthetic rates and increasing their drag, facilitating their detachment when subjected to waves and currents. Another example is the study published in the Marine Ecology by Frederick T. Short and collaborators, that in 2006 observed the reduction of H. hrightii through the movement of sediment, caused by stronger and more frequent storms, which buried the fields of seagrass.

Therefore, as mentioned by other authors, we can consider seagrass as the canaries of the sea, important in diagnosing the environment's health in response to global climate change. Certainly, the loss of these ecosystems will bring not only economic loss, but also the loss of biodiversity, a factor that is much more valuable and difficult to measure.

To know more:

COPERTINO, M.S.; CREED, J.C.; MAGALHÃES, K.M.; BARROS, K.V.S.; LANARI, M.O.; ARÉVALO, P.R.; HORTA, P.A. (2015). Monitoramento dos fundos vegetados submersos (pradarias submersas). IN: TURRA, A.; DENADAI, M. R.. Protocolos de campo para o monitoramento de habitats bentônicos costeiros - ReBentos, cap. 2, p. 17-47. São Paulo: Instituto Oceanográfico da Universidade de São Paulo. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 04 nov. 2015.

MARQUES, L. V.; CREED, J. C.(2008). Biologia e ecologia das fanerógamas marinhas do Brasil. Oecologia Brasiliensis, v. 12, n. 2, p. 315 - 331.

MCKENZIE, L.(2008). Seagrass Educators Handbook. Cairns: Seagrass Watch-HQ. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 30 out. 2015.

MCKENZIE, L (2009). Coastal Canaries. Seagrass Watch, v.39, p. 2-4. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 03 nov. 2015.

Juliana Imenis Barradas, CCNH-UFABC, PhD student in the postgraduate program in Evolution and Diversity, biologist, Master in Zoology (UFPB).,

Larissa de Araujo Kawabe, CCNH-UFABC, master graduate student of in the postgraduate program in Evolution and Diversity, biologist.

Juliana Nascimento Silva, CECS-UFABC, undergrad in Environmental and Urban Engineering (UFABC)

Paula Keshia Rosa Silva, CCNH-UFABC, mestranda em Evolução e Diversidade (UFABC),

Natalia Pirani Ghilardi-Lopes, CCNH-UFABC, professora adjunta, bióloga, doutora em Botânica (USP),

Otto Müller Patrão de Oliveira, CCNH-UFABC, professor adjunto, biólogo, doutor em Zoologia (USP),

