Around the Pier: Scripps Grad Students Attend Sustainability Conference at the Vatican


Can you imagine what the world will look like in 10,000 years? Will there be any natural resources left? How can humans ensure that sustainable practices are put in place so that future generations can thrive on our planet? These questions and more were addressed during a recent joint workshop at the Vatican, hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

Two students from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego were invited as observers to the workshop, which was held May 2-6.

This monumental meeting of the minds, entitled "Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility," brought together 43 experts from around the world to discuss sustainability, climate change, and human dignity, among other pressing topics. Workshop participants included anthropologists, atmospheric chemists, glaciologists, sociologists, economists, politicians, religious leaders, and more.

Scripps Oceanography had a strong presence at the workshop, with participants including climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran “Ram” Ramanathan (also a workshop co-convener), geophysicist Walter Munk, former Scripps Director Charles Kennel, Nobel Prize Laureate and emeritus climate researcher Paul Crutzen, current adjunct professor Nancy Knowlton, former adjunct professor Naomi Oreskes, and Scripps alum Danny Richter.  

Scripps graduate students Emily Kelly and Matt Siegfried were among a small and carefully selected pool of only 20 people invited to observe this historic meeting of the two Vatican science academies.

Over the course of their five-day whirlwind trip, Kelly and Siegfried observed nearly 44 hours of sustainability-related presentations given by scientists and other prominent experts.

“It was an incredible experience to see so many people that are leaders in their field discussing these topics. Coming up with solutions to these problems requires that people think broadly, across disciplines, and this was the perfect setting,” said Kelly, a Ph.D. student who studies the roles of herbivorous fish, urchins, and “lawnmowers” at the Center for Marine Biology and Conservation (CMBC) at Scripps. (Lawnmowers are seaweed-eating fish that are critical to the health of coral reefs.)

Siegfried, a Ph.D. student who studies the interaction between ice and water beneath Antarctica at the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps, was also impressed with the presentations.

“Every time someone got up and gave a talk, I could think about a specific person at Scripps who would die to be sitting there listening to a 20-minute talk given by a titan in their field,” said Siegfried. “I figured out there were about 2,000 years of scientific experience in that room.”

As the two students walked into the conference each morning, they would set goals for who they would try to talk to that day.

“During breaks, we had ample time to interact with the presenters, and we definitely took advantage of that,” said Siegfried.

“This is my Scripps education at work,” said Kelly, clearly elated that she was able to participate in such a prestigious event. “Without my CMBC education, I would have been lost in these discussions.”

In addition to mingling with scientists and experts from across the world, Kelly and Siegfried were thrilled to get exclusive hang time with their own Scripps colleagues.

Prior to the trip, neither Kelly nor Siegfried had met Ramanathan, so getting to know him at the Vatican was a surreal experience.

“Ram is basically a rock star,” joked Siegfried. “He knows the Pope and the Dalai Lama, which is crazy!”

The opportunity to spend quality time with Walter Munk was a trip highlight for both students, who greatly admire the legendary oceanographer. Over the course of Munk’s 75 years in science, his research has been invaluable to the scientific and military communities (his wave forecasting method helped the Allies prepare for the D-Day landings), and he’s received numerous accolades, including the National Medal of Science, the Explorers Club Medal, and UC San Diego’s prestigious Roger Revelle Medal—to name but a few.

Munk also proved to be a great mentor to the early career scientists.

“If you see Walter at Scripps, you get to say ‘hi’ and that’s it—it’s like ships passing in the night,” explained Siegfried. “But I had multiple meals sitting next to him and we would talk during coffee breaks, and that was really amazing.”

During the first day of the conference, the words of Cardinal Archbishop Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras were displayed on a big screen: “Nowadays man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child.” These words set the tone for the entire conference, as presenters from a variety of fields collectively examined the immense sustainability problems facing humankind.

“Oftentimes, when we discuss a sustainable future, climate change is the topic, but thinking about natural capital is far reaching and very impressive,” said Kelly, noting the importance of thinking broadly, across disciplines, and in terms of the far future (as in 10,000 years).

The level of urgency surrounding the issues presented was eye-opening for the students, and at times, even daunting.

“Every field in natural sciences is basically at a similar tipping point, where we’re teetering on this edge of irreversible change,” said Siegfried. “I didn’t realize how urgent this was in every field. I know that urgency in my field of glaciology, but I didn’t realize that glaciology wasn’t unique in that respect.”

Despite the sense of doom and gloom associated with sustainability problems, both students described leaving the conference with a sense of hope, as they have the tools to make a positive change in the world, especially through their Scripps research.

“Seeing how Scripps is involved in all areas discussed at conference made me so happy to be a part of such a powerful institution,” said Kelly, who plans to work as a postdoctoral researcher after graduating from Scripps Oceanography this fall.

Siegfried was also impressed with the level of Scripps involvement in many different areas, particularly the natural sciences.

“Scripps has its hand in that cookie jar of research, across the board,” said Siegfried. “We study from the poles to the equator, from the earth’s interior to the bottom of the ocean, up to the edge of space. We basically cover it all here, and that’s pretty striking.”

The Vatican trip has inspired Siegfried to continue working in academia long after he graduates.  He also plans to work on his outreach efforts, so that he can better communicate important science with the public.

Kelly and Siegfried repeatedly expressed their gratitude toward their Scripps advisors, Jen Smith and Helen Fricker, respectively, for nominating them to experience the opportunity of a lifetime. Both students are also thankful that Ramanathan chose them to accompany him on this incredible journey.

Another favorite trip moment occurred when Munk invited the students to eat brunch with him in the dining room of the dorms where he was staying—the same dorms where Pope Francis lives. The students were shocked to discover the Pope sitting only a few tables across from them, casually eating his breakfast.

This quaint dining experience was sharply contrasted by another encounter with the Pope, just a mere hour later. Shortly after breakfast, Kelly and Siegfried were walking near the Vatican, and they went to take a short cut through St. Peter’s Square. What had previously been an empty courtyard was now filled with tens of thousands of people eagerly awaiting the Pope’s blessing.

“It really brought home the whole experience,” said Siegfried, who noted that this enormous sea of people, all looking to Pope Francis for guidance, represents just a small portion of the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today. The two budding scientists used this as an opportunity to make some calculations.

“If every Catholic person used just one less gallon of gas per month, used less water, recycled more…the results could be astounding,” said Siegfried.

Near the end of the trip, Ramanathan received the unexpected opportunity to personally present a very short, three-sentence address to the Pope. This brief and powerful encounter only further cemented the students’ desire to become better communicators.

“Always be able to say your work in three sentences,” said Siegfried. “You never know when opportunities might arise.”

In coming weeks, Pope Francis is expected to deliver an Encyclical (a papal letter sent to all bishops in the Catholic church), and the students hope that he will take into account the issues discussed at the Pontifical conference, as well as the finely crafted words of Ramanathan. Pope Francis has the potential to help others become stewards of the earth through his powerful influence—especially now that he’s been armed with scientific knowledge.

Of course, there’s also a great need for more scientists to communicate important research to mass audiences and to people of power, such as the Pope. Through an integrated approach, the students are optimistic that the Pope, scientists, and people around the world can work together to solve the world’s problems, which span far beyond country borders.

“This conference made me realize how important places like Scripps are, and how lucky I am to be in a place like this,” said Siegfried. “The possibilities are pretty much endless here.”

- Brittany Hook


Read More about the students' trip to the Vatican on Matt's glaciology blog: Scripps On Ice.

View more pictures from the Vatican trip here.

Related Image Gallery: Scripps Students Visit the Vatican

Related Video: Why Scripps?

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.