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EPISODE 009: Kaitlin Baird on jumping into the deep end

“A lot of it is just loving what you do, being comfortable with failing, and just practicing a lot. That’s how I got from New Jersey to being here in Bermuda.”

Our next episode goes to Kaitlin Baird, a science educator who works at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. She directs science curriculum development, programming and workshops for the renowned BIOS Ocean Academy.

Listen to what Kaitlin had to say about jumping into the deep end, how fascinating the ocean is, and the ecological mysteries that have stumped the world’s best scientists, even today. Subscribe on iTune

: I had finished my masters working with, doing an MA in Conservation Biology at Columbia. That’s how I got caught up in SEE-U and they asked me to help being a teaching assistant for SEE-U. I did that for two years. I went back, I think you were in my second year. I’m not sure actually if it was during my first year and second year, but I did a two years stint in Brazil and I found out that I really love teaching the skills of ecology more so than actually going out and being an ecologist myself. Though I still do a lot of ecology, I just concentrate more now on teaching it.

Actually, as I was flying home from Brazil, I had found out two days before that that I’ve been asked to come back here to Bermuda to just help teach a field course in coral reef ecology and as I was flying from Brazil to New York, I woke up flying over Bermuda, and I had to give my final decision when I landed, “do I want to move to Bermuda for three months?”

I woke up, it was 10:00 at night and Bermuda was completely illuminated, and I was like, “Alright, I think this is meant to be.” I’m meant to go back for the three months.

I did, I came in 2009 and helped teach that field course, which is more of a scuba diving based field course. Taking what we were doing in Brazil and applying some of those techniques really to looking at coral reefs, and seagrass beds, and mangroves. That’s what I did for three months and it just so happened that one of the young ladies that was working here, she was moving to Australia and they needed someone to replace her temporarily. I said “I will!” and so I replaced her in February of 2010 and that was a program assistant for lots of our, both our international education programs, but a lot of our local school programs as well here in Bermuda.

I’ve been working on those pretty much for the last five and a half years in various aspects. Today, I was doing budgets. So I was like, “Oh gosh Kaitlin, you got to push out the budgets and not because this is no a time doing, it’s about inspiration and why you love what you do!” and I do love what I do. It just happens to be budget season at the moment.

I’ve gone from all aspects of teaching every single course, every single group that comes in. Now, I still do lots of teaching, but I probably do 50% management of the programs and 50% actual teaching, in the water instruction.

Right now, my title is Assistant Director of Science Education Programs, but that’s just a fancy way of saying that I work with both international partners as well as our local program, which is called Ocean Academy.

We’ve gone through a rebranding to amalgamate all the programs we had under this academy that has graduated steps that will get you through to university, if you were inspired to be in a career that you would work in a science institution, either as a researcher, a boat driver, a scuba diver, you name it, that there’s a pathway to the kind of training you’ll need.

That’s where I’m at now is I’m more on the fundraising side of maintaining our relationships and making sure that we can bring in the money to keep all of our scholars and all of our students progressing through ocean academy, which pretty much ends at around 25 at the oldest that we’ll have a student at the academy.

That’s where I’m at, at the moment.

Jenna: Going back to the beginning, why was ecology something that was fascinating to you from the get-go, why did you study it and what makes it interesting now in your role as an educator?

Kaitlin: For me, teaching the Summer Ecosystem Experience for Undergraduates at Columbia was an amazing experience for me, because I didn’t have a lot of time teaching non-science majors. In my time at Columbia and even my undergraduate career, a lot of the teaching/ being an assistant I had done was with all with science majors.

I had never had that introduction to having students who might have had high school biology and chemistry, but you know they’ve gone on and they’re experts in other things, and putting them outside of their comfort zone pretty much. And taking something that you are very comfortable with, and those topics that you were comfortable with, and forcing people to go out and suck up insects, and look at diversity in the forests.

I think ecology for me because there’s so many aspects of ecology in terms of, you know you’ve got the habitat, you got the organisms that live in the habitat, but how are they linked? It infiltrates all other subjects I feel, almost like as a heart to understanding lots of different things like go on in the interconnectedness and the sustainability of an ecosystem based on its small individual parts, and I carried that through coming here to Bermuda and just changing environments.

Instead of ecology in the forest, it was ecology on the coral reef. And so I was able to take pretty much the same concepts and even some of the same modules and just use them, here in Bermuda.

I think ecology is a very transferable skill. Even the same problems that you find with political… political ecology on the island with protection is very similar to that in Brazil, it’s just different cultures, fighting about different things.

Jenna: What does the study of ecology give us? Why is it important for this program to continue, for students to continue studying it? What does it give to the field as a whole? If you were explaining what ecology is to someone and had no idea what it was, what is it?

Kaitlin: Good question. I think the key to ecology really is that there’s no real answer.