Thursday, July 6, 2017

From Oceanographer to Programmer

By Letícia Portella

Original post here

   This week I was asked to tell a little about how I became programmer (or at least, I’m in the process). I wrote this text to tell a little bit more about my story.
   Let’s start from the beginning: I am oceanographer graduated from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (Brazil) in December 2013. Well, only that is usually enough to scare people. Oceanowhat?
   Oceanography is beautiful and exciting. I learned many interesting things and I fell in love with some disciplines that were frightening. To begin with, we studied calculus, physics, etc. When I started working in the area, I hesitated between geological and physical oceanography until 2011 when I entered an internship at a Navy Research Institute and, finely, I decided by Physical Oceanography, which is the area closest to the exact sciences.
   It is usual for oceanographers to work with matrices and arrays, thus it is very common to use a software called MATLAB. Therefore, during the college course I ended up learning a bit of MATLAB which is similar to a programming language with logic loops, conditionals, etc.
   However, when I joined the Navy, I met two oceanographers working with Python. Python? What is it? We had several discussions about how MATLAB was a paid software and at the university we were using a pirate version, which was not cool nor legal, right? Surfing this this wave, they started telling me about how Python would be the future of oceanography, thanks to its flexibility, ease application and, furthermore, it was free! Cool. Let’s learn, right?
   And so I had my first contact with a real programming language, so to say. My colleagues were very smart, you know why? Every day they challenged me to do something new. “I doubt you can read this txt”, “Now do this activity with the least possible amount of lines,” and so on. I thought it was fantastic! How they were creative! Later on I found out it was all online. OK!
   In the meantime I also had contact with Linux, remote access, Ubuntu, terminals, etc. A new world was opened to me, and it was very interesting!
   Coming back from internship, I fell into the real world: nobody was working with Python, nobody used Ubuntu / Linux and things can’t be changed. Okay, then, back to MATLAB. Things quite demotivating were that I had to learn by myself, become stuck with my doubts and, moreover, to learn something that people saw as useless (for our area).
   At the end of college I started working with a multinational which deals with port and coastal engineering. MATLAB and Windows full-time. But I’m stubborn; I started using Python wherever I could. Although away from further studies, I liked the language and wanted to continue learning (provided that I could do something useful). So I used Python to automate the production of maps in a software called ArcGIS. Afterwards I developed a software to calculate the size of a ship based on international tables and I even entered a brief adventure in the Web with Django.
   All of a sudden, I decided to enroll myself in a master degree course and I decided that all pre and post processing data would be made with Python. Also I chose a numerical model that could only be used in Linux environment. This time I actually challenged myself. Thus, I decided to get out of laziness and start learning! Even if I would have to do it by myself (But it was not so!). A very close friend helped me a lot and so I’ve been learning more and enjoying it more and more.
   Floripa Python group was formed by this time. I asked a friend to go with me in the first meeting because I was afraid and ashamed of not knowing enough. But he canceled at the last minute! I didn’t give up and attended the meeting anyway. I was the only girl in that first meeting, and as things can get worse, the discussions were exclusively about web. I did not understand anything, but I thought that was a fantastic world.
   I decided not to go to the next meetings since I was scared by the contents and because I did not understand anything. But then, the “magic” of the Python community happened. The boys noticed my problem and called a person to give a speech that was more “like me” (less web and more data analysis). When the lecture was going to happen, many of them sent me warning messages saying that I should go. Fabulous, right? After that, I engaged myself and actually started to get involved with the organization of SciPy Latin America 2016, Python Brazil 12 and mainly with Pyladies. In addition, Anitas (a group to empower women in technology and entrepreneurship) was being structured and I met some wonderful and inspiring women. Finally, in 6 months everything changed and I had completely changed my life

   And so I realized that I liked that. Very much. I loved programming Github, Python, Ubuntu, etc. I could spend hours studying it. As I got involved, I realized it could be a second option. However I did what most of us do: I thought I would never get into it. “I’m not good enough”, “I could never get fully involved in this,” etc. I really thought that. We know we usually think little of ourselves. But even thinking that way, I did not stop trying to learn and getting involved. That was not my goal! Then, suddenly I decided to show to that web folks what an oceanographer was doing attending to those meetings. After all, I programmed? Why? So I presented some of my master degree’s results, what kind of data I was working with, and a little video with a tidal wave being propagated which I achieved with my numerical model.
   On the same day, the project manager of a company told me that there was a vacancy for a backend position in Python at the company. At the end of the evening I found myself next to her and decided to learn more about the job she had mentioned and we started talking. In the end I said: “very nice, but unfortunately I cannot apply for this job.” She asked me why and I said — I know Python, but this work is in a completely different area. And then I got an answer I did not expect to hear: “No problem, what you do is as complex as we do, come talk to us in another moment!”
   And I did so. Thus, in three weeks my life was changed, I quitted my job to become a backend developer, where I am now entering my third week.
   When I told people that I was changing area, I was expecting to hear “you’re crazy!” But that was not what happened … I got a lot of support and encouragement, especially from the nearest people who endured my insecurities throughout the process from the first conversation until my first day at the new job.
   I will not lie. The night before my first day I panic. I cried a lot. What was I doing? I wouldn’t make it! It was crazy! What I had was not rational, it was purely emotional and out of control. I called who I knew would calm me down and I just threw myself into the next day, with a huge fear and a strong desire to make it work.
   So I would like to say a few things I learned in the process …
   The first thing I learned is that I did not make this change without fear and uncertainty. Those feelings can’t stop us of doing things ever! I received several comments saying that my courage was inspiring and I was an example. I do not consider myself as an example of anything! You can’t imagine how scared I was! But then I realized that people that are examples to us also are afraid and that’s no problem. Do it with fear, but do it anyway!
   The second thing is: do things with passion. Find out what you like and do it! Apart of having further prospects, even if you think you do not know and you won’t get there. The most important is to love something.
   And last but not least: surround yourself with and make sure you appreciate people who support you. I would never have achieved so much or would have courage to change my life if I wouldn’t count on the support of numberless angels, as from the first ones who challenged me to the present ones who support and continue supporting me.
   This is a place where I decided to share my story and try to help girls who want to learn programming. Come in, make yourself comfortable and I hope you fall in love as much as I do.

