The Science of Sustainability

Why I Do Science: Stephen Palumbi

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Stephen Palumbi, Director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, is one of the world's leading authorities on tropical corals and the pressures they face from climate change – namely, warmer and more acidic oceans.

Stephen Palumbi, Director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. Image courtesy Josiah Hooper.

Professor Palumbi has been traveling for years to Ofu, a tiny island in American Samoa, to study how some species of corals are capable of adapting to waters within this patch of the south Pacific, which would otherwise be too warm for them to survive. "So either the corals hadn’t read the scientific literature and didn't know they should be dead, or they were doing something different than anybody else knew about," he said. "Our work there really was built around the idea of trying to find out from the corals how it was they were living in places that were too hot for them," he added.

His research team's inquiry into the resilient adaptation of these "super corals" is more than just academic. As he explained to me, most of the oxygen we breathe come from tiny algae that live in the ocean and that a quarter of all marine species depend on corals for their survival. So the decline of the world's corals portends bad news for the marine ecosystem, from tiny crustaceans to the psychedelic, vividly-hued parrotfishes which eat algae and seaweed among vast reefs of table corals.

A tiny piece from a tropical coral sample taken by marine biologist Stephen Palumbi during his research in the island of Ofu in America Samoa.Photo by Sheraz Sadiq

Palumbi's path to and passion for marine biology began at a young age. He grew up in Baltimore and the proximity to the water, as well as the support of his parents, one of whom was a schoolteacher, sparked his lifelong interest in science. "We'd go down the docks to see the big marlin competitions come back and we’d see those fish, and we’d go to the beach for vacations," he said, adding, "The ocean is full of mysteries…And what I love is uncovering those mysteries and figuring them out and explaining them and revealing them."

Like most scientists, Palumbi is attracted to the process of discovery which lies at the heart of nearly every scientific discipline. These discoveries are often the culmination of dedication, diligence and the perseverance to slog through long days and the painstaking, even tedious, analysis of massive amounts of data. But as Palumbi told me, "everyone is a scientist…everybody has to get data in their life."

Indeed, in an increasingly complex world awash with information bombarding us from a dizzying array of technological gadgets, the scientific method provides a steady compass to make sense of this torrent of data and stimuli every day and arrive at decisions, from the profound to the mundane.

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Category: Biology, Climate, Television, Video

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Sheraz Sadiq

About the Author ()

Sheraz Sadiq is an Emmy Award-winning producer at San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED. In 2012, he received the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism award for a story he produced about the seismic retrofit of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system which serves the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to producing television content for KQED Science, he has also created online features and written news articles on scientific subjects ranging from astronomy to synthetic biology.
  • John

    As fascinating as Dr. Palumbi's work and resulting data is, this work on Ofu is a study of just one point of a landscape, the land that is covered by water, as I understand it, encompasses 90%+ of the earth's surface. More dedicated effort by thousands is what it will take if we are to realize its benefits.

  • http://fancranked.com Jessie L

    Love seeing these discoveries. It's good to know we need to take care of our oceans for the sake of the oxygen it produces!

  • http://twitter.com/zacherypaasch Zzchery Paasch

    It certainly sounds like Dr Palumbi has the right attitude about his work and his calling. Many would be envious of that kind of dedication, job satisfaction and accomplishments.

    What fascinates me most is the observation that the coral can adapt to different water temperatures. Nature has always proven adaptive to all the encroachments thrown at it, especially those from nature itself. A more interesting study would be the effects on coral of all the toxics and heavy metals that big industry seems to regard as a necessary side effect of their business model. And jut how much the animals can withstand. Sadly we will probably jearn the answers in the future from observations on the wild.

  • Tom Barto

    I have not been to American Samoa, but I have been to Okinawa. The beautiful, most colorful and bountifully alive coral reefs along the shores of the Okinawan Islands are in very very warm and very salty water. Is the Samoan water warmer than that?