W@W - Lihini Aluwihare

Jul 06 2021. views 93


Sri Lanka’s marine environment is going through a dark spell in the aftermath of the X-Press Pearl inferno. Investigations are underway to find the reasons for the sudden spike in deaths of marine animals. Prof. Lihini Aluwihare, a Sri Lankan born chemical oceanographer at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography opines that baseline data are crucial for disaster responses. Prof. Aluwihare speaks to us about the role of a chemical oceanographer, her experiences at sea and opportunities for the younger generation.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO TAKE UP A CAREER IN OCEANOGRAPHY?
Ending up an oceanographer was a complete accident – serendipity perhaps. While growing up in Sri Lanka my relationship with the sea was minimal and it was something to be feared (as a child my father told the story of how one of his close friends had drowned in the ocean). When I was in secondary school I developed a love for chemistry because I had two phenomenal teachers, and so, when I went to Mount Holyoke College in the US I majored in Chemistry. As I was getting near the end of college I had to make some choices. I had taken a big loan to attend college and that would have to be paid off once I took a job. Hence the easiest legal path for me in the US was to remain on a student visa. So, I chatted with my professors and they encouraged me to pursue a PhD in Chemistry.

I accepted Columbia University for a PhD in chemistry but then I needed something to do in between graduating from Mount Holyoke and starting at Columbia. I could not afford to fly home to Sri Lanka that summer, so, I looked for a summer internship. I saw a flyer in the hallway of my college chemistry building and gave it a shot. I arrived at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for a summer internship in June (knowing nothing about earth science or oceanography) and that is what changed the course of my career. I had an incredible mentor who convinced me to withdraw my acceptance from Columbia and apply to the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint programme in Oceanography. So instead of starting at Columbia in September, I started on my path to becoming an oceanographer. Now I have a pretty amazing job at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF A CHEMICAL OCEANOGRAPHER? 
Broadly speaking we examine how different chemical elements move through the ocean. Where do they come from, what happens to them in the ocean, and how are they removed from the ocean and on what timescales? My research occurs on two very different scales – at the smallest scale I study organic molecules, who produces them and why, what ecosystem roles the molecules play, and what is their fate. Most of the time I study naturally produced molecules but the tools that I use have also allowed me to ask similar questions about man-made chemicals in the ocean. At the biggest scale, I am interested in how carbon is removed from the atmosphere into the ocean. The carbon dioxide that we have put into the atmosphere by burning coal, oil and gas, has not all accumulated in the atmosphere. This is very good news for us because the Earth would be much warmer if all that CO2 had stayed in the atmosphere. But we are still learning about where this CO2 is stored in the ocean by biological processes and also how that is impacted by the availability and cycling of nitrogen, the ocean’s natural fertilizer. In these roles, I am an analytical chemist, an isotope geochemist, and to a lesser extent a microbiologist and physical oceanographer. 

WHAT OPPORTUNITIES AWAIT STUDENTS WHO COME TO STUDY AT THE ALUWIHARE LAB AT SCRIPPS OCEANOGRAPHY?
I have some core skills that I try to teach my students. Most of the lab work is related to chemistry. If you don’t like chemistry or you don’t understand why learning chemistry is important for tackling the problem that you are actually interested in (for example, I have students who are really interested in how microorganisms make a living in the ocean) you aren’t going to enjoy the day to day work. You also have to be able to improvise, tinker etc. Students have to become clear communicators – both in writing and speaking. These things can all be learned but what can’t be learned in a short time is the drive to be creative and thinking outside the box.

Another thing that can’t be taught in a short time is the ability to persevere in the face of failure and criticism. Academia is not a soft field – a little bit of thick skin and believing in yourself goes a long way. I try to model this for my students and prepare them for the challenges of academia as well as its rewards. I also see my students as my children – some people think that is not a good thing but it works for me. I often spend more time with my graduate students in a day than I do with my child. I chat with them about many different topics including science, we are collaborators. My lab is very much my extended family.