Letícia Portella. Oceanographer, passionate developer and addicted reader

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Science marches and popular culture: “What we have here, is a failure to communicate”

Illustration: Caia Colla

   I had originally intended this post to be about the recent March for Science and the general idea of politicizing science, but after recently binge-watching “Bill Nye Saves the World” (a science education show targeting Millennials, hosted by a beloved host of a children’s science show in the 1990s—see trailer below) on Netflix, I have decided to focus on our failure as scientists to communicate to the public. Depressing, I know, but I truly believe there is a disconnect between our attempts to make science easily accessible and appealing to the general public so they actually listen. Public outreach is a major component of our grant proposals, but how much of that outreach is actually working, and how can we more effectively educate the masses? 

   As I was watching Bill Nye’s new popular show, I felt saddened that this great figure from my childhood, who helped inspire my interest in science, could not effectively explain some major gaps in the public perceptions of science. The show feels gimmicky at points, and I think would probably deter some viewers based on the mocking of certain issues. For instance, the episode on debunking homeopathic medicine is entitled “Tune your quack-o-meter,” implying that anyone that believes in homeopathic medicine is a “quack.” If I were a believer in this alternative (read ‘imaginary’) medicine, I don’t think I would want to sit through an episode of people, namely a mechanical engineer, mocking me. Although, this is somewhat irrelevant because I think the majority of people watching this show are scientists who just really love seeing common-sense things explained in new ways (or just want to feel the nostalgia of watching their childhood science pal, Bill Nye). This is an example of scientists teaching/entertaining other scientists, and it is appropriate that it came out right on the heels of another similar, yet more global effort.

   The March for Science was organized as any peaceful rally for change should be: a community sensed a growing problem, and members of the community wanted to make that problem known. In the United States, this growing problem is the use of “alternative facts” (again, read ‘imaginary’) in place of real science, which have been marketed as truth within the current government. This has lead to budget cuts for science funding agencies and less enforcement for environmental protections. For those readers who may not be American, President Trump has named a man who denies that climate change is human-caused as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

An estimated 50,000 people gathered in the Boston Common, armed with witty signs and knowledge, in order to march for science.

   But this march wasn’t just in the United States. On Earth Day 2017, marches popped up all around the world to focus on issues specific to one location or important for all of us to pay attention to. Some reasons people around the world are marching have been published on the Science website (link below), including this quote from an Austrian biochemist:

   “Antienlightenment sentiments are rising worldwide. Many Austrians are against genetic engineering but don’t know what a gene is, for instance. I have a problem with that. Or antivaccine sentiment. It’s almost fashionable to be against science nowadays.” - Renée Schroeder

   Martin Stratmann, the president of the Max Planck Society, even marched, saying: “This is a march pro-science and pro-facts, not a march against Trump… Today, science is more important than ever before, but evidence and knowledge are being questioned in many places, including politics.”

   Don’t get me wrong. The march was a great event. I attended in Boston, MA, and we had an estimated 50,000 scientists and friends-to-science show up on a miserably cold and rainy day to show that this is something we care about. I heard inspirational stories from medical doctors, stories of overcoming adversity from a black, female engineer, and was urged to run for office by George Church (THE human genome guy – I had a major geek moment). It was a fun time to gather around with like-minded individuals and talk about the problems we are facing. But there lies the problem: we were talking to like-minded individuals. Someone who may be interested in learning facts, but does not run in our sciencey circle of awesomeness may not have known the march was going on, or what the march was for. My mother, an educated nurse, lies somewhere on the edge of being a part of the scientific community and not. Even with her daughter posting about the upcoming march, my mother did not know why I was in Boston wearing a weird knitted hat (see image below). Somehow we sciencey people got caught up in the fun of having a rally and forgot to tell the rest of the world what it was for.