I don’t know, it’s probably not the best definition of it. There is so many things that affect why a single organism is where it is.

It can be the amount of rain, the temperature, what time of the year it is, is its prey source there? We try to put all of these things into these mathematical models to predict as best we can is there going to be a decline in this species or an increase in another, but I think when you come down to all these mathematical algorithms, everything is so interconnected, that you can’t leave anything out.

Although you try to put everything to a model, you got to tease out these bits and pieces of what is connected to what and just look at, okay well what influences it the most, and can we get an answer?

There’s never going to be to be a hundred percent correct answer. And I think that’s what’s really interesting about ecology, it’s trying to explain almost the inexplainable of nature.

I think that, that is a challenge. Because we’ll never quite probably attain the perfect answer, but it gives us a big perspective of how connected things actually are.

That’s the definition I could think of ecology.

In terms of teaching it to students, I think what it allows us to do is to give them skills.

The skills are transferable from ecosystem to ecosystem, and the mathematics that they need to be able to figure things out, they can transfer across all different fields.

I feel that’s been helpful too, because when these students are asking me for letters or reference for jobs and things like that …

One of the jobs they’re asking, “please tell me the skills that these students have,” and I think field ecology equips them with skills, because they know that they, these students, have been thrown in the deep end at some point and had to figure and work through these procedures themselves. I think it gives them the transferable skills for whatever career they end up having.

Jenna: Literally in the deep end right?

Kaitlin: Yeah, yeah… sometimes in big eucalyptus plantations. [Laughs]

Jenna: Awesome.

You’re studying the environment, and you’re helping teach students methods and ways of understanding that environment so they can take that information, and run with it, and hopefully make great contributions to the scientific community and to our understanding of our planet.

From your experiences in the field, in the mangroves, and the coral reefs, have you seen any direct evidence of the impact that humans have in the environment, and how do you consider that in your work when you’re setting all these different species?

Kaitlin: Absolutely.

When we take the students out for different field projects, a lot of what the teachers want us to show is “can you show the students bleaching, can you show them coral bleaching?” which is a process by which the coral expels its symbiont, which is an algae inside their tissue, and the actual coral starts to go paler and paler.

Certain years, depending on the temperature and how calm it’s been, we’ll start to see towards the end of August, sometimes we’ll start to see these minor bleaching events where our corals are slowly getting a little bit paler and paler, due to the loss of these zooxanthellae.

We’re definitely seeing coral bleaching. We saw a small bit of it this year and we’ve seen it in the other past years in much more severity.

And that is a sign. We know that the temperatures are increasing.

Here at BIOS, we have the longest-term hydrographic ocean time-series, called the Bermuda Atlantic Time-Series, in the world.

It shows a steady increase in temperature. It shows a decrease in pH, which that decrease in pH makes carbonate less available and that carbonate is what combines with calcium to precipitate out these great big, enormous skeletons that make up the coral reef.

And so, we know that these things are happening.

I think with the ocean though, it’s on such a slow time scale that I can’t show you tomorrow that things are really bad, but I can show you over a hundred years how things are changing, and how humans are impacting the ocean environments.

We even see small changes in different diversity of species that weren’t seen before that are seen now, because they’re able to withstand temperature ranges and things like that.

We’re seeing huge amounts of invasive species here in Bermuda. Our biggest and probably the most threatening is the lionfish. It’s an indo-pacific species that was thought to have been released off the coast of Florida in the early 80’s.

It probably was in an aquarium, or they say about nine individuals were released from an aquarium, and have invaded as far north as Rhode Island and now as far south as Brazil, and now all through the Gulf of Mexico.

That is definitely a human impact story that we always talk about with the students.

We’ve just had a big storm, Hurricane Joaquin came through last weekend. And it brought with it the most amount of marine debris I think I’ve ever seen, microplastics, really tiny plastics just floating into the beaches.

We’ve always had… We have a Bermuda marine debris task force here on the island. Multiple organizations, monitoring different beaches around the island looking at all kinds of marine debris.

But I had never seen an event with this much plastic in one place.

It was like a soup and I had never seen that before. I took some video of it.

In terms of human impacts, even in my time here in Bermuda, which from the time I was a student in Bermuda to the time I am at now is probably 11 years, back and forth to Bermuda, I’ve definitely seen an impact of humans in terms of invasive species, and marine debris, and over much larger time scales, temperature, and pH.

Jenna: Wow.

Kaitlin: Hopefully, that answers your question.

Jenna: It does.

Kaitlin: But I want this to be inspirational. [Laughs] Maybe I should tell you about how we’re making a difference with those things.

Jenna: Well, how are you?

Kaitlin: In terms of some of the major human impact stories, here in Bermuda, we have a Lionfish Culling Program.

