Scripps Student Spotlight: Benjamin Davis

Graduate student monitors brine disposal methods from desalination plants and their potential detrimental effects on the ocean

Benjamin Davis is a second-year master's student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. He was born and raised in Sacramento, Calif. Before attending Scripps, he obtained his bachelor's degree in physics at the University of California Santa Barbara. Davis first discovered oceanographic equipment while working in a lab as an undergraduate student scrubbing sensors. Fascinated by the engineering of this discipline, he now studies applied ocean sciences with an emphasis on ocean instrumentation and sensor development. At Scripps, he works in the Marine Ecosystem Sensing, Observation, and Modeling building in the lab of marine chemist Todd Martz.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Benjamin Davis: My initial exposure to oceanographic equipment was scrubbing sensors while working in a lab as an undergrad. I was fascinated by the intersection of the natural world, exploration, and engineering of this discipline. After finishing up at UC Santa Barbara, the logical next step was to complement my physics degree with experiential marine science knowledge from working on Catalina Island for two years. I saw and still do view Scripps not only as a place but a time to deepen my knowledge and expand my toolset, which will hopefully allow me to contribute to the global goal of building a more sustainable and scientific future.


en: What are you researching at Scripps? 

BD: One of the many promising ways to deliver freshwater to a world growing in thirst is through the process of desalination. This process is done by extracting the salt from seawater and inputting the resulting clean fresh water into the nearby tap water system. Although this process offers immense benefits, there is no adequate way to recycle the leftover salt. The remaining brine is discharged back into the ocean with the potential for detrimental effects to the local ecology.

Todd Martz and his lab utilize various autonomous instrumentation to map the open and coastal oceans' biogeochemical processes. I am incorporating an array of sensors in one of the lab's mobile platforms, the WavepHOx (a device shaped like a bullet cut in half hot dog-style that is a mobile chemical sensor platform that has the ability to measure temperature, pH, oxygen, and salinity). We can strap it to stand-up paddleboards and paddle around anywhere a paddleboard can go. This is ideal for nearshore measurements because they are extremely versatile while barely disrupting the natural dynamics of the water and shallow ecosystems, and developing a method to effectively measure the briny effluent plume of the largest desalination plant in the United States and the surrounding sea surface chemistry, conveniently located in Carlsbad.


en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study? 

BD: I first realized high salinity's potential ability when I used to pour salt packets into my brother's drinks at restaurants as a kid (I thought this was funny and interesting. He thought it was neither). I was also stricken with burning curiosity about  the interconnected physical world we inhabit and impact immensely. Most people my age have been told in one form or another that we are the generation that will right the past's wrongs, and I have always wanted to be a part of that movement from an interdisciplinary and hands-on approach.


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day. 

BD: On a typical day, I start by consuming a sea otter’s weight in coffee. I have been more than fortunate to be one of the few who get to come in and work in the lab during the pandemic, where I can tinker around with electronics before testing them incessantly. Depending on the day and wave conditions, I find myself either soldering components on printed circuit boards, analyzing and visualizing data from our instruments, or taking out the WavepHOx on a paddleboard, performing scientific data collection without trying to fall.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)? 

BD: Besides the capability of blending my enthusiasm for ocean adventure and research interests, I love being surrounded by an abundance of intelligent and driven individuals that inspire me every day. I love being a sponge in lab meetings, seminars, and other scientific collaboration outlets, absorbing the knowledge passed between people with every interaction. I also have been a TA for several classes at Scripps, and although I am there to aid the transfer of information, I always end up learning something new that I can incorporate into my work or teaching, or both!


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way? 

BD: Being the youngest of six and growing up in a two-parent household, I was grateful to have five additional people look out for me and my future. Seeing my siblings following their respective passions with our parents' omniscient support instilled comfortability in my own skin. I also would not be able to participate in any of the exciting projects at Scripps without the patience and encouragement of the current and former members of the Martz Lab. Their drive to solve problems as a team is so healthy for any student wanting to continue a career as an ocean scientist.


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student? 

BD: Like most students, I fall into bouts of self-inflicted imposter syndrome that are sometimes hard to pull myself out of; I think imposter syndrome has many faces. For me, it’s the perpetual need to meet my lofty goals to accrue the approval of those that I hold in the highest esteem. Luckily, I have an absolutely wonderful community here in San Diego that constantly reminds me that self-love is the only approval you need. 

Aside from my thesis work, I am also challenging myself to echo and amplify the voices of the underrepresented minorities in my neighborhood and STEAM colleagues as best as I can, especially when it comes to science equity and accessibility.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

BD: For my career, I hope to continue to work in sensor development as an ocean engineer with aspirations of being part of a team that positively impacts coastal communities, both human and non-human alike. 

I pride myself on being able to cultivate a healthy work-life balance by enjoying nature in my free time and centering my work around it, which I want to maintain as I grow older and less able-bodied. With that in mind, I plan to operate a small sustainable farm that, at the very least, satisfies my egg intake.

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