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NSF Current interviews CMOP Director


The September 2006 issue of NSF Current, a publication of the National Science Foundation, contains an interview with Antonio Baptista, director of CMOP. The interview, featured in the section Faces of NSF Research, is excerpted from a more extended Q&A, below:

Question: What do you hope the Center will accomplish in its first couple of years? And over the long-term?

Answer: The NSF Science and Technology Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP) will study coastal margins, using observation and prediction technologies to facilitate long-term, integrated descriptions of ecosystem variables and processes, and to enable a transformative understanding of river-to-ocean ecosystems. As we accomplish these goals, we expect to build effective paradigms for integrated research, education, and knowledge transfer – elements of which we hope to export across coastal margin communities. We also expect to accelerate a future where observation and prediction are as commonly used for sustainable development of coastal margins as they are today for weather forecasting.

Innovations in science and technology will be used early on to attract relevant, broad US communities to the CMOP intellectual environment. For instance, we expect to make available within the next year an open-source, ubiquitous, rapid deployment forecasting system for 3D circulation in estuaries, and to challenge communities to use that resource creatively – whether that means benchmarking and improving numerical models, designing new estuarine classification systems, addressing a particular sustainable management issue, or innovating a specific aspect of K-through-gray education.

The long-term science and technology legacy of CMOP may hinge on our ability to truly integrate rigorous molecular biology and microbiology research into the fold of more traditional oceanography and environmental science disciplines. How cool will it be when we can observe, understand, and predict shifts within microbial communities in river-to-ocean systems, as they relate to climate, ocean, and human activity? If we can use microbes rather than, say, salmon (a species much higher in the trophic chain) as ecological indicators, we will be well positioned to make “anticipatory” (rather than “reactive”) ecosystem management the common practice in our country. This, by itself, would be a major accomplishment.

Q: How do you foresee the Center helping to educate the public about ocean research, coastal margins, and/or science generally? What activities will you utilize to draw the public?

Helping the public to develop an increasing recognition of the benefits of ocean research is clearly an important objective. We will use a range of approaches to achieve this and will continuously assess what works, adjusting accordingly.

Talking at rotary club-like settings, if done consistently and engagingly, has in the past proven to be slow but ultimately effective. With the critical mass of investigators in CMOP, we expect that this approach will pay real dividends at local and regional levels.

Giving the public access to ocean data in a friendly yet pervasive way is another of our objectives. We are developing – and expect to strategically place throughout the Pacific Northwest – public interactive kiosks under the theme “Today’s Ocean”. “Today’s Ocean” will also be an integral part of our web site.

We will also seek to engage the attention of regional and national press in a sustained manner. The launch of CMOP created an interesting regional buzz, which is a starting point. However, it will be through our continued involvement in high-visibility issues –tsunamis, salmon, and dead zones off the coast, to name just a few – that we will earn attention from the press on a continuing basis. Critical mass is important, and therefore we will seek to coordinate press outreach with efforts such as ORION and IOOS – as well as with other Science and Technology Centers. We anticipate, in particular, that the Hawaii-based Science and Technology Center on Microbial Oceanography (C-MORE) will be a strong partner.

Q: How will the Center integrate research and education?

A: Actively, systematically, and relentlessly. We hope effectively, as well. Because of the benefits of time and critical mass, Science and Technology Centers are ideal settings to explore and advance paradigms for integrating research and education.

For instance, capturing the early interest of kids in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is essential. We will nurture, leverage, and expand the activities of existing 4-12th grade educational enrichment groups with proven track records. We are particularly excited with Coastal Challenges (CoaCh), a role-playing activity that will use CMOP research and technologies to provide a thread of continuity across our educational programs. At the same time, we recognize that the training of teachers is essential to bring STEM into the classroom – and we will engage teachers in CMOP research, with the goal of creating research-influenced classroom curricula as a specific outcome.

We believe that integration of research and education is a “K-through-gray” challenge. For instance, we are also creating inter-disciplinary training opportunities – with the benefits of exceedingly cool and enabling modeling, field, and lab technologies – open to undergraduate and graduate students across the US; integral to these experience, students will have opportunities to be mentors themselves.

A particularly exciting, life-long initiative, integrating research and education, targets the interest of Pacific Northwest Native Americans on salmon and salmon-related issues. Here, we are starting by learning how to listen to a rich culture that has much to offer to the resolution of major river-to-ocean issues.

Q: What would you consider the next grand research challenges the Center researchers will face?

A: Understanding the role of microbes in coastal margins, under varying influences of climate, the ocean, and humans, has to be the next big umbrella challenge for CMOP.