Any local resident over the age of 16 can spear lionfish. We have a campaign called ‘Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em’. They’re a really nice, white flaky fish. A lot of people get turned off by their venomous spines, understandable, but their spines can be cut off and you can fillet it up just like any other fish. So we do have an ‘Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em’ campaign to try to get locals out water snorkeling, looking for them, spearing them and helping us to keep their populations down.

We have larger campaigns to try to create a fishery for them.The demand is there, how do we meet that supply, how do we have a trap that’s specific for lionfish that tries to exclude as much by catch as humanly possible and try to get them to the point where they’re the caviar of Bermuda instead of what they are…

At the moment, they’re fetching a pretty high price tag, but they’re still considered, not a trash fish, but they’re not a delicacy yet, but we could make it that way.

In terms of marine debris, we have sites set up throughout the island on the beaches and with the different groups, both our international groups here at BIOS, as well as the local students, we’ll do 25×2 meter transects on the beach and each of us has adopted a different beach.

BIOS has two beaches. We’ll take the kids out to survey this area every time we go out and weigh all the plastics that we find in a 25×2 meter quadrat.

That helps us look at long-term trends of marine debris in these different beaches all the time.

It’s a good learning experience for them. A lot of them learn about plastics photodegrade, they don’t biodegrade. It takes a long time for them to leave the marine environments.

How much of it is out there? How tiny are these little particles? What are the dangers of having these particles in the ocean?

It provides a natural reference point for us to talk about human impact.

Jenna: What are some projects that are currently happening within the community of people that are studying ecology? Are there any interesting projects, or efforts that are happening apart from the ones that you just mentioned that are answering some questions that we really need to answer about the planet, and the biosphere, and how it works?

Kaitlin: That is a great question.

Two of our labs here at BIOS, they actually been focusing on the mesophotic reef, so these deeper reefs of Bermuda that have been thought for some time to be a refugia for species, that these corals and these fish would spawn and then they move onto shallower reefs.

Not if we want destroy, but if shallower reefs were destroyed, could be these deeper reefs could be a refugia to reseed these shallow reefs?

We have two labs here at the moment, actually focusing on the ecology of these environments, because not a lot is known about them because it’s past the recreational diving limit for a scuba diver.

You either have to be a specialized diver, so you have to be down on a rebreather for a short amounts of time. You have to really have this special, technical diving qualification and we have one scientist here at BIOS, that’s Dr. Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley and she has been going down on a rebreather with her team, looking at the ecology of these deep reefs.

Then we have another scientist here, his name is Tim Noyes, and he’s been sending baited cameras down. These baited cameras go down for an hour at a time, and then he uses a GIS based program, it’s called CGIS and it allows him to look at the fish per frame.

What we’re seeing is there is completely different fish assemblages at these deep reefs and in making an argument for their protection, and their possible source of refugia for these shallow reefs.

We need to know what’s there before we can say whether or not it’s lost.

Those are just two ecology projects going on at the moment that are focusing on these deep reefs here.

Jenna: That’s so cool.

Kaitlin: You will see really cool things like eels… A lot of things, if you were a diver you would scare off. Eel swimming past sharks that we wouldn’t normally get on camera, fish that we’ve never seen before here. We don’t tend to get sharks close to shore. It’s rare to sight a shark on our in-shore reefs, but we are seeing them on the cameras in deeper reefs.

So they are there.

Cool stuff on the videos, and diving-wise…

Jenna: For baited cameras, does that mean that you put fish food on the camera so that the fish swim by? What does that mean?

Kaitlin: It’s a steel frame. It has a flexible hose, that you put your wiring in and your house. It bounces a little bit up and down and it’s got a plastic mesh bait bag and you stuff it with our local bait food, which is pilchards, it’s a fish here. And you attach it to the ends. So it’s flexible, so the octopi… We have one where the octopus is trying to walk off with the bait back across the field of view. [Laughs] … So that it can move as the fish come in and nibble at it.

The idea isn’t necessarily that we’re feeding the fish to get them in the frame, but that we’re trying to create a party or some sort of commotion in front of the camera that brings lots of other individuals in, so they can swim up and be counted.

So that we can say, “Okay, we census-ed you, we know that you’re there,” and then the program says, the computer program says, “I don’t want to count the same fish twice.”It just looks for the maximum number of fish per frame, and that allows us to get an idea of the populations that are there in these different locations.

They’re getting some really interesting results, both from the diver led surveys and the cameras.

Jenna:  Cool stuff. Um… so you grew up in New Jersey right?

Kaitlin: Yes.

Jenna: So how does someone that grew up in New Jersey found herself a marine… You have this focus on marine ecology right?

Kaitlin: Yes.

Jenna: So how did that happen? [Laughs]

Kaitlin: Good question.

I grew up in New Jersey. I grew up… my parents always took me to the Jersey Shore for the week in the summer or something like that.

