As the world’s oceans continue to warm, scientists are trying to understand the effects of changing ocean chemistry on marine environments. One person delving into this field of study is Alyssa Griffin, a PhD student just finishing her fourth year in the marine chemistry and geochemistry program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Griffin’s research focuses on the impact of ocean acidification—chemical changes in the ocean as a result of carbon dioxide emissions—on coral reefs. (View photo gallery.)
Griffin grew up on the East Coast and attended college at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she received bachelor’s degrees in geology and comparative religion and a master’s degree in geology. We caught up with Griffin to discuss her research, her work to increase diversity in science, and more.
Why did you choose to attend Scripps to pursue a PhD?
Alyssa Griffin: Scripps was my first choice of graduate school because of the opportunity to work with my advisor, Dr. Andreas Andersson. After working in industry for a few years, I decided to return to school and I had a very clear idea of what projects I wanted to pursue for my PhD. Very few people were doing the type of work I was interested in and Dr. Andersson’s interests and expertise were exceptionally conducive to my proposed area of research. In fact, when I interviewed with other potential advisors, a few admitted that my area of research would be best explored under Dr. Andersson’s guidance.
In addition to working with Dr. Andersson, I also chose Scripps because of its seemingly infinite access to resources and scientific productivity. The legacy of Scripps is tremendous and it has housed some of the most innovative and progressive earth science research of the last century. The campus is truly a multidisciplinary environment with world-renowned researchers in all its disciplines. Direct interactions and daily access to such accomplished scientists are opportunities that are difficult to find elsewhere.
What are you researching at Scripps?
AG: My research investigates how changing ocean chemistry, particularly ocean acidification, will affect the process of dissolution on coral reefs. Corals and other organisms living on reefs build hard mineral skeletons that provide them with structure, much like the bones in your body, which are made of a group of minerals known as calcium carbonates. The reason corals care about the acidity of the ocean is because as ocean acidity increases, it becomes more and more difficult for corals to build their mineral skeletons.
In addition, when the corals die, their skeletons are eroded and deposited onto the seafloor. As much as 95% of seafloor coverage on a reef can be comprised of these sediments. The sediment provides a foundation on which reefs can expand and also accumulate to create important land habitats for humans and animals. Increasing ocean acidity can cause these sediments to dissolve, much like putting vinegar on baking soda. So ocean acidification not only hinders coral skeletal growth, but it could also cause foundational reef sediments to disappear. My research investigates how much and how quickly these sediments will dissolve under current and future ocean conditions, in order to better manage and protect precious coral reef ecosystems.
How did you become interested in this field?
AG: I fell in love with geology because of the immense time and spatial scales involved. For me, thinking on those scales puts everything into a greater perspective. During my undergraduate coursework, I developed a passion for geochemistry because of its scope within geologic studies. Nearly every sub-discipline of geology has a geochemical component within it. Geochemistry appealed to me because it gave me the foundational ability to pursue countless areas of research.
What motivates you as a scientist?
AG: As I continue through my education, the relevance of my studies is always of the utmost importance to me. I never want to be locked in the ivory towers of academia pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. My research is consistently motivated by the possibility of contributing solutions to relevant issues. Ocean acidification is a global, complex issue that demands our attention if we are going to fully understand how it will change the face of our planet.
What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day in your life.
AG: I think most PhD programs are very demanding of your time and mental energy. It’s always a challenge to find a healthy balance between work and life, but I think over the past four years I have achieved that in my own way. A typical day could involve running experiments in the lab, analyzing data on the computer, helping my labmates and fellow students with various things, teaching, reading papers or writing. I am also one of Scripps Oceanography’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Fellows, so I spend time organizing events that create a more inclusive and diverse environment at Scripps. In my free time, I like to play music, go to concerts or camp and hike with my awesome husband, Ted.
What’s the most exciting thing about your work?
AG: In its purest form, science is about asking a question and then systematically searching for the answer. To me, the most rewarding part of doing research is being able to ask “Why?” and then navigating the path to an answer. Sometimes you find unexpected things along the way, which makes the path even more exciting! Having the opportunity to pursue my deepest curiosities and find potential answers to some of the world’s most pressing problems are what really get me excited about my work.
Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?
AG: My undergraduate institution, Temple University, was very small and familial. Everyone helped each other become better scientists and people. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the support of all of my professors, friends, and teachers there. My master’s advisor Dr. David Grandstaff really helped me hone my skills as a young scientist and led me to develop a passion for my field. Since arriving at Scripps, I have had the pleasure of working with equally supportive professors and colleagues that have really pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and become a more well-rounded and skilled scientist.
What are some of the challenges you face as a student?
AG: Work-life balance takes on a different form for everyone depending on your priorities. For me, my husband, family, and friends will always be my number one priority. Sometimes, the demands of a PhD program take time away from them which I have found to be very challenging. I’m still learning how to be as efficient as possible at work so that I can maximize my time with them at home and truly be present when we spend time together.
What are your future plans?
AG: As scientists, it is our duty to communicate our work to the public in a concise and accessible manner. Conducting relevant research is the first step in this process. Ocean acidification is just one consequence of anthropogenic influences on the Earth’s equilibrium. In the future, I hope to continue performing geochemical research of other anthropogenically-driven changes in Earth’s processes. I hope to conduct my future research within an academic institution so I can simultaneously generate greater public interest in science, facilitate public discussion of current research, and motivate future generations of scientists to be more accessible and engaging to non-scientific communities.
As a woman and a minority, I also hope to serve as an example to others who are not well represented in the geosciences. I hope my future students will see my career path and know that no matter what their background may be, they are capable, intelligent, and talented enough to pursue their passions.
This interview has been condensed and edited. You can find the Andersson Lab on Facebook @anderssonoceanresearch.
– Brittany Hook