Interview with Marine Scientist Dr Melissa Ward, her research and scuba diving stories, and her grand dream of sailing across the Pacific Ocean

To me, memories of oceans is of the Indian Ocean and the sea of Bay of Bengal. The warm water and winds of the Bay of Bengal was a blissful experience, again and again, as a kid. I could sit at the beach and get wet all day and it would still not be enough for my soul. The casualty was my brown skin getting more tanned temporarily, but I did not care much about it.

Growing up in India, in the hot summer vacations, once in a while we would travel to one of the seashore towns. The mornings would be spent getting wet at the beach jumping with the waves. And the beaches were really crowded all the time. Then in the evenings as a family we would walk along the water line while getting our feet wet, and collecting shells of all patterns and shapes that we could find buried in sands. Then as darkness would set in, we would just sit there and listen to the roll of waves, or shop around in the little market area for souvenir decorative items. Those are the memories connected with sea for me. It brings a smile to my face every time.

When I came to Berkeley and San Francisco — the Bay Area — and then met with the Pacific Ocean, it was a grand experience. Pacific, in my mind, was always this serene, deep, never-ending vast ocean, almost from another world. When I was a kid I never dreamed that one day I would come see and touch the Pacific Ocean, and yet here I was in California. In complete contrast with the warm water of the Indian Ocean, the water from this side of Pacific Ocean is very very cold. As is the wind chill. I could have my feet in water only for a few seconds at a time. But the sound of waves, the marshes, the sands, the lifeforms all along the coasts of California, have had their own charms on me.

I am so lucky to have experienced tiny portions of beaches of these two grand oceans. In this sense, life has been very generous to me.

Today’s interview for 500 Poppies with the marine scientist, Dr. Melissa Ward, has been so special. Through her words I got to see the Pacific Ocean from a completely new angle — as an ecology, as a world of its own, the beach and the sub-water as one whole unit. I have interviewed her over email, and have been chatting with her about this since February 2021.

Dr. Melissa Ward

500 Poppies is this blog series by me where I do interviews of scientists about their life, research work, and living experiences at our times. It’s a personal project that I have come to love so much.

Continuing on what I was saying about oceans … I have experienced the two oceans purely with the eyes of a globetrotter and have savored their contrasts. Hence I had to absolutely ask Dr. Ward how she experiences the Pacific Ocean in the Bay Area versus at San Diego, down below almost at the border of Mexico. See if it matches your experiences!

Dr. Ward is currently doing a postdoc in San Diego. Her research subject is fascinating. She collects cores of samples from ocean floors to study and quantify climate mitigation. She studies how marine plants could mitigate ocean acidification and hence help in sustaining calcifiers like oysters, corals, and mussels. She also works with shellfish farmers to see how their livelihoods are affected by the ocean acidification. She says that with this work she hopes to “better connect the science” with “the problems on the ground.”

The one thing that caught me by surprise was when I read that while doing scuba diving for science expeditions down to the bottom, she carries about 50 pounds of gears. That is a lot of weight to hold while doing experiments under water!

Outside of work, she is also passionate as a sailor, and wants to sail across the Pacific Ocean one day with a small crew. Her plans to do so after graduating needed to be cancelled due to the pandemic travel restrictions. But she says, “I have not given up, and hope to someday make it across the Pacific Ocean.”

And with that, I will let you, my dear readers, scuba dive directly into Dr. Ward’s interview starting here.

Q1. Thank you for interviewing with 500 Poppies, I am excited about this conversation. How is your postdoctoral life outside of work? What are the fun things to do in San Diego? How is the Pacific coastline different there from up here at the Bay Area? Scientists have fun too!

Great question! As the weather is warming and the pandemic is locally easing up, my San Diego life is becoming more fun-filled. I love new hobbies, the latest of which are biking, open-ocean swimming, and sailing. I began open ocean swimming because lap pools were closed due to COVID, and I don’t think I will ever return to the pool again! This particular activity is definitely facilitated by the coastal differences between the Bay Area (where I recently moved from) and San Diego. The Bay Area has colder water, stronger winds, and larger swells — a far less hospitable swimming environment. The Bay Area’s oceanography is also marked by its distinct spring/summer ocean upwelling season, which affects San Diego as well, but to a lesser extent. This wind-driven process makes the northern waters nutrient rich and very cold, which as an open-ocean swimmer is a real challenge, but is essential to the extremely productive and biodiverse coasts we have in California.

Q2. You are a Marine Scientist. Tell us about your research and expertise.