And I loved the beach. I loved the ocean. I loved finding things and trying to keep them alive in the outdoor shower.

I was just fascinated by all things around the ocean, but I have to really give any credit to teachers.

I have a fantastic seventh grade science teacher who… I didn’t even know I was good at science. I didn’t think I was bad at science, but she really was like, “You’re really good at this. You should look into pursuing this.”

I was like, “Wow, really? I didn’t even know I was good at science!”

And then I had a fantastic set of biology teachers in my high school as well, and they definitely helped me to just develop, what it took to ask questions. And what you have to be able to do with a backup your questions, and try to, not prove them, but make a proper hypothesis and test it properly.

I have to really give them the credit, because I would not have been prepared for a degree in marine biology had it not been for them.

They helped me sort out where I was going to apply, and then my parents were always really supportive of me being their earthy daughter and just saying, “Okay. We’re not sure if this is a career, because nobody in our family has ever done this before,” but I was the oldest and they were like “okay, you’re just going to go for it.”

When I got to Roger Williams University, which is where I did my undergrad, it was some of the first times I was learning about marine biology.

I had read a lot about it. I read Rachel Carson and Sylvia Earle, but I had never done it myself.

And so it was under pressure, under fire or whatever, there’s a phrase for that. I forget what it is, and kind of thrown into the deep end.

Like when I first started… Now, when I really help teach scuba diving. I was so crap when I… I was so bad when I first started scuba diving. I was really not good and to think that I now helping instruct scuba diving, not as a PADI instructor, but as a support instructor, and I can’t believe it.

A lot of that is just loving what you do, being comfortable with failing, and just practicing a lot.

That’s how I got from New Jersey to being here in Bermuda.

Jenna: What were some of your first experiences in these marine-rich environments, studying these new species? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kaitlin: Sure.

So some of my first experiences actually were towards the end of my undergraduate career.

I started working for an organization called Save the Bay. It was in Narragansett Bay, which is Rhode Island, but they have projects all over the US. I started working with them on salt marsh restoration and eel grass restoration in Rhode Island. That was some of my first experiences other than school… In university, just getting in and working on these ecology based projects, and having to wear waiters, and get stuck in the mud and try to figure out and collect usable data.

The second summer, I was working with birds and I was out on Block Island working for an organization… Oceanview Foundation.

We were doing a bird banding project up on Block Island. I started learning about those types of ecological questions, and how banding works, how you set up the mist nets to catch the birds, and what birds you’re going to see at different times of year and that sort of thing.

And then my final year really I got a lot of my experience, what I needed for my masters work and that was working with Dr. Dale Leavitt at Roger Williams, helping to engineer these aquaculture facilities for oysters, for quahogs…

I spent a lot of that summer working on these different designs for these aquaculture facilities, which helped me enormously with my masters thesis project.

What’s interesting is although I had amazing teachers at Roger Williams, a lot of my ecology-based practice came from internships over the summer. I wasn’t afraid to work for free or at least… I was able to try to supplement it with waitressing or something like that, so that I can get these kinds of experiences.

A lot of what I learned was on the ground, sometimes the first time ever doing something like that before.

Jenna: So cool. What was your graduate thesis?

Kaitlin: I worked in College Point, Queens on an oyster restoration project.

I was working with Dr. James Cervino and he was helping to install these solar powered oyster reefs that were taking advantage of these old dock pilings in New York City that couldn’t be removed because of the creasil that they have been soaked in.

What they were trying to do is make those usable space, because there’s all these old dock pilings with no dock anymore and just these big pillars. And so what they were trying to do is build these oyster reefs around the pillars in College Point, and attach oysters.

What they did was they attached a cork to it, and they ran a low voltage electric current through it with the idea that they could increase the growth of the oysters by giving them the ability to precipitate calcium carbonate faster.

They use calcite to make their shells, and the idea was that it might give them some disease resistance as well.

In my time doing my research, I only had one growing season, and so I didn’t see a difference in my particular experiment, but from what I can understand, they’ve been doing the project for the last several years, attaching more and more oysters to these metal rebar structures in college point, and they’ve got themselves a little oyster reef going in there.

The idea was habitat creation. The Department of Environmental Conservation was really interested in “how do we create habitat in New York City for the species of interest,” that they would like to conserve or that are on the rebound.

Jenna: Awesome.

During your day-to-day in either in Bermuda, or when you come back home and you check up back on these projects, what are some moments where you were just like “Okay. What I do is really cool.”

Kaitlin: [Laughs] I have quite a lot of those.

And they’re really varied, but I think some of my favorite things are really when we get these students, either local students or students that have come for a week from Vermont, or Massachusetts, since we’ve got students from all up and down the East Coast and all of our local kids as well, is that…

If they’ve never put their face in the water, and put on a mask and snorkel, it’s actually showing them the reef and showing them what actually lives there, and talking about some of the cool adaptations of the critters that live there.

