At Lizard Island Research Station, a cluster of clean buildings on the breezy shore of a Coral Sea island, an unspoken yet strict code of conduct is in force. Next to each entrance stands a pan of water. All scientists must rinse the sand off their bare feet before entering. Recommended attire in winter: shorts or tee shirts, with bathing suits also permissible.
And every evening it is strongly recommended that all researchers assemble on the beach to view the sunset together.
Though these rules are unwritten, they are rarely broken.
Wren Patton (HBS/HBA ‘11), a PhD student at Penn State University was one of the scientists in residence this past August. And though rooms at the only other facilities on the island, a luxury resort, start at $1,500 per night, she came to the Australian tropics not to relax, but to do serious work. Her aim is to understand the impact of ocean acidification, brought on by climate change, on the ocean’s most productive and imperiled ecosystem.
“International collaboration is so important on issues like this,” she says, “Because they’re all global questions. And everyone comes at it not just from their scientific background, but their own cultural perspectives.
“So the nightly ritual of gathering to watch the sunset also serves as a lively exchange of ideas. “I’m sitting there having a casual conversation with names I’ve been reading about in the literature for years,” she says, not without a trace of awe. “All of the sudden there they are in the flesh with their kids running around the beach and you can talk about what you saw on the Reef that day.”
If Patton feels comfortable among such a group of global thinkers, it’s likely due to her background. She graduated from Oregon State University with Honors Baccalaureate degrees in biology, fisheries and wildlife science and international studies. Her Honors College thesis took her to North Carolina to research sea turtles with NOAA. She feels well equipped to share ideas with top researchers.
“Oceans are very important to me, and they have been for a long time. ” says Patton. “Oceans are not constrained by international or state boundaries, therefore it really takes a global perspective to access solutions.”
If Wren Patton’s broad education and diverse research interests have a focus, it’s in her passion to make a difference. Her current project of studying the effects of increasing ocean acidity on the ability of reef fish to make decisions. Changes in PH have been shown in experiments to cause predator species to lose interest in their prey, and prey species to no longer fear their predators. What Patton wants to understand is if fish have the ability to adapt or acclimate to projected acidity levels a hundred years from now.
She feels that her work can help pave the way for better policy and management decisions. “Without good data to back up decisions, you don’t have good decisions. And if you don’t have good decisions, well, you have pretty dramatic impacts.”
This missionary drive is ingrained in Patton. She grew up in the Columbia Gorge on an organic farm in the middle of a land conservancy. “Understanding the interaction between our culture and the habitat in which we exist has been around me for a very long time.”
Despite the trappings of paradise, this collective effort to understand a fragile ecosystem infuses Lizard Island Research Station with an undercurrent of seriousness. There are no weekends as Fridays bleed into Saturdays and Sundays, with scientists loading their boats with gear every morning on the way to collect samples, returning to their labs, taking a break for sunset, and then heading back to the rows of aquariums, office lights blinking on in the darkness as they record another set of late night observations.
It’s not uncommon to bump into a researcher navigating the sandy footpaths back to their cabins by starlight after a late night in the lab.
Looking up at the clarity and brilliance of those stars is a reminder of how pristine…and how fragile…is this ecosystem. And it’s easy to understand why researchers like Patton work so hard to protect them.
“We all grow up with stars in our eyes, wanting to make a difference,” says Patton. “And I’m certainly no different on that front.”
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0OInT5V46o&feature=youtu.be; h=315]
Story courtesy of Oregon State University Relations and Marketing