I broadly study nature-based climate change solutions, through many different scientific disciplines. My PhD research focused on the ability for aquatic plants and kelp to combat ocean acidification. Specifically, as CO₂ in the atmosphere goes up due to fossil fuel emissions, the ocean absorbs much of this CO₂ like a sponge. When the CO₂ reacts with seawater, the water becomes more acidic, making it difficult for marine calcifiers (like oysters, corals, and mussels) to grow and survive — a process termed ocean acidification (OA). However, marine plants and algae are primary producers, meaning they take CO₂ directly out of the seawater to produce energy. I investigate how these plants might make the surrounding water less acidic through primary production, thereby improving the survival of nearby calcifiers. You can read more about that research here! Marine seagrass meadows can also store carbon for millennia in their sediments, thereby acting to mitigate climate change over the long-term. They do this by converting CO₂ into organic tissues that then become buried in their underlying sediments over time. By removing this CO₂ from the atmosphere for long-term burial in carbon-rich sediments, these ecosystems act to mitigate climate change, to an even greater extent than forests do on a per area basis — pretty amazing!

“Seagrasses in Tomales Bay at low tide, where much of my PhD research was conducted.” — Melissa Ward

The last part of my research investigates the resilience of human communities to climate change. Specifically, I work with shellfish farmers in California and Oregon to understand how their industries and livelihoods are being impacted by ocean acidification. As mentioned above, shellfish farming communities are some of the earliest to be impacted by OA, due to the sensitivities of oysters to acidic conditions. By listening and learning from the communities on the front lines of climate change, I hope to better connect the science we conduct to the problems on the ground, and to find policy-based solutions that will allow these communities to adapt to a high CO₂ future.

Q3. Seagrass meadows, kelp forests, and salt marshes! To most of the people this reads like a line of poetry. To you, it is something else. Could you give us a glimpse into that?

Absolutely. Each habitat has its own allure, sometimes you just need to take a closer look to find out exactly what it is. Seagrass meadows are not just the “weedy things you don’t want your feet to touch” and salt marshes are not just the “smelly places before the beach”. Kelp forests, while typically least accessible, seem to earn a better reputation. But each are connected, and fascinating in their own right. Seagrasses maintain their humble reputation in part due to the fact that they often occupy water with poor visibility, keeping their secrets from all but those lucky enough to find a day of great water clarity or those dedicated enough to explore in murky waters. As a scientist spending many hours spent in these ecosystems, you come to learn some of these secrets. The diversity of life in seagrass meadows is astounding. In California’s meadows alone, I have observed bat rays, jellyfish, seahorses, fish, crabs, lobsters, octopi, sharks, sea turtles, and an abundance of invertebrates and macroalgae of hundreds of shapes, colors, and sizes. Kelp forests and salt marshes are similarly diverse, although they can host different species. In many cases, juvenile critters will use the seagrass meadows as their “nursery habitat” before moving offshore to the kelp forests to live their adult lives.

Seahorse, sea hare and eelgrass. “Two examples of animals we see in the seagrass meadows — this Giant Pacific seahorse (left, Hippocampus ingens) was attached to one of our sensors when we pulled it up (don’t worry, it was returned safely to the bottom!). We also find Taylor’s sea hare (right, Phyllaplysia taylori), which eats small algae growing on the eelgrass blades. This “lawn mower” like behavior keeps the eelgrass blades clean, allowing the eelgrass to photosynthesize and survive.” — Melissa Ward (Photo: Scott Gabara and Kathryn Beheshti)

These hours of study also teach you how intertwined we are with these habitats as human coastal communities. Even if you have never seen seagrass meadows, chances are you have benefitted from their presence. These habitats support numerous economically important species including Dungeness crab, Spiny Lobster, Halibut, Pacific Herring and many others. They also prevent coastal erosion, improve water clarity, bury and store carbon, and can moderate water chemistry in ways that benefit oysters, mussels, and clams. If we expect seagrass meadows to continue to function in these ways, it is our responsibility to return these favors by protecting what seagrass remains — we have lost up to 90% of seagrass in California.

Q4. It’s another world under the surface of the ocean. We are so used to seeing the surface, but beneath it lies a fantastic living breathing world. There are some wonderful photos of oceans in your webpage. Did you take them? Have you ever done diving as a part your research? Tell us all the great stories, we have lots of space.

I was just talking about all these habitats, and I can keep going — exploring the subtidal world is definitely one of the best parts of my job! I did indeed take those photos, from many of the places my work takes me. Most typically, this work is in the seagrass meadows and kelp forests of California, but I have also had some scientific ventures in Mexico and Indonesia.