I think my most rewarding moments are the kids who are petrified.

They’re just absolutely petrified to swim, petrified to get in the water, petrified to…

I think over the last six years, I’ve just come up with these strategies to, not trick them into getting in, but just figure out ways that I could just get them in for just a minute, just so that they can see. And slowly move them away towards from the boat, with me of course so they can see it a little bit better…

I think going from that process, to watching them swim off on their own… I think that is always my eureka moment, where I’m like this is really cool. I feel like I’ve made a connection between this person, who never knew what the ocean was to them, to showing them what’s in their backyard.

For me, that’s probably the most rewarding part of my job. And the fact that I get to do it is, sometimes three or four times a month is… probably even more, in the summer time, I’m doing it five days a week.

For me, that’s probably the best part of my job.

Jenna: Cool.

And you get to be in these beautiful environments with all these nice beaches too.

Kaitlin: No, definitely Bermuda is not a bad place to work. It is picturesque, and it is beautiful, and there are so many different things…

You go out one day and it can be different.

The fish that you’re finding might not all be different, but you’ll find the fish that you might have never seen before.

I like the idea that it can always be different.

Jenna: For someone that’s living in a land locked area, not even remotely close to any ocean, why is it important to understand what that looks like, and what can we learn in general broad strokes from the ocean, and these marine environments about our own environment?

Kaitlin: That is a great question.

I have had that question before form some groups that have come and visit.

I said, “What if you only took every other breath that you take, and you didn’t take the second one?”

They’re like, “What are you talking about Kaitlin?”

I would just say, “Well, every other breath you take comes from the ocean.”

They’re like, “Wow, I don’t really know what you are talking about.”

“Well, just like we have plants on land, we have plants in the ocean and they contribute a huge amount of oxygen to our environment, almost 50%.”

You are inextricably linked to the ocean.

You might not know it, but for a majority of cultures, their main protein source is coral reefs. Their main protein source is the ocean. Without that, they don’t have life, and without the ocean, we don’t have life.

Because it’s not just the oxygen, it’s a huge…

Everything is completely linked.

The carbon dioxide that goes in the atmosphere, it is absorbed by the ocean. It might not be able to be absorbed by the ocean forever, but it is in a complete equilibrium.

It is nature’s equilibrium.

They created it. Nature, it’s been created.

I just try to impart that everything that you do, you are somehow linked to the ocean.

Even if you feel severely removed from it, it is a huge part of your life.

I think the big push in the US, and it’s trying to expand globally, is this idea of becoming an ocean-literate citizen.

These ocean literacy principles have been developed by a big consortium saying “Listen, we need our students in the US and internationally to know that they’re linked to the ocean. How are they linked to the ocean? How can they use the ocean to inspire them?”

Here in Bermuda, we haven’t quite adopted the ocean literacy principles, but I’m trying to continue to push for in Ocean Academy.

Our goal is that every student that comes through our programs, they become an ocean-literate individual. What does that mean? Okay, they know that the ocean is a big place. They know it has a distinct chemistry. They know that it’s largely unexplored.

How do scientists explore it? And go through that the ocean makes earth habitable, and go through all of these principles, one by one, so that by the time they leave us at 22, that they at least have this background knowledge that no matter where they go, and they end up living in a land-locked area, that they are still inextricably linked to the ocean.

Jenna: So cool. You’re making me really want to go to a beach right now. [Laughs]

Looking at your research and looking at the research of those around you over at BIOS, it seems like you are in such a perfect place to see what’s happening within the community.

What are some, either projects that are in the tune of habitat reconstruction… Or what are some forward-thinking initiatives or things that are happening related to the kind of ocean literacy that you’re talking about beforehand?

Are there any new projects coming out? Are there things that are really good for the community, pushing against climate change, pushing forward, anything that makes you excited?

Kaitlin: It’s a great question, I have to think about it for a second.

You mean specifically here in Bermuda?

Jenna:  In Bermuda or in general.

For instance, the oyster restoration project, I think that’s a really interesting project because you’re taking something that happened, and you kind of readapting it back to the environment.

I’m sure that we’re going to be seeing more and more of those types of projects going forward where we are making use of an old dock or making use of some land that originally had a different purpose, or rebuilding coral reefs and after some big tsunami, putting in, starting coral reefs again.

I’m sure there are a lot of projects that you see from where you sit that are pushing us forward, and away from this destruction towards a healthier environment.

Kaitlin: I can think of a good example.

It’s not quite at a point, because it’s still a hotly debated project at the moment.

One of the things that has been happening here in Bermuda is, we’ve had a movement towards these really large cruise ships, which has happened all throughout the Caribbean… We’re not a Caribbean island, but all throughout these tourist destinations.

Bermuda is feeling the pressure as well because a lot of our ports, that we used to have cruise ships in, the cruise ships can’t get in now because they’re too big.