Left: Some nerds spent hours knitting brain hats and making signs (that’s me on the far left). Fellow oceanography graduate student Robert Wildermuth marched with me. 
Middle: University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth graduate student, Laura Moritzen is invested in the future of the ocean and the crabs she researches. 
Right: Continuing with the momentum of the Women’s March, we love the “nasty women” of science! 

   So if these forums are not useful at conveying our science to the general public, what is? How do we effectively communicate sometimes very difficult ideas to the masses? I believe the key is in starting young. We need to reach out to schools to mold minds to think about the basic scientific method and teach kids how to come to their own conclusions based on facts, rather than media. Let kids fall in love with knowledge and the quest for knowledge, just as Bill Nye the Science Guy taught me, and Carl Sagan taught the generation before me. I don’t think the non-academic minded adults are a lost cause, but I do think it will take more effort to recondition their minds to not always trust what they read. Lets face it, seeing and sharing a facebook post about secret government plans to infect us with disease through the flu vaccine is a little easier and a lot more exciting than looking up the sources for that post to see it is false.  

   Perhaps, this blog may be a good start for introducing the public to science. We write posts with the intention of making our tales of oceanography and being women in science broadly accessible, yet we tend to share it among other scientists. Why? I challenge you to invite a person that may not be otherwise interested in ocean science to read a blog post you find interesting. Share your science with that friend who studies literature! Or law! Or liturgy! You never know what they will find interesting, and it is bound to lead to good discussion.

Trailer for “Bill Nye Saves the World”:


Science article: Why the rest of the world is marching

Science News Staff (April 13, 2017)

Science 356 (6334), 119. [doi: 10.1126/science.356.6334.119]

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Attention before boarding!

by Catarina Marcolin

Image by Caia Colla

Hello to all again. It has been some time since I last wrote for this blog, even longer since I've boarded a ship, but many memories came to me after the World Ocean Day. Most memories are good, but some, not so much.

In posts published on this blog, you might have read about the adventures of working at sea, diving to the bottom of the ocean, or traveling the world in foreign ships. But working on an oceanographic vessel is not always a fantastic experience, especially if you are a woman.

It is important to be mindful that, when on a ship, one is also confined, surrounded by the ocean. Often, there is no access to a telephone, no internet, no way of visiting friends or family, and no way of going home whenever you want. In at least the last five oceanographic cruises I have participated in, I met only one female crewmember - she was a nurse on a supply ship which assisted oil platforms. On oceanographic ships, don't expect to see crew-women. In the scientific crew, yes, it is easier to find women, even when there's clear preference for men, because many tasks involve body strength. There's a need to carry boxes, nets, flasks, and other heavy equipment. But that’s not all! To be successful, the science crewmembers need strong skills in leadership, taking initiative, communication, management, and dealing with equipment. The work is very challenging, but against the common sense, I met women that are far better than a lot of guys in crew.

I was once stopped from boarding a boat that was poised for my doctoral research, under the “argument” that there were no suitable facilities on the boat for a woman.

If you think that this isn’t a big deal, and that this male to female imbalance in passengers on ships is normal, maybe you can imagine some level of vulnerability that women may be subjected to in such an environment. I have always been aboard research cruises with large groups of researchers and wonderful ship crews. I have always been treated with respect. Unfortunately, this level of respect is not always found in day-to-day research cruises.

To illustrate this vulnerability, I interviewed two biologists that told me about very inadequate situations they've been through while aboard a boat off of the Brazilian coast. In this post I'll tell the story of one of them; she decided to stay anonymous, so I'll refer to her as M.
CWN: Have you ever been excluded from an expedition so a man could go in your place?

M: That has never happened to me, although there is a preference in our laboratory for men to go, under the argument that there is a need to carry heavy objects on board.

CWN: How many times have you worked on a boat, and in how many of those trips did you feel uncomfortable or find yourself in inconvenient situations that made you feel insecure?

M: I have been on four cruises. Two of them put me in very uncomfortable situations, and I felt insecure in one of them.

CWN: Could you share a story about an uncomfortable situation you've been through?

M: I was on a ship twice, consulting in an environmental monitoring study. One of the crewmembers that worked on the deck made constant jokes about my accent. But he had issues with other members of the staff too.

