It felt like Easter, that Sunday in April 2018. My friends and I woke up with the crack of dawn to go on a hunt on the northern California coast. An old lady welcomed us at the research station with a tray of freshly baked brownies and an equally warm smile. We were all excited to spend the day out and the brownies were great, but there was a bittersweet taste in our mouths. The colored little things that we’re scouting for around the beach in the Bodega Marine Reserve weren’t Easter eggs, but the infamous… microplastics.
If you’ve been paying attention to the news or if you follow Leo DiCaprio on Instagram, you’d know that there are thousands and thousands of tiny pieces of plastics – floating, buried, being eaten - everywhere. It’s in the beer you’re holding and on the remote tropical islands from your travel bucket list. Unfortunately, scientists still don’t know enough about the effects of microplastics across organisms and ecosystems.
That is why Susan suggested us to do this project, to check if microplastics are accumulating in intertidal organisms and their surroundings in a marine protected area. Susan, the lady with the brownies, but also Dr. Williams, one of the most renowned ecologists in the world. At the time, we were seven graduate students taking her Marine Ecology course at University of California, Davis.
When you ask a marine biologist to picture their ultimate superhero, the final product would be someone that goes beyond just publishing scientific papers and gets to action. It’s the scientist that uses their knowledge to protect and restore marine environments and to empower underprivileged communities. That’s Susan. She had the superpower of successfully communicating with non-experts, from young Indonesian students to policy-makers in California to create change. And I’m talking about real successful change, like when she was heard by the United States Congress and helped to pass legislation extending the northern boundary of California's Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, one of the most biologically productive regions in the world.
But a superhero doesn’t get to our hearts until we love them as people, human beings with emotions and wrinkles. And that’s also Susan. Somewhere in her herculean schedule to save the oceans, she found time to make pastries for graduate students doing a microplastic project. She found time to sit with us on the rocky shore to teach us how to read nature, in a Yoda-meets-Captain-Planet kind of way. “Smell this seaweed here.”, she would say before telling us what the heck that had to do with the sulfur cycle.
It was Susan’s last day of field work over a four-decade career, that Sunday in Bodega Bay. Two days later, a fatal car accident would make our hearts mourn deeply the end of our hero’s journey on Earth. In the trunk she was carrying a cooler filled with samples for a course called "Life in the Sea", which she developed to get non-science majors inspired to help protect the ocean.
There’s something real powerful, probably stemming from our roots as social and spiritually-aware animals, about learning from an elder. Maybe it has to do with how humans passed on their knowledge to the coming generations for thousands of years. Something so primal that made the little Cuban boy, Manolin, adore the old man that taught him how to fish regardless of how many times the fisherman came home with empty hands, in Hemingway’s novel.
“I remember everything from when we first went together.”, said the boy from the book to his hero. Susan was my mentor only for two months, but she quickly became my Santiago. In my feminist and academic version of the story - the Old Lady and the Sea, if you will - I also remember every detail from the talks we had about my dissertation, about women in science and environmental activism.
I hear this call for action in my head and it sounds like Susan. Now it feels like I need to somehow reciprocate the privilege to be taught by Susan’s example in the very last days of her amazing life. But who should be the receiver of my duty to continue my hero’s legacy? Is it people or the ocean itself? And more importantly… how? How should I honor her teachings? By publishing more papers? Organizing protests? Getting into outreach? I don’t know all the answers yet. But I have some ideas.
(to be continued)