There has been these proposals for these large scale dredging projects to allow for these cruise ships to come into St. George’s, which is in the east end where I am.

A beautiful, small United Nations, man-in-the-biosphere reserve, old time little cobblestone streets, and it’s extremely charming, and it would be lovely for tourists to be able to make it there in an easier fashion.

But I think what I’ve seen, is citizens being really knowledgeable about the environmental impact of having those cruise ships there, and talking to a lot of the community members, although they know the tourism dollars would be amazing for St. George’s, a lot of them are very critical in opposing the dredging project, which I think is amazing.

The actual proposal involves actually removing two or three islands that are costal protection barriers in St. George’s harbor.

The idea is that they would man-make these islands a little bit further out to allow for the cruise ships to pass in, which I can tell by your quizzical eyebrows, that sounds like an awful idea.

There are people that are definitely for this idea, but I think seeing how knowledgeable the citizens are and that they go right for the fact that,

Why would you remove costal protection, natural costal protection from where it is right now, and try to create something man made?

Nature will always be better than what anyone could ever create.

We are moving towards any of these cruise ship damage sites that we are having, we had a ship run aground on one of our reefs, I think it was May, May or June of this year.

Right now, we had no legislature in place to go after a fine from these cruise ship companies to be able to help remediate the reef, but we do have the expertise on the island and we do have the skill to be able to remediate the reef, we just don’t have the money.

I think you’re seeing a movement of the political infrastructure as well, trying to create these avenues in which we have greater control as an overseas territory of the UK, to be able to protect the island in exactly the way that Bermuda decides that they would like to protect it.

Although I haven’t seen any exact remediation projects at the moment, what I see is people being really careful about what their decisions are about the environment, and also not fast to give up any control of their island to a bigger power.

In that way, it’s been really interesting to watch unfold.

Jenna: So… before, you were talking about jumping into the water and knowing that there are things that you don’t know and that you’re going to learn and that you’re going to get better.

What’s something that you’ve learned recently that was just really cool, or interesting to you, that you were happy to learn?

Kaitlin: Cool and interesting…

I’ve been learning more and more about these European eels.

I know this is going to be kind of random, but it does tie back to Bermuda, and it does tie back to here.

European eels, like American eels, they spend most of their time in fresh water and we know them well in our rivers, but they actually move into salt water to have their babies.

I figured I say that in a PC way, to have their babies.

Nobody actually knows where they go in the Sargasso Sea, which Bermuda is in the Sargasso Sea, where they go to have their babies.

It’s been this great mystery to try to figure out where these possible huge aggregations of European and American eels go.

It feels like an unsolved ecological mystery.

There’s been ships… There’s been a German ship that’s been in several times to Bermuda over the course of my time here, trying to do these big tows for plankton looking for baby eels, to try to get closer and closer to the point where they might be able to find the mama eels, and with no luck.

It seems like this great mystery and they started tagging some of the European eels and we have a new project here at BIOS in the last two years looking at autonomous underwater vehicles. They’re basically gliders.

They look like torpedoes, and they can make dives to a thousand meters. And they can be fitted with an acoustic, to basically retrieve the tag from the hydroacoustics, to be able to try to help track where these eels might be breeding.

I think it’s a really cool project.

Right now, they’re trying to tweak the buoyancy of the glider, because anytime you put something on the glider, you have to readjust its buoyancy so that it can get the right pitch and roll as it makes these dives.

Basically, it has a battery power to change its little bladder to make the dives down and then increase its volume to come up. And so they’re trying to work on different ways that they can mount the sensor so that they could be able to pick up the tags of these European and American eels.

I think it’s a really cool project and I’m just hoping that they find out where these eels breed before I leave Bermuda, [laughs] because I think it would be really cool to figure out what it is that they’re doing, and talking more to these German scientists, they just think it’s this big, great ecological mystery.

I think it’s great that there are so many ecological mysteries out there that you can investigate.

Jenna: What are some questions or ecological mysteries that you wish you could solve, and why is it important to solve those.

Kaitlin: That’s a great question… ah…

Jenna: You can solve anything. If you could, like a genie in the bottle and make three wishes of things that you wanted to know about the environment, what would it be?

Kaitlin: I could solve three great mysteries of ecology, what would they be? It’s a great question.

Let me think… I’m trying to look around my office to get inspiration, what I would solve if I was going to be a great ocean explorer?

Well… this is something that is always personally fascinated me. I’m not sure how important it is to the world at large, but we have a species, probably several species here of dinoflagellates, of plankton that bioluminesce, so they light up in these greens and blue colors at night.

So when you wave your hand through the water, they light up.

There’s a couple of theories as to why they do it, but nobody’s really been able to come up with “okay, why is it advantageous for you to light up as a small organism in the ocean? Why is light, because there’s so many ocean creatures that are capable of producing light. What is the purpose?”