The second situation, the one that made me feel insecure, happened on a ship that I rather not say the name of or the institution it's related to. I never thought I would go through that experience on a vessel connected with such a respectable institution. I had heard rumors about expeditions from the past, and I confess, I was a little worried about this experience, but I never thought that what happened, could have.
Some of the crewman had very inappropriate behavior. Everyday we would share the dining room with them. Before we had the chance to finish our meals, some of them (that had a high position in the boat's hierarchy) would play music videos of half-naked women (funk, axé, pagode) that always had images of men and women in insinuating situations, alluding to sexual acts, and very loud. Aside from that, every day there was drinking, and the crew would exhaustively offer us alcoholic beverages, especially to women, with the clear intention of trying to get us intoxicated. They would try to exalt their merits all the time, as an attempt of conquest. I would leave the room when those activities started, and some men would come after me asking why I wouldn't join them, insisting, and harassing me.
This didn't bother only the women, several of our male colleagues were also bothered, but they never spoke up. This situation kept growing, leading up to my next story. It is important to say that this was not everyone's behavior. While we were harassed by some, other crewmen treated us respectfully.
On one particular day, there was a get-together with a barbecue, and drinking started early in the morning. One of the crewmen drank so much he threatened to jump off of the boat, which caused a lot of confusion and trouble. During dinner, one of our male colleagues was eating while one of the falling-over drunk crewmen, spilled beer on the table. After a useless effort to clean it, he threw a dirty napkin on our colleague's plate, which really upset our colleague, as the action was interpreted as a racist move.
Facing all of that mess, I could not even have dinner that day because of all the embarrassment. I went to the pantry to get a piece of fruit and stopped for a while to talk to one of the crewmen about the situation. Then, another drunk crewman came over and started asking questions about one of my female colleagues. I tried to leave, but he kept stopping me and asking me to bring my friend. The other crewman that I was talking to defended me, so I could get out. I realized there were a lot of crewmembers feeling a sense of indignation, because their professional class could not tolerate this kind of behavior. What left me feeling more insecure was the fact that we could never talk to the captain of the ship; we could never see him and he never answered our calls or our contact attempts.
Luckily for us, one of the crewmen took our case to the captain, who took some action, we don't know what, but we didn't see the crewman that caused most of the trouble again. We were called to a meeting with the chief mate that finally listened to our claims and had a meeting with the “troublemakers,” forbidding the use of alcohol, the insulting videos, and the behaviors that caused us discomfort. The captain asked the harasser to publicly apologize to me and my colleague (about the dinner event), but nothing else happened to the other harassers.

During that expedition, something broke on the ship, so it was not possible to collect all of our research samples. The ship lost its speed and couldn't sail properly. The ship didn't land where it should have, taking us straight to the final destination, and the reason for that was not disclosed to us researchers. It took seven days to get to the final spot, all while we didn't know what was happening.

This same ship and crew were available to us again to finish the work that was not concluded. I was again in that expedition, and thankfully, we didn't have any other embarrassing situations arise.

However, there was a stressful and worrying situation. We were dragging a bongo net, which was supposed to go down to 200 m. We realized that was taking too little time. We found out that the person responsible for operating the hoist received orders from a superior crewmen to release less rope than needed so the work would be finished faster, which compromised our sampling and data quality.

CWN: Why do you think the crewmember responsible for the operations tried to sabotage your work? Do you think it was ignorance or a deliberate attempt to “get revenge”?

M: I have no idea. We didn't get an explanation. We don't know if it was revenge, if it was disrespect for us being women (the chief of the expedition was a woman), if it was laziness, impatience to get back home, disrespect for the work environment… Anyway, whatever the motive was, it is very lamentable for all it represents, and it is a waste of public money!

It is also very important to consider the loss of valuable scientific information, caused by irresponsible and unreliable work from the ship crew. This is especially true for the current state of our country, where obtaining resources for field collections in ocean research has been increasingly difficult.

In the end, all stories I hear and share show clearly that while on a ship, being it for scientific research or parallel consulting, there is prejudice coming from the male crew towards women. Women are still thought of as the “fragile sex.” This inappropriateness makes life on board even more challenging when the day-to-day work already demands physical strength and adaptations to the labor done in an environment ruled by the movement of the marine currents.