To be successful, we have to overcome many other pretty tough challenges, though. Just getting to the point where the right sensors are available and mature enough to monitor microbial communities and their stressors over time is an awesome scientific and technological challenge. Having a diversity of sensors, mobile platforms, and computer models talking and coordinating among each other, routinely and near real-time, will also be challenging – as will be including what we learn about microbial communities in retrospective and predictive ecological computer models.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge that coastal margin/ocean scientists have to overcome in the next century?

A: We clearly need to understand the influence of climate on coastal margins, the role of coastal margins in global elemental cycles, and the ocean-ward extent of the impact of anthropogenic activities. And we need to realize that we are observing to understand, understanding to predict, and predicting to enable society to make wise decisions about management, development, and preservation of river-to-ocean ecosystems and resources.

Ultimately, we will only be successful if, while advancing science and technology, we also enable society to critically use the scientific knowledge we develop for the greater good. The challenges of getting the technology and the science right, as large as they are, pale in comparison to the challenge of educating Americans – of all genders, races, and economic sectors – in new forms of critical, informed thinking. Whether or not any single recipe exists for appropriate education, I strongly believe that a foundation in STEM disciplines is an essential component.

Q: What’s your take on the recent news about the "dead zone" off the Oregon coast? Are they freak occurrences or increasing phenomenon?

A: Fisherman will tell you that dead zones off the Oregon and Washington coasts are not new, but that they are now happening more often. Scientists at Oregon State University, many of whom are fellow CMOPers, are paying close attention. Professor Jane Lubchenco, for instance, has expressed concern that the increased frequency of fish kills due to oxygen depletion strongly suggests that something is fundamentally different in the ocean, perhaps at the scale of the Pacific basin. Dead zones are the types of events that next-generation ocean observation and prediction systems will absolutely help us understand better.

Our vision is that we will eventually move from a grossly reactive mode (It is happening! Why? Do we need to fix it? How?) to an anticipatory mode that will allow a much more sustainable management of our oceans. At the very least, we should be able to develop and use new and more effective indicators to gauge ocean health – indicators that are at much lower trophic levels than fish. Microbial communities are a logical candidate, should we become proficient in characterizing variability of their composition and activity, in relation to climate, ocean, and anthropogenic forcings.

Q: What was it that inspired to you to become an engineer, and what drew you to study maritime hydraulics?

A: I was born and raised in Angola, then a Portuguese colony. Maybe because Portugal has always been a country of sailors, or maybe because the beaches in Angola were spectacular, the ocean has always been a part of me. Becoming an engineer was never in doubt – much due to parental influence, but also because it was an obvious profession to have in Angola, where so much needed to be built. My college degree is actually in structural engineering, with an emphasis on bridges. I never designed or built a bridge of steel or concrete, but the organization skills and thought processes that come with training in engineering have served me well in many ways – and I am particularly proud of the collaborative bridges that I have helped build among people and disciplines.

Q: What single new tool or technology has catalyzed our ability to study coastal margins – new sensors, supercomputers, submersibles…?

A: Amazing new tools are now available or emerging – powerful computers, UUVs, DNA-based probes, underwater power and communications, and even everyday software like PowerPoint – it is the confluence of those and many other technologies that is truly transformative.

Also of major importance is the fact that many of those technologies are being actively brought into the mainstream scientific community, whose collective creativity is putting them to outstanding use.

Q: What’s your favorite creature of the water (river or ocean)?

A: For early Portuguese sailors, mermaids were creatures of wonder, and many sailors never gave up hope of eventually seeing one. Maybe because of my Portuguese ancestry, my favorite water creatures have always been those that I could not – but hoped to one day - see. And growing up with no TV until I was 18, there were many creatures that I had not seen. At one point, the answer to your question would have been whales; at another point, penguins or piranhas. These days, of all creatures, I am most fascinated with microbes. Two new Science and Technology Centers (CMOP and C-MORE) – each in its own way and each at its own scale – will open bright, new windows into microbial communities and into the role of microbial communities in river-to-ocean ecosystems. I can hardly wait to take a peek.

Q: What’s your favorite quote?

A: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” I have seen this quote attributed to the New England Council, a chamber of commerce-like organization. But the quote was made popular by President Kennedy, when, in the early 1960s, he rallied the country around the concept that general prosperity offers benefits and opportunities to each and all individuals. I am a firm believer that this concept applies to collaborative efforts in science and technology – as both a driving principle and a criterion to evaluate success.