I think the purpose is far beyond what our human eyes can see, because a lot of these marine organisms, they see in the ultraviolet spectrum.

What are the patterns that they’re actually seeing? If we could be them, what are we seeing? What are the other animals or other creatures sensing that we can’t as human sense?

I think for me, that’s always been an ecological mystery that when people ask me, I can give them the theories and some of the research that’s gone on with bioluminescence, but I can’t give them an exact reason of why these hundreds and thousands of organisms that we’re catching in the net are all lighting up at the same time, I don’t know.

If I was a genie in the bottle, that would probably be one of them, but it doesn’t have any… “makes human life better…”

We do have a scientist here at BIOS, she’s amazing, Dr. Andrea Bodnar. She actually looks at cancer in sea urchins. Sea urchins, they’re echinoderms. They’re related to things like sea stars and sea cucumbers. You’ve ever seen them? Known for their capabilities of regenerations. They lose an arm, they can regenerate one. They lose a spine, they can regenerate one, but there have been very little incidents of cancer.

Actually, there have been no incidents of cancer in sea urchins.

She looks at their cells and their babies and exposes them to these harmful agents to look at how the sea urchin is able to repair its DNA.

And I think she’s going to find some amazing things. It takes so long to do these types of DNA extractions and amplifications and in her career, she’s figured out so much about their ability to repair DNA damage sites that is a mutation that would copy and copy and become cancer.

I think if I could give her a time machine so that she could keep working for 25 to 30 years all in one year. That would be my genie in the bottle moment.

I don’t know, it might be very applicable. We share so many, so many genes with sea urchins, believe it or not, as humans, that I think it just has so many implications for understanding human biology and our resistance to cancer.

That’s more a dream one, but you did say genie in the bottle.

Dr. Bodnar has some amazing work. I know that everything takes a long time with genetics and molecular biology… So… I would give her an unlimited budget and be able to put 25 years of research into one year by creating 25 of her, [laughs] if I could.

Third one …

My third genie in the bottle for the ocean… I think my third genie in the bottle for the ocean is, I think politically, what we’ve done is we given countries too much control of the ocean.

I know this is going to probably sound a little weird, but from a political point of view, what we created is these exclusive economic zones that are 200 nautical miles around a given land mass.

So for Bermuda, we have exclusive rights to 200 nautical miles around our borders or around our land mass anyway that we basically police that ocean, it is linked to our overseas territory.

I think what we’ve done is we’ve made the ocean a political bargaining chip. What this has allowed to happen is for countries to not see it as one ocean, but they’re a part of their ocean and it’s made it like a puzzle piece. And it’s a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together, because species move and they move all the time and stocks of fish are always moving.

For me, from a political perspective, we need to shift the focus from thinking of our ocean to a global ocean.

I know that that’s not a new thought. I think the way we look at it and we labeled it politically as, “This oil is in my exclusive economic zone, these are my fishing boats and I’m only able to fish in these areas.”

It just as created a nightmare for people and for politicians as well as citizens to try to own the ocean. It’s not…

I don’t think it’s an ownable entity.

Figuring out a new way to refocus people’s attention on thinking of the ocean as one big moving body of water is a tall order, but it would be my genie in the bottle moment.

Jenna: Awesome, that’s so cool. It’s so true. Don’t get me started. I think it’s so true. You even run into the same problems with land too, which I’m sure you’re familiar with.

What would you love to work on in the future? Where would you like to go with your research, with your teaching? Is it still looking at these marine environments, maybe a new island somewhere else? What are some things that you would like to accomplish?

Kaitlin: What I felt was when I took a step away from being a researcher to really helping students do their research and starting to create these programs to allow students to look at science in different ways…

At the moment, we’re developing robotics, an underwater robotics program for our middle school students here. We’re just trying to diversify the different ways and different avenues that students can get into science, but I think my…

Although I might have not done it that well in this interview, my strength is communicating science, in exciting ways.

I think that it’s such an important career and I’m not just saying that because I’m in it, but there are parts of the chain that are missing in science. You got these really amazing researchers and some of them are brilliant at communicating their research and some of them don’t want to. That’s okay. Their job is to do their science, and that’s what they do.

Then there’s politicians and they need the best available knowledge for them to use to make decisions, and there’s a huge gray area of lots of really cool careers that sit in that niche between these two entities, to the global citizen that needs to know about the oceans, to the politicians that help make policy, to your Joe in the middle of Nebraska telling him about why the ocean is important.

There’s just a huge amount of opportunity in that gray area and I’d like to continue to find new ways to be better at being a communicator in that gray area.