Diving to the bottom. “An example of the kelp forest (left, Catalina Island, CA) and a coral reef (right, Badi, Indonesia) which we often dove in — unfortunately, the seagrass meadows are often too murky to get good photos in!” — Melissa Ward

As part of the research I described above, a typical excursion required that our research team travel around California, typically with a van full of SCUBA gear and oceanographic sensors. After arriving at these sites, we suit up, flop ourselves over the side of the boat, deflate our vests to descend, and drop through the water column with much less grace than the critters we pass on the way down. Once at the bottom, the work begins, and I typically become very focused on the jobs at hand — pass the wrench, secure the shackle, use extra zip ties, make sure the sensor pumps are on, etc. Scientific divers can be very task loaded, requiring that we carry a lot of equipment down to the bottom with us; I was often weighed down with about 50 pounds of gear. This requires a certain level of calm and focus, and it is exhausting but rewarding work. While performing these technical tasks my observations of the sub-sea world go way down, because the focus required doesn’t often leave space to stop and smell the roses, but some projects have their exceptions. I have participated in other projects requiring more basic monitoring, like surveying kelp forests for Abalone in San Diego or coral reefs for fish in Indonesia. These are always more playful tasks, in which I usually end up with a memory card full of photos of species to identify when I get back home.

About to dive! “Our boat-side support (Dr. Scott Gabara) prepares to pass the sensor he is standing over to our dive team (Sarah Merolla, left, and Dr. Aurora Ricart, center). The bright orange bag Aurora hold is used as a floatation device to attach to the sensor to keep it from sinking immediately because the sensors are so heavy.” — Melissa Ward

Q5. How has the pandemic affected your life and plans?

I, like many, have definitely had some bumps in the road due to COVID. As I approached the end of my PhD last year, I was planning for a 6-month break to recollect myself and take a breath after 6 years of focused graduate study. In this 6-month break, I had laid plans to sail across the Pacific Ocean leaving in April, arriving in Australia by November for a year-long post-doctoral Fulbright fellowship in Melbourne. Needless to say, when it came time to defend my thesis mid-March, things did not go as planned. At the last moment, my thesis defense was cancelled, my dissertation was signed with no talk required, sailors were prevented from entering foreign ports so travel plans were cancelled, and Australia closed its borders completely, leaving me jobless, planless, and saddled with rent and living expenses far greater than that of a crew member on a small sailboat. I do though, feel extraordinarily lucky that my amazing support network did not fail me, connecting me with part-time/temporary jobs until I could find something permanent in the U.S (which I did!).

“Sailing to Mexico and simultaneously writing my PhD dissertation while underway, or at anchor in some of our region’s more remote places.” — Melissa Ward

Given this blog is about women in science, I might add here that while the cancellation of my plans to sail across the Pacific Ocean may have been, at face value, the most trivial of my problems, it felt like a huge loss. Similar to many of the challenges women and BIPOC face in the scientific world, the sailing world is no different. At sea, the risk women accept when crewing on a boat skippered by a man can be huge — akin to very remote field work with a male supervisor or boss. While I have met invaluable friends in the sailing community, the sexist, racist, and homophobic undertones in parts of this community is problematic, to say the very least. Just to provide a mild example, in the fall before my plans to cross the Pacific I was explicitly told I would never sail across an ocean, because the “roughing it” required to do so was far too much for my feminine ways. Sailing across the Pacific is a rite of passage for any sailor, as the longest stretch of sea uninterrupted by land and months of preparations required. With weeks between landings, you have only yourself, the supplies on your boat, and your crew, to rely on in the case of an emergency. After a slow burn of frustration with the perception, exclusion, and objectification of women in the sailing community, I was ready to (to be precise) stick it to the man. I did not get this chance last year, and won’t this year or next year, but I have not given up, and hope to someday make it across the Pacific Ocean.

Q6. What does your average day look like? Do you take field trips? (This is a very important question as it gives people a view into a scientist’s day and helps change the predefined image of what a scientist does or looks like.)

Well, in the COVID times, that looks like me on a laptop! But this is not what my day-to-day typically looked like. In fact, the variability in my job each week or month is part of what I love about this work. After reading about my research above, you may have some insight into this already. Sometimes, particularly in the summer, this means preparing and conducting large field operations by organizing a team of divers and field help and preparing equipment. At other times, I am in the lab processing samples. For example, to measure the amount of carbon stored beneath a seagrass meadow, I take a field buddy out at low tide or on SCUBA, take cores of seagrass sediment, carry them back to the lab with me, push the sediment out of the core, and begin to conduct chemical analyses on each section of the core to learn about its carbon content. I then analyze these data on my computer, which will ultimately be written about in a paper that is submitted for publication. This workflow is one example of how my day-to-day activities vary over the course of a project — field work, lab work, computer work, repeat! Most recently, I have spent time talking to local California shellfish farmers about their experiences and working with California policymakers and managers to communicate these experiences — a different type of data collection, but the general process to publishing is similar.

“Dr. Aurora Ricart (right) and I looking at water chemistry data after removing our sensors from a seagrass meadow in Newport Bay. (Photo: Katie Nichols)” — Melissa Ward

Q7. What are your career goals after you finish the postdoc? What are your next steps and plans? Are there any hardships in that path that you anticipate?

