Scripps Student Spotlight: Dante Capone

PhD student researches how California wildfires affect coastal marine plankton

Dante Capone is a second-year PhD student in the biological oceanography program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he works in the lab of zooplankton ecologist Moira Décima. Prior to becoming a student at Scripps, Capone grew up in Sebastopol, Calif. and double majored in earth science and marine biology at the University of California Santa Cruz. Capone was recently awarded with a fellowship through the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowships Program.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Dante Capone: As an undergrad, I had the opportunity to spend a summer at Scripps as an undergraduate research fellow through the amazing SURF REU program, working with biological oceanographer Lisa Levin. Those ten weeks were some of the most transformative of my life, as I spent every day engaging with other curious minds in the welcoming community at Scripps. The amazing structure of the program laid out by its director Jane Teranes, the late night intellectual chats with my fellow REU cohort, and the countless beachside sunset burritos solidified that summer in my heart. That experience of interacting with a diverse group of individuals each bearing unique interests and perspectives is what drew me to Scripps. 

After spending some time working as a data analyst in physical oceanography post-graduation, I knew that I wanted to remain in oceanography, but I was craving more tactile work that allowed me to interact more with the organisms I was interested in. Despite my lack of experience with lab/shipwork, when deciding on my graduate programs, the draw of access to these hands-on experiences as a biological oceanographer at Scripps helped tip the scales. Additionally when seeking a graduate school, I knew I wanted to be in a warm, sunny place, where I could see or dip in the ocean on a daily basis. While the San Diego environment sometimes makes it difficult to focus on work indoors, I much prefer it to being hulled up during a cold snowstorm. 

Finally, I feel that the size and range of interests within the Scripps and UC San Diego communities provide the means for me to grow and stay engaged throughout the long duration of the PhD. There are so many opportunities available at Scripps—sometimes, too many! There is also a strong culture of collaboration, which is great for exploring creative research directions.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

Capone amidst a dilution experiment on the California Current Ecosystem (CCE) cruise.

DC: Our lab studies marine zooplankton, trophic ecology, and carbon cycling. Zooplankton are tiny animals that get carried by ocean currents and link primary production by phytoplankton to higher trophic levels. We are a part of the California Current Ecosystem Long Term Ecological Research (CCE-LTER) program, in which we conduct experiments and collect data in California to see how certain ecosystems change over time. We employ a number of analytical approaches to study zooplankton and food webs, such as DNA barcoding, image classification, stable isotope analysis, and much more! In the past, zooplankton in the California Current have responded to environmental changes like El Niño and the “Blob”—a record-breaking marine heat wave. Most recently, we’ve been enthralled with the mysterious proliferation of pyrosomes, or ‘sea pickles,’ which are pink, pickle-shaped, gelatinous plankton.

My research examines how California wildfires impact the marine plankton off our coast. California has become a hotspot for wildfires, with the records for intensity, burn area, and frequency re-written every year. This topic is globally emerging, as recent studies have linked changes in ocean productivity to the Australian wildfires in late 2019. Although we think of terrestrial and marine ecosystems as separate, it’s important to consider how energy and elements (such as carbon) don’t have these boundaries. I’m currently conducting experiments to measure the effects of wildfire ash on growth and grazing in plankton communities. While logistically challenging to plan for, I am also hoping to collect direct observations of the biogeochemical response from when the next California mega-fire breaks out. With many complex physical, chemical, and biological transformations between the initial combustion of plants on the landscape to its eventual transport to the ocean food web, this topic will certainly keep me busy for the coming years!


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

DC: Early on, I became interested in marine science through frequent visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium—which has probably inspired many kids from Northern and Central California to become marine scientists. I was captivated by watching deep-sea fish, and would spend hours sitting at the Open Ocean exhibit.

I came into UC Santa Cruz planning to major in environmental studies, but quickly and naturally fell into earth science. I was also passionate about biology, leading me to double major in ecology and evolutionary biology. After the SURF program, I was fully hooked on marine science. I shifted my focus to the ocean, finishing up with a quarter abroad in Australia. After graduation, I worked as a physical oceanographic data analyst for the Coastal Oceanography Group near home, at the Bodega Marine Laboratory

As an undergrad, I worked in the Ravelo Paleoceanography Lab where I sorted and classified fossilized planktonic foraminifera (shelled amoeba) under the microscope. Additionally, I learned how to prepare and analyze samples for stable isotope analysis in the Ravelo and UC Santa Cruz Stable Isotope labs, which demanded a great deal of fine motor skills. As I’ve spent more time at sea and collecting zooplankton, I continue to become more fascinated with their weird and wonderful adaptations and appearances. My current favorite zooplankton are chaetognaths, or arrow-worms, which look like jelly tentacles from afar, but under the scope have a nightmarish set of snapping jaws!