I might not always be teaching students like I am now in a K-12 type of situation, but I’d like to continue to communicate science that it becomes usable and a wow factor, because I feel like I can take a science article that might look really boring, not boring but… it might look really intense in the vocabulary really intense, and make it a wow factor. People do it every day. Science journalists do that every day, but I think that there’s an opportunity for me to continue my career in that kind of gray area.

Jenna: Awesome. So I’m interviewing you from downtown, Brooklyn, New York. What are some things that people that, no matter where they are in the world, should start doing in order to help our oceans, besides being more educated about them? What are some tangible things that we could all do in a daily basis that would possibly impact what’s happening?

Kaitlin: I think the first… Being as marine debris has been a huge issue for us here in Bermuda, and it is a huge global issue… Like I said, ideally you would be more knowledgeable about the ocean, but I think that what I’ve learned at my time here is just to be more knowledgeable about your product, because you have the power to make your own consumer decisions.

In terms of water bottles, it’s just such a simple thing, but having one water bottle or even two water bottles that you use on a daily basis, and don’t choose to buy the disposable plastic water bottle…

I know that seems like a slightly small example, but you think about the amount that you would go through in a single week, and then a single month, and then a year.

It’s just like Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons and his classic paper about if I put one more lamb, one more sheep, out on the pasture on the common ground to feed, what if everybody did that?

It’s just the complete opposite. If everyone was a more knowledgeable consumer about what they did use and they just chose to use a water bottle, or chose to not ask for the plastic bag, because a lot of times…

I know New York City has been working really hard on this, but in terms of the plastic bag, people give them out without even knowing where they’ll end up and I know where they end up, because they end up on our beaches here… not from New York necessarily…

Sometimes, you do have to push it and you have to push past the thought that someone might think you’re a tree hugger, and thinking about it has some sort of negative connotation to it, when it doesn’t. You just decided to become a more knowledgeable consumer.

It’s just one thing, but if somebody else and you’re able to pass that on, just like your Instagram, is able to pass on an environment that you had never seen… Last week, I posted a picture of squid.

A couple of people said “I didn’t even know that even existed, that creature even existed.” If you pass that on at the supermarket, that you’re like, “No, I really don’t want that. Can you keep that bag? I really don’t want it.”

That has the chance to infiltrate someone else’s life and be like, “Well, I have the opportunity to become a more knowledgeable citizen,” and make small decisions that believe it or not, if you pass that on by the multiplicative factor to two other people in your lifetime, then you would have made a huge contribution not even knowing it. That would be my advice.

Just, if you’re not passionate, if you’re not knowledgeable about the ocean, and that’s not really your thing, there’s still so many different ways that you can contribute to science, just becoming a patron of science. Going to a science museum, that helps support other students who really do love science to continue on in that career or even encouraging your son, daughter, niece and nephew to be a scientist and no one in your family has ever been a scientist, you encourage them anyway.

You actually make a huge difference in that regard as well in terms of knowledge, future knowledge, and whatever they decide to study.


Thanks for listening to Notes on Doing Episode 009 with Kaitlin Baird.

Be sure to check out the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences website to learn more about their awesome projects, the Ocean Academy, and ways that you can support Kaitlin’s work and the research of her colleagues.

Subscribe to Notes on Doing now to get weekly episodes on iTunes.

Until next time! in the meantime always do.


Recommendations from Kaitlin

• The Secret Life of Plankton, TED Talk, Tierney Thys

“I absolutely love that one. The talk’s all about plankton, what it is and why it’s important and what these crazy critters look like. They done an absolutely amazing job, getting the cinematography, because they’re such small, microscopic creatures, but they have such a huge global impact, when they support marine food webs which support human life. I think that’s an amazing one, because it starts on the bottom of the food chain.”

• All of Mark Kurlansky’s books

• Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg

“Looking at the history of why these four fish had become the most commercially sought after, not necessarily “sought after,” because they’re not the biggest financial reward for them, but why a lot of communities are dependent on these four fish. That’s a really good one.”


“A lot of times, I will refer my students to TED-Ed, because that’s a lot of science educators that have these really cool animations to explain different ecological topics. There are a couple of them that I love. One is on plate tectonics…

There’s another one on thermohaline circulation. Basically how water moves in the ocean, because a lot of people don’t really understand that H2O molecules in the arctic that are sinking, they won’t actually react with the atmosphere for a thousand years.

Basically, what’s happening now affects the climate a thousand years from now. This is all due to this global ocean conveyor belt that is basically dictated by the oceans layers of how cold they are or warm they are and how salty they are. There are a lot of other properties. That’s why they called it thermohaline circulation. It drives these deep water ocean currents. I think that if we think about seeing climate change, it will help to think about why does this happen over a long time scale?

Why are we not seeing this in short time scales that we can see and then say, “Hey, we know that climate change is happening?” These processes, just like geologic time, it’s really slow. I think looking at ocean circulation is a good way to start thinking about why these climate impacts we’re seen on long time scales.”