From University of California-Santa Cruz (US) : Women in STEM-Zahira Suhaimi; Anna Tsing; Kathleen Gutierrez; Marilou Sison-Mangus “Dialogues; collaborations; and the success of ‘slow science'”

From University of California-Santa Cruz (US)

June 15, 2021
Almut Wolf

With funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, the new Southeast Asian Coastal Interactions Initiative takes a methodical approach to worldwide social and environmental challenges.

Zahira Suhaimi, an anthropology doctoral student studying with the Southeast Asian Coastal Interactions Initiative, has been collecting observations of water conditions as part of her study of interactions between Southeast Asian coastal populations and microscopic algae. Photo: Sandra Kolundžija, Ph.D. student, Nanyang Technological University [Universiti Teknologi Nanyang](SG).

In Singapore a UC Santa Cruz anthropology student is doing work usually performed by microbiologists. Her findings will be important in numerous areas—from sustainable food to social justice to biodiversity. The research is just one aspect of SEACoast, a new program that is fulfilling the promises of slow science.

Slow science is making fast progress at UC Santa Cruz.

Established in 2019, the Southeast Asian Coastal Interactions Initiative, or SEACoast, has created a collaborative hub where social and natural scientists work together to tackle complex environmental problems.

“In this time of human-caused environmental challenges, we need to agree that human histories and nonhuman histories are part of the same set of research challenges,” says Anna Tsing, professor of anthropology, who is codirecting the center with Megan Thomas, associate professor of political science.

Since the SEACoast center was funded with a five-year $1 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, interest and participation in the center’s programming has been growing rapidly. Emphasizing “slow science,” which values deliberation, field observation, and historical inquiry over fast results, SEACoast has drawn academics from a broad spectrum of disciplines together to offer their expertise, learn from others, and synthesize new ideas for research.

One of SEACoast’s projects explores the multifaceted phenomenon of harmful algal blooms. Caused by alterations in ocean nutrients, winds, temperatures, or a combination of these factors, algal blooms create toxic conditions that threaten the survival of various species in coastal waters. Interestingly, it is an anthropologist at UC Santa Cruz, Ph.D. student Zahirah Suhaimi, who is working to solve this environmental puzzle, piecing together knowledge from the fields of microbiology, ethnography, history, and human behavior.

Many cooks in the kitchen—uncommon collaboratives

Suhaimi’s dissertation looks at the relationship between microscopic algal species and human populations. Algae are primary producers—they float around in marine environments and get eaten by zooplankton and shellfish. They are building blocks of life. But they can also destroy life if they are toxic and reproduce in large quantities. These toxins work their way up the food chain onto our plates. Also, while photosynthetic algae species overgrow during daytime in the presence of light, in the dark, they produce massive amounts of deadly carbon dioxide. They can literally smother marine life in anoxic waters or waters with very low oxygen levels.

At the onset of her fieldwork in 2018, Suhaimi was faced with the challenge of finding a scientific lab willing to integrate a social scientist into their team. On a tour of mangroves in Singapore, Suhaimi met Frederico Lauro, a professor of microbiology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. They put their ideas together and kicked off collaborative research, looking at anthropological data and microbiological analysis to understand environmental phenomena over time.

It is at the intersection of social and natural science where Suhaimi gets most excited about her work. She feels she is onto something when her ethnographic data or historical data finds resonance with the scientific data that’s available.

“I feel like I’m gathering potential pieces of a big puzzle,” she says. “I’m not quite sure how they fit together, or if they even fit at all.”

For instance, water currents shape microalgal species populations and distributions. Fishing communities use the currents when building floating fish farms. Lower current speeds are preferred for fish farms, but this also means weak dispersal of algal biomass, which increases the likelihood of harmful algal bloom.

“So, these pieces of the puzzle, they fit,” she says. “But they fit awkwardly, in the sense that what makes ecoculture successful is also what puts it at risk.”

Investment in a transdisciplinary experiment

Figuring out this tension on a global scale is crucial to food supplies and overall sustainability.

Before the pandemic, Suhaimi followed coastal fishing communities. She learned about their way of interacting with the coastal waters and studied their practices, habits, and knowledge. She discovered immense creativity in these communities, as well as established scientific practices. While Suhaimi’s colleagues in microbiology rely on their water sampling filters to document changes, coastal communities observe changes in the coloration, or they experience changes through their interactions with the water where they make a living.

For Suhaimi, a multiplicity of sciences tell the story of coastal conditions over time, and all voices are needed in the search for solutions.

In the long run, when she is able to narrow down decisive factors, Suhaimi’s findings can inform policymaking in terms of managing human activities in coastal waters. Her research can determine the kind of environmental monitoring that would be necessary to keep both scientists and the public informed.

While UC Santa Cruz previously didn’t have a department focused on Southeast Asian studies, the campus is nevertheless particularly well equipped to offer unconventional contributions to the field. SEACoast is drawing on the university’s expertise and recognition in ocean science, social justice, and environmental studies, as well as its tradition of bridging departmental divides with a mindset for collaboration.

Building blocks of a new research hub

SEACoast has established its presence as an institution on campus and is quickly becoming a lively intellectual center, thriving on exactly what it set out to do: galvanize diverse academic experts interested in charting new territory. Reaching beyond institutional structures provides an opportunity for creatively thinking about human-caused environmental challenges.

SEACoast’s slow seminar on harmful algal blooms, led by Marilou Sison-Mangus, assistant professor of ocean sciences, ultimately led to the funding of a collaboration grant for Suhaimi.

For Tsing, one of the most exciting developments of SEACoast’s inaugural year has been facilitating the
hiring of a new faculty member in UC Santa Cruz’s History Department. Kathleen Gutierrez is a
scholar of Southeast Asian environmental history, and her research focuses on botanical
collecting in the Philippines across colonial and post-colonial eras.

Tsing is thrilled with the positive reception at UC Santa Cruz and the rapid growth of the intellectual hub in producing promising international dialogues and collaborations. She has many plans for the center. She’s fundraising for scholarships and is in negotiations with Indonesian government agencies to include UC Santa Cruz among universities authorized to enroll Indonesian students in environmental sciences.

SEACoast continues to break open departmental discourse into collaborative discourse. Their research promises to improve the livelihood of Southeast Asian coastal communities by helping them preserve and rebuild diverse and vibrant ecological zones and manage sustainable food systems.

“If we are able to make even some small dents in how natural scientists, social scientists, humanists, and artists can work together, that would be extraordinary,“ Tsing says.

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UC Santa Cruz (US) Lick Observatory Since 1888 Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)

UC Observatories Lick Automated Planet Finder fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA.

The UCO Lick C. Donald Shane telescope is a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope located at the Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft).
UC Santa Cruz (US) campus.

The University of California-Santa Cruz (US) , opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

UCO Lick Observatory’s 36-inch Great Refractor telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building.

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego (US) who led the development of the new instrument while at the U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA).

Shelley Wright of UC San Diego with (US) NIROSETI, developed at U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA) at the 1-meter Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by University of California-Berkeley (US) researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.