I wish I knew the answer to this question! I am approaching a career transition and I have some major decisions to make in the coming years. For the immediate future, I have a post-doc position for two years. This means I have two years to figure out what my next steps are. For many academics who wish to pursue faculty positions, this can mean a few years of moving about the country or world for various positions until you find a tenure-track job. As a Californian at heart, I am wholesale unwilling to do this. This is in part because my family is here. But the other aspect of this is because I am 100% in love with the ecology of California! Having learned the language, I simply don’t want to leave the landscape that I have come to know and protect. With about a decade of research on California’s ecology and environmental politics under my belt, I am ready-made to advocate for this region, so leaving feels difficult. This desire to stay put may require a bit of career-path flexibility, but I am okay with this. I may start my own business, get a job working for a state agency, or perhaps be lucky enough to find a job at a university in California. I am sure there will be some hardships baked in here, trying to find the right job and fit the rest of life in in between, but on the whole, I am hopeful. I think this answer was a bit vague, but I will get back to you in two years with more specifics!

Melissa getting geared up to dive!

Q8. Have you faced any hardship or problems in your career as a female scientist that you would like to share?

As a white woman in science, I feel that I have had some extraordinary privilege in my career. Nonetheless, being a female scientist can sometimes be… hard. This can manifest itself in many ways, and to be honest, it is hard to be succinct here. Sometimes it may happen in smaller, insidious ways. For example, being told neither I nor my other female colleagues were permitted to drive boats for field work until we finished all of our training (fair) but overhearing shortly after that male scientists with less prior boating experience were allowed to just “skip the training”. These situations are not uncommon, and enough of them stack up to a trend. In other cases, these things can occur in more overt or broad sweeping forms, such as advances from senior faculty. A novel could be written here about these challenges and their impact on women, and in particular, women of color. Rather, I’ll add instead that my hope is that these issues can move outside of the so-called “whisper networks”. The structural and institutional systems currently in place do not serve to correct or penalize these problems. Rather, female scientists often rely on a network of others to inform them of problematic people, whereby information is passed along quietly, during informal conversations. I have myself made the mistake of choosing to work or collaborate with male scientists known to be problematic, only to realize I wasn’t plugged into the right whisper network in time to figure it out. This is a problem not unique to me, and until we fix this, I unfortunately find myself urging female scientist looking for mentors to seek out these so-called “whisper networks” before they make any decisions.

Whether a single event, or an accumulation of smaller setbacks, the issues I described here are what create a work environment that excludes women. Nonetheless, I would not go back and change my career path despite these challenges. Much like the women who paved the way for my success as a scientist, I hope to pave the way for many more to come behind me.

Q9. What led to your decision to pursue science and research? A lot of the girls get so discouraged in their early life when they are trying to decide on a major or in their early undergraduate days. How has your experience been? If you can name one book and one character from your childhood that inspired your scientific path later, what would you pick?

I have always loved science and had a curiosity for nature, having spent hours as a child turning over rocks to look for bugs or pulling crabs of seawalls for closer inspection. As I got older, I pursued a career in medicine through high school and college. I think the wide variety of possible careers in the sciences is not evident to young adults, and becoming a doctor was the job I knew existed, so I followed that path. Despite spending a year or so working in a hospital, I was lucky enough to have some great mentors through courses I took at UC Irvine, which opened my eyes to the field of ecology and the opportunities it provided. Because of this, in my final year of undergraduate I switched to a career path in the natural sciences. I was advised by several counselors that it was “too late” to change, but they could not have been more wrong, and I have never regretted that decision. With a PhD in ecology, the assumption is often “so you want to become a professor then?”. But with a background in ecology, you can work for a non-profit, government agency, university, private sector company, or even start a business. Within these sectors, the work can range from research, to lab work, field work, scientific writing, education, policy work, and more. I would encourage young women interested in scientific careers to reach out to others farther along their career paths and ask as many questions as they can! Chances are, there is a career path that fits their interests, it is just a matter of finding it.

As for the book characters, I have no idea! I don’t know that I actually read that many kids books about science, or at least none that I can recall. I will say though, as a very young kid I loved Roald Dahl, my favorite characters being Matilda and Sophie (from the BFG), and I read both of these books about fifty times. If you’ve ever read them, you may recall that these female characters were young and highly independent, working to overthrow some external force of evil… Perhaps looking back, they have impacted me more than I realize, I’m sure my parents would agree I have a hard streak of independence and well, some extreme stubborn-ness. As for the external force of evil, I will let you fill in the blank on that one.

[Editor’s Note: BFG is short for The Big Friendly Giant, by Roald Dahl.]

— — —

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

Dr. Promita Chakraborty is the founding editor of 500 Poppies. She is a scientist and founder. Find her on twitter.

A blog about women scientists. Founding editor of blog: Dr. Promita Chakraborty, San Francisco Bay Area.