Scripps Student Spotlight: Channing Prend

PhD student seeks answers about the Southern Ocean in order to better understand how it aids the global climate system

Channing Prend is a third-year physical oceanography PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. He grew up in New Hampshire and received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University. Currently, he studies Southern Ocean dynamics with Scripps oceanographers Sarah Gille and Lynne Talley, focusing his research on how the circulation of the Southern Ocean impacts biogeochemical cycles around the world. This work is part of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project at Princeton University. 


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Channing Prend: I chose Scripps because of the breadth of work being done here and the people. Most universities have only a handful of oceanographers (if any!), so it’s exciting to be at an institution with hundreds of people trying to understand the ocean from many different perspectives. I was particularly excited about the strength of the Southern Ocean research at Scripps and working with my advisors Sarah Gille and Lynne Talley. I was also drawn by the students that I met during the open house, who seemed passionate about their work and genuinely happy to be here.


en: What are you researching at Scripps and how did you become interested in this field?

CP: My research at Scripps is part of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project. Broadly speaking, I study how the circulation of the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, impacts biogeochemical cycles. Physical processes in the ocean can influence the distribution of carbon and nutrients across a range of spatial and temporal scales. I use a combination of observations, numerical models, and satellite data to try to understand the drivers of variability in air-sea carbon exchange and phytoplankton growth.

I originally became interested in the Southern Ocean because it plays a unique role in the global ocean circulation by transporting mass, heat, and other properties between basins as well as between the surface and deep oceans. Because of this, the Southern Ocean accounts for a significant portion of the total oceanic heat and carbon uptake, which regulates the entire climate system. I was particularly interested in focusing on the nexus of physics and biogeochemistry because of recent advances in autonomous observing systems. Observations in the Southern Ocean are sparse due to its remote location and harsh weather; however, in the past 6 years, profiling floats deployed by SOCCOM have provided unprecedented spatial coverage of subsurface biogeochemical measurements in the region. This dramatic increase in data allows us to ask new questions about the Southern Ocean carbon cycle, which makes this an exciting time to be working on these problems.   


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

CP: Most of my day is spent at the computer, analyzing and visualizing data collected by SOCCOM floats and satellites, as well as numerical model output. I also spend a lot of time reading papers and writing up my own findings. I try to break up the day by attending seminars, meeting with collaborators to discuss research, or taking walks on the beach. It’s been harder to find time away from the computer during quarantine since all meetings and seminars are over Zoom now. I’m looking forward to the impromptu hallway conversations (and proximity to the beach!) once we’re back in our offices.   


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?

CP: The most exciting thing about my work is getting to interact with and learn from all the amazing people at Scripps and involved in SOCCOM. Since my research is very interdisciplinary, I get to collaborate with physical, biological, and chemical oceanographers at a range of career stages. Hearing the diverse perspectives from researchers across fields and generations has taught me so much about the ocean and conducting science in general. It’s also exciting to work with cutting edge technology like the SOCCOM floats. These floats (and other autonomous platforms) are changing the way we observe the ocean and will become increasingly important in tackling big questions about the role of the ocean in the climate system.      


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

CP: I wouldn’t be an oceanographer if it weren’t for my undergraduate advisor Ryan Abernathey, who introduced me to the field and encouraged me to pursue it. I was also lucky to spend a summer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution working with Hyodae Seo, who motivated me to apply to graduate school.  

At Scripps, my advisors and committee members have been amazing mentors. They are all brilliant scientists as well as kind and humble people. I’ve also been able to collaborate with researchers from many other institutions, which has greatly impacted my development as a scientist. Finally, many of my role models here at Scripps are other students and postdocs, who constantly inspire me with their knowledge and generosity.  


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

CP: Like most graduate students, work-life balance and imposter syndrome are continual challenges. It’s important to acknowledge that the imposter syndrome I experience as a white cis male is very different from that experienced by underrepresented minorities. I have benefited from many forms of privilege that allowed me to enter and succeed in an academic system that is toxic for many. It’s a challenge facing me and all white academics (particularly white men) to use our position of privilege to challenge the current system and be better allies.   


en: What are your future plans?

CP: I love studying the Southern Ocean and hope to continue doing research at an academic or government research institution. I also hope to continue communicating science to general audiences and working to make academia more inclusive.


You can find Channing on Twitter @ChanningPrend.


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