How do people get interested in science? Whether it's professional scientists, sci-fi enthusiasts or the general public — everyone has their own story. The "Spark of Science" series is all about how the story starts. Come here to read the personal narratives of some of today's best scientists, and add your own! Just email email@example.com to have your entry considered.
The "Spark of Science" is a joint project of Nautilus magazine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
A marine biologist talks about the wonders of hidden lakes.
From the moment my mom gave me goggles—when I was about 3 years old—I’ve been studying the wondrous world under water. As a child, we spent the summers in Spain, and I would return with only my back tanned, from swimming all day, every day, face down in water: exploring the details of life on the rocks; watching the barnacles winking at me underwater; testing the anemones to see which ones stung (possibly not the smartest exercise). From a very young age, I was passionate about the sea: How many species are there, how were they formed, and how can we protect them?
Now, as a marine biologist, I still spend as much time as possible in the sea. Most of my explorations are in the Coral Triangle, which spans the seas between Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and the Solomon Islands. Though we recognize this region as the global epicentre of marine diversity, it’s shocking how little we actually know about it. In fact, it is estimated that less than one-third of the region’s marine species have been described. All these unknowns hamper our understanding of the delicate balance in the ecosystem. In truth, the processes that shaped the extremely high diversity that we see in the Coral Triangle, and the processes that keep it in place, still remain a mystery. It’s that mystery that drives my research.
A major focus of my research is marine lakes—pockets of seawater surrounded by land. These are giant natural laboratories of evolution. Unlike the oceans, where barriers to dispersal are less evident, marine lakes offer a clearly defined bit of sea that is isolated. In their isolation, we can actually get a controlled sense of how species communitiesformed over time, and under what circumstances.
Misool, in West Papua, Indonesia, is an island teeming with undiscovered marine lakes. During our research trips, each lake we explore is a different adventure with its own character and challenges. But all the lakes are magical—beautiful and peaceful and unique. In some cases, we were possibly the very first people to set our eyes on that particular lake. In the process of becoming a marine biologist, I became an explorer.
I decided I wanted to be a chemist at five years of age, after watching a TV show for teachers that aired every Sunday morning. We lived in a tiny rural town with, at the time, less than a hundred people; it was Pinochet times. READ MORE
In the show, a guy sang an explanation of how water formed by oxygen and hydrogen. He said that liquid water and water vapor were exactly the same, and for me, that was a revelation! He sang about air pollution in Santiago (a big problem), a place that--for a kid living in a tiny rural area--was outer space. The experiments in the show were done by a hand that lived inside a box and she (it was a female voice who explained the experiments) was so soft and nice that I just wanted to try all the state changes and reactions. I devoured the guide book that my father got for the TV show (the show was part of a distance-learning program) before he even got to take a look at it! It was my secret. Nobody knew that I, a 5-year old, had such interest in a show that was meant for adults, for teachers.
After 13 years, and not a bit of struggle to convince my parents (at that time, education in Chile was not free and university cost a lot of money) to let me pursue this dream, I moved 500 km (about 300 miles) to be a scientist, to become “the hand” in that show. I became a chemist and I love it. After achieving that goal, I completed a PhD in glaciology. Now how I got there? Well, that is another story for another time!CLOSE