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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

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SDSU biologist Walt Oechel SDSU biologist Walt Oechel

Wanted: Underrepresented Minorities to Help Save the Planet

A federally-funded program at SDSU recruits underrepresented minorities to take part in critical climate change research.
By Michael Price

“Having these kinds of research opportunities available to underrepresented minorities helps us to attract even more standout, high-quality students.”

When San Diego State University biologists Walt Oechel and Donatella Zona and several SDSU graduate students visited a coral reef off Tafeu Cove in American Samoa this past summer, they expected the bay’s relative remoteness from humanity would have protected the reef from the dangers of sewage runoff and waterborne toxins. Yet even in this virtual paradise, devastation had struck. The global perils of climate change—warming waters and ocean acidification—had killed much of the reef.

“They call it the jewel of the Pacific,” said Oechel. “Onshore, there’s no sign of human impact. It’s pristine. There’s not a bottle cap on the beach. But then you go below the surface, and it’s trashed.”

It’s a sobering finding made possible in part by a five-year, $1.1 million grant from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Center for Earth Systems Sciences and Remote Sensing Technologies (CREST) program. As part of the collaboration, the university hosts NOAA-funded graduate students who belong to minority groups that are underrepresented in science, technology, math and engineering fields.

Oechel and SDSU mathematician Sam Shen are the university’s co-principal investigators for the grant, and after the first year of the program, participating students are already off to a promising start.

Michael Trunkhill, a master’s student in biology, was part of Oechel and Zona’s American Samoa expedition He gained valuable field experience and conducted research for his own study into how carbon dioxide levels near coral reefs fluctuate according to the impacts of climate change. Trunkhill is one of six SDSU students currently funded by NOAA-CREST (two Ph.D students, three master’s students and one undergraduate student) to work with faculty from SDSU’s Center for Climate and Sustainability Studies.

In addition to the work in American Samoa, the students are assisting with climate change–related research in the San Diego Bay, field sites in northern Alaska and at SDSU’s Sky Oaks Field Station in Warner Springs, in the northeastern part of San Diego County.

Andrea Fenner, a Ph.D. student in SDSU’s joint doctoral program in ecology, is studying carbon dioxide fluctuations across different types of chaparral habitat at Sky Oaks. Old-growth chaparral usually absorbs carbon dioxide from the environment, helping to remove greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, but during a drought, the same habitat can become a source for carbon dioxide in the environment, she said.

“Nobody was really researching carbon flux at Sky Oaks,” she said. “It’s a rarely studied environment.”

She credits the NOAA CREST program with affording her the opportunity to make her mark in climate change research and hopefully leave the world in better shape for future generations.

“I want to continue to bring awareness about climate change, and to continue to push to show the importance of research to help mitigate the damage,” she said.

Students apply independently to become NOAA-CREST-funded scholars, then choose partner universities to host them. Half of the agency’s funding goes to student training and the other half funds university research projects.

One of SDSU’s strengths in recruiting these students, Oechel noted, is the university’s diverse student population and its faculty commitment to mentoring.

“This has been a really successful program in terms of getting students into the field for research,” Oechel said. “Having these kinds of research opportunities available to underrepresented minorities helps us to attract even more standout, high-quality students.”