THE RECENT X-PRESS PEARL INFERNO HAS POSED A GREATER THREAT TO SRI LANKA’S MARINE ENVIRONMENT. BUT IT IS CLEAR THAT THE RELEVANT DATA ISN’T SUFFICIENT OR IS SCATTERED IN ORDER TO ANALYZE THE EXTENT OF DAMAGE. WHAT LESSONS CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS INCIDENT?
Well, I think it is important to first point out that any disaster or accident that takes place out in the ocean poses some unique challenges.  On top of that, many of the even most advanced technologies can’t operate in shallow water when the ocean is as rough as it is during the monsoons. It is very important to realize that the time of year posed perhaps the greatest challenge to comprehensive disaster response. The response that was possible, especially by the Navy, I have heard, was nothing short of heroic. I know the scientists on the ground are already doing amazing things and we must continue supporting them so that they can collect oceanographic data in an objective, monitoring approach, especially in areas that are sensitive or in the path of potential danger. Baseline data are crucial for disaster responses. For example, with strandings – if you don’t have baseline data, and in the absence of necropsies and specialized analyses, you cannot necessarily attribute those strandings to an immediate disaster.

There is no substitute for long term observations and monitoring. This requires a longer-term view and investment that perhaps extends beyond the working life of any single politician or academic.  What is left of Sri Lanka’s coastal habitat must be protected as a priority – the ecosystem services these habitats provide cannot be replaced. We also have some unique marine populations, those are under threat from multiple direct and indirect human activities (as are the forests), we have to continue to educate folks on the importance of preserving the ocean and terrestrial biodiversity. It is not just about saving endemic animals and plants – these ecosystems hang in a precarious balance and the services they provide to humans are incredibly under-appreciated (worldwide) but are essential for our survival (this not hyperbole – I obsess about these connections daily!). Including environmental education in schools should be a priority.  

TELL US ABOUT SOME MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES YOU HAVE HAD WHILE WORKING AT SEA.
I had the privilege of spending 7 weeks around the waters of the Antarctic Continent and also visiting several Islands there. Floating by giant white ghosts, sliding down glaciers, walking among penguins and elephant seals who do not yet know to fear humans, and laying in the cabin at night listening to nothing but the crunching of sea ice was really an other-worldly experience. But going to sea always transports me to another world.

My work often happens far from land, so what I enjoy is the vastness, the silence, and the stars on a clear night. That and someone cooking me three meals every day! On some trips, like the upcoming one, I share the boat with biologists, and the things they bring up in their deep nets at night make you feel like a kid again, every single time. I could spend hours staring at the creatures (most of them are quite small) – if I wasn’t so prone to seasickness I would stare at them under a microscope too but I try to avoid that whenever possible!

WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU HAVE TO OVERCOME AS A FEMALE IN THIS CAREER PATH? 
I am a woman, but also a woman of colour in a field that is predominantly white and male. I was also a foreigner (on a visa) but not too foreign (I speak English as my first language). I was a first-generation college student etc., (my father didn’t even graduate from high school, but you would never know that because he was a student all his life), and I had zero financial security until I became a professor. 

Rather than dwelling on the challenges, I will highlight a few things that helped me. Make yourself a family – my lack of belonging meant that I had to seek out a support system for myself – that was crucial. Work only with people whose company you enjoy and whose values you share. Have the confidence to learn from people who you may not like or want to grow up to be like but who have been successful in the field you want to succeed in – this doesn’t mean you have to compromise your values, it just means you have to know your competition.  I didn’t learn this as early on as I would have liked to.

It took a long time before I could be authentic in my workplace – where I could speak my mind and advocate publicly for the things that I cared about most deeply. I only found authenticity when my work life began including people with experiences similar to mine. That is why I am so dedicated to increasing access – people need to see themselves in others in order to feel free to express their ideas, advocate for change, and be creative and bold in their science.

WHAT IS THE MOST SATISFYING PART OF YOUR CAREER?
Well, I get to make new knowledge, which is a luxury and a service. If I do my job as carefully as I can at the moment (technology always gets better etc.) then I can contribute to the textbooks because we are constantly pushing at the boundaries of what is known.

Also, my graduate students – they are a huge part of what makes me excited about waking up every day. 
All the amazing and talented folks I get to interact with and finally, the opportunity to open doors for others and to advocate for them and promote them.


 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kamanthi Wickramasinghe

A psychology graduate who eventually became a journalist to be a voice for unheard voices. A proud Sri Lankan - Thalassophile - Travel fan - Nature lover - Chocoholic - Extraordinarily loud - Frequent laughaholic. Follow me on Instagram - @kamzylifeTM or FB – Kamanthi Wickramasinghe


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