While aboard my first research cruise during August 2020, I became interested in the effects of wildfires on the ocean. While I quarantined in a hotel room before sampling off Southern California, my friends in Santa Cruz evacuated from the extensive Lightning Complex Fires. In previous years, my family in Sebastopol, California had been forced to evacuate. So, going home and driving through the burnt neighborhoods, where all that remained were chimneys, left me with a deeper connection to these growing disasters.


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

DC: Days and weeks tend to be fairly variable. Oftentimes, my schedule is sparse in the weeks ahead. But as it draws nearer, the time always fills up with meetings, labwork or other opportunities. 

I’m currently conducting experiments to test how wildfire ash impacts phytoplankton growth and zooplankton grazing using seawater from the Scripps Pier. A typical experiment day starts with a bright and early 4:00 a.m. wake up: I make coffee, stretch, and head to lab to sort out the supplies and equipment I’ve prepared the day before. I meet up with a current MAS student working in our lab to collect water and set up the experiment, usually finishing just before my 9:30 a.m. deep-sea biology class. I then take a mid-day break to run and finish with a quick ocean dip. Afterwards, I may have another class, work on data analysis, clean up/prep for lab, or catch up on emails. As a co-chair of the Scripps Graduate Student Council, I have additional responsibilities and emails to address in communicating with student reps and faculty. On these early days, I may head home before sunset, but many days I try to catch the sunset from Scripps or the beach. There’s nothing like the calming sense of closure in the sunset over the sweeping La Jolla Shores to transition out of the work day.


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

Capone preparing to deploy the MOCNESS on the CCE cruise this past summer.

DC: In terms of action and work, the most exciting thing I do as a part of the Decima Lab is going to sea for oceanographic work and sampling. As a rookie sailor, I’ve learned a lot about shipboard life and science. Science at sea is always at the whim of the ever-changing ocean, so you can’t be certain that the meticulous plans that you’ve laid out months, weeks, and even hours in advance are set in stone.

At sea, we deploy an arsenal of nets and sensors to sample zooplankton and measure properties of the environment. The most powerful and labor-intensive net is called the MOCNESS (Multiple Opening and Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System), which has ten nets that allow us to collect plankton from select depths while measuring water temperature, salinity, oxygen and other properties. While the use, maintenance, and processing demanded by this sampling is rigorous, it is always exciting to open up the cod ends (buckets at the end of the net where the captured plankton get concentrated) and see what weird and interesting creatures we’ve pulled up.


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

DC: There are many role models that I can look up to. I believe these figures are important for providing me with mentorship, as well as evidence that others from backgrounds like mine have walked a similar path. To name a few from my life/academic career: I look up to my parents for their work ethic and mindfulness. In my undergrad and postgrad, my role models were my senior thesis advisor, Matthew Clapham, and my supervisor at Bodega Marine Laboratory, John Largier. During my time in the SURF program, Oli Ashford, Lisa Levin, and Jane Teranes all helped me feel welcome at Scripps. Currently, I’m learning to strengthen my science, think critically and work hard (but smart!), thanks to my advisor, Moira, and my labmates!


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

DC: As a PhD student, I thought one of my biggest challenges would be to maintain a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and skills, as I specialized in a single topic. Instead, I’ve learned that my greatest challenge is balancing the numerous tasks and commitments that pull you in many directions.

Another common challenge is disentangling my work from my passion. As researchers, we work on topics we are interested in and care a lot about and assume our expertise as a part of our identity: ”I am a biological oceanographer, I am a marine scientist, etc…” There are times we may work too much and feel burnt out, causing us to question our passion and our identities. This is where having separate spheres, hobbies, and identities outside of graduate school is critical. Personally, I’m grateful to have the amazing San Diego running community to turn to and switch off my oceanographer side for a bit, so that I can come back to my research refreshed. 


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

DC: After Scripps, I would love to have a position where I can interact with students through teaching and mentorship, while conducting research and practicing science. I hope to be a part of an organization or institution that promotes interdisciplinary collaboration, since I think combining unique perspectives is a fun way to continue to learn and generate new knowledge.


You can find Capone on Instagram at @dante.a.capone.

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