Scripps Student Spotlight: Dylan Shafer

Undergraduate student examines sea surface temperature data and its relationship to sea ice formation

Hailing from Boulder, Colo., Dylan Shafer is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego double majoring in oceanic and atmospheric sciences and political science/international relations with a minor in chemistry. At Scripps Oceanography, Shafer is currently researching how sea ice formation responds to sea surface temperature. He is advised by physical oceanographer Matthew Mazloff


Dylan Shafer posing after a successful practice run of putting on a lobster suit, or exposure suit, while aboard R/V Roger Revelle

explorations now (en): Why did you choose to attend Scripps? 

Dylan Shafer (DS): I originally applied to UC San Diego as an undergraduate mechanical engineering major. When I received my acceptance letter, I was disappointed that I wasn’t accepted into the Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace (MAE) department. I still planned on attending UC San Diego, but I had to find another major. My dad and I were going through majors and saw the oceanic and atmospheric sciences major. The major is a fusion between oceanography, climate/atmospheric sciences, and environmental chemistry. Thinking back to my history with earth sciences, I was interested immediately! 

My first year at UC San Diego was mostly spent on the main campus due to COVID-19, quarantine, Zoom classes, and prerequisite classes. I heard from my friends that Scripps was the best place on campus with the best classes and teachers. In my second year at UC San Diego, I ventured to Scripps for my first in-person class: SIO 60: Experiences in Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. This class was amazing! I knew changing my major, enduring COVID-19, and attending an out-of-state university was worth it.  


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

DS: My research at Scripps has been one of the highlights of my undergraduate career. I am currently looking into sea surface temperature data and its relationship to sea ice formation within the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Coast. While sea ice formation is a complex process, it responds directly to changes in sea surface temperature. The models scientists use to predict sea ice around Antarctica are only so accurate because of the complex nature of ice formation. Sophisticated models that predict Earth's climate are too large to focus on small sections of Earth. To help the models run faster and more efficiently, scientists average values over larger sections. This research is very exciting as I work with massive amounts of data, some of which have possibly never been aggregated. I hope to present my findings soon.


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

DS: I have always been interested in earth sciences. For a project in third grade, I made a very basic seismograph out of materials I found in my dad’s shed. Science has always appealed to me, as it is a way to combine real-life experiences and math. In eighth grade, I began to dive deeper into earth sciences and went on a field trip to the local National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab in my hometown. I grew to appreciate the environment and nature more after that trip. When I arrived at Scripps, I grew interested in oceanography. I attribute most of this to the professors and the multitude of classes. Classes focused on physical oceanography and the polar regions always caught my attention. One of my favorite classes has been SIO 115: Ice and the Climate System taught by Scripps glaciologist Helen Fricker. Learning about how the ocean moves heat, nutrients, gases, and icebergs has kept me interested in the subject. Whenever I go to the beach or look outside, I think about the number of things I’ve learned at Scripps and how the relationship between science, pathways, and cycles is at play right before my eyes. 


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

DS: Life as a Scripps student is the best college life someone can experience. I usually start my day around 6 a.m. First, I grab an apple because I know I can stop by Pinpoint Cafe after class. Next, I take the bus down to Scripps, attend class at 9 a.m., another class at 10 a.m., and then study in the Eckart Building for a few hours before taking a lunch break to read a book or just sit by the ocean. Then, I attend another class in Vaughan Hall. I love walking through Vaughan Hall and seeing the full racks of surfboards outside the offices. After class, I head to Canyonview Aquatic Center on the main UC San Diego campus for my Club Swim practice. On days I don’t have practice, I would probably spend most of my time at Canyonview because I also work there as a lifeguard. After practice, my friends and I either spend a few hours in the Geisel Library or get a late dinner. Throughout the day, I choose to take the longer paths through Scripps or the main UC San Diego campus just to see the architecture or scenery. Getting the chance to study here and see the beach, campus, and pools is one in a million!


Dylan Shafer, Bailey Armos, and Tania Leung standing in front of CTD rosette, a particular CTD that runs profiles of the water column and collects discrete water samples. 

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

DS: My favorite part of studying oceanography is the opportunity to go out to sea. Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to live aboard R/V Roger Revelle working as a conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) watchstander. I was working with the U.S. Global Ocean Ship-based Hydrographic Investigations Program (US GO-SHIP) and Scripps. This route has been routinely sampled by similar cruises for about 30 years. 

Working on the Revelle was life-changing. This internship cemented the idea of being an oceanographer in my mind. I learned so much about the ocean, ship operations, and academia. I made lifelong friends who have been helping me through graduate school applications. The Revelle exposed me to the chemical and physical oceanographic operations used to study the ocean. I was amazed at the amount and sophistication of the lab equipment on the ship. The biology team constantly brought in jellies or coccolithophores, part of phytoplankton. Life at sea was tedious sometimes with the 12-hour shifts, but this didn’t diminish the experience. Our crew spent many hours together, which led to shenanigans such as ping pong tournaments, Pokemon Excel sheets, and weird self-timer photos. At Scripps, many of my professors talk about going to sea. They describe it as a science adventure, and I agree with them!


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

DS: My middle school earth science teacher, Ellen Debaker, took our class on a NOAA field trip. She first taught me about basic weather patterns and the principal forces at play in the earth system. Whenever I think about earth sciences, I think of her collection of hundreds of rocks. My second role model is from high school, Emily Haynes, who was my chemistry and physics teacher. Haynes laid the groundwork for my physics and chemistry knowledge. My dimensional analysis and math skills on which my major relies have a foundation from her.

My two role models from my time aboard R/V Roger Revelle are Matthew Varas and Sebastien Bigorre. Matt is a graduate student and was my roommate on the Revelle. We still chat about Pokemon, and he tells me all the little secrets about graduate school. Sebastien Bigorre was the co-chief scientist and helped me out with MATLAB, ping pong, and course planning. 

My last mentor is Matthew Mazloff at Scripps. He has advised me for about a year on my independent research and always makes sure to let me know about exciting opportunities at Scripps or in the field of oceanography. 


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

DS: One of the challenges I have faced as a student has been time management. Learning how to balance work, school, and life is a skill that students need to be successful. Another challenge is trying to stay positive about climate change and the environment. Many of my classmates and I often have an abundance of classes that focus on climate change and its impacts on the environment. This can make it difficult not to be disheartened about our studies or the small ways we are trying to help. To mitigate this, we find ourselves focusing on the goofy or fun aspects of ocean sciences. 


en: What are your plans post-Scripps? 

DS: After I graduate this spring, I hope to continue my research with Scripps as a BS/MS student. After that, I eventually plan on pursuing a PhD looking into physical oceanography, polar regions, and the Southern Ocean. 


You can find Dylan Shafer on Instagram @dlnshafer

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