Saturday, April 23, 2011

A "work" trip to Catalina Island: USC, Wrigley, C-DEBI, dark energy biosphere, Virgin Oceanic, Deep Five, & more

Panorama of Catalina Island

Well, the last few days have been completely eye opening for me. I have been on a little trip to the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center near the town of Two Harbors on Santa Catalina Island. Alas, this has not been a vacation. This has been work trip. I was invited a bit ago to come to a workshop here by Bill Nelson, a friend and colleague of mine I used to work with at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). Bill is part of a project called the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI). The workshop he invited me to was to discuss evolutionary studies as part of this project.

I note this is a general post about the trip - I will post more about the individual science topics including C-DEBI and Virgin Oceanic later.

As is usual, I did not fully commit to going to the workshop immediately and I dragged out committing for a very long time (driving Bill I am crazy I am sure).  But eventually I accepted and then kept flip-flopping on exactly when I would go, but eventually settled on dates too.

What is C-DEBI:

When Bill first invited me to this workshop, I had no clue what this C-DEBI project was.  And Bill must have assumed I knew because he did not provide any detail about what C-DEBI was.  So of course, that is what that Google thing is for.  And what I found was quite intriguing:

A simple description comes from their web site:
Welcome to the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI), a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Science and Technology Center on the deep biosphere. Our mission is to explore life beneath the seafloor and make transformative discoveries that advance science, benefit society, and inspire people of all ages and origins. We are a multi-institutional distributed center establishing the intellectual, educational, technological, cyber-infrastructural and collaborative framework needed for transformative experimental and exploratory research on the subseafloor biosphere.

This certainly intrigued me.  And the fact that the workshop was going to be at the George and MaryLou Boone Center for Science and Environmental Leadership (which is part of the USC Marine Station on Catalina Island) also appealed - I had visited the Marine Station on Catalina Island in the summer of 2009 for a week and it was very very very nice.

But the real final thing that convinced me to go was that the Director of the C-DEBI project is Katrina Edwards.  Not only does she do fascinating science, but, well, I kind of owed her (and Bill reminded me of this).  She gave my kids (and me) a spectacular tour of the Atlantis and the submersibles Jason and ALVIN when Atlantis was docked in San Francisco

Katrina Edwards telling us about the Atlantis

My family thinks the tour is awesome

Add caption

Katrina Edwards showing us ALVIN

So I kind of had to say yes. Rough I know - being forced to go to a meeting on Catalina Island because my kids had gotten a great submersible tour.

Heading to Catalina Island

So I finally got my act together and headed down to LAX from Sacramento.

I arrived in LAX and got a cab to the Catalina Island Ferry terminal. I picked up my ticket and alas, the deli there was closed and there was nowhere to get lunch. I wandered around a bit and took some pictures.

As a bit of a side story, a PhD student in my lab Russell Neches was visiting his mom in the LA area and he and his mom dropped by for a few minutes. Then Katrina and her daughter were dropped off by her husband Eric Webb (who does some interesting marine microbiology research himself).

After saying goodbyes, we boarded the ferry and headed out.  Katrina and I were both pleased (and surprised) to hear the announcement that we were going to Two Harbors first, rather than Avalon, so we would get there much earlier.

We headed out into San Pedro harbor, slowly, and I and everyone else took pics as we went by some of the sights.

It is always amazing to me to see the giant container ships and the massive size of San Pedro Harbor.

The pirate ship was a bit weird, but I guess it must be some sort of tour thing.

Then we got out into the more "open" water.  The seas were pretty small - but the ferry goes quite fast so it was bouncing up and down a little bit. Unlike on my last trip, when we say a few blue whales from the ferry, we did not see much animal life in the water.

We got the Catalina Island pretty quickly.  And it was looking gorgeous - much greener than the last time I was there. And we passed by the Marine Station - and headed to the dock (see the panoramic pictures I made using Adobe Photoshop's stitching function):

Some of the C-DEBI personnel picked us up in town and we headed up/down the dirt road in the USC Van to the marine station.  We got there and I found out I was in the same townhouse/apartment I had stayed in in 2009.  Nice.  After dumping my stuff there was a reception in the Boone Center.  I got to meet the rest of the people there for the meeting - it was a small collection of folks.  We had some wine and cheese and other goodies, enjoyed the view of the lab and the water and then headed over to the dining hall for dinner.

After dinner we went back to the Boone Center and spent the night telling stories and getting to know each other and the Woolly Bear caterpillars wandering around everywhere.

Katrina Edwards and wooly bear

Katrina Edwards

I went to sleep and got up semi-early the next AM.  I made myself some coffee and headed to breakfast.  Then down to the lab for a full day of meetings and discussion. But first I took a look around and took a few pictures:

This was when I finally got a better introduction to the whole point of the meeting.  The point of the meeting was that Bill Nelson was tasked with organizing a "theme" for the C-DEBI project on evolution.  In essence, our meeting was to discuss what interesting evolution-related questions could be asked/answered as part of the C-DEBI project.

The people there were Bill Nelson, Katrina Edwards, me, John Heidelberg, Jennifer Biddle, Jason Sylvan, Bill Brazelton, Ben Tully, and Craig Moyer.

Basically, just as the meeting started we all headed down to the dock to welcome the arrival of some other folks from the mainland.  The new arrivals were Ann Close and two members of the Virgin Oceanic Project - Chris Welsh and Loretta Whitesides.   This project was announced very recently and is a project to explore the five deepest sites in each major ocean in a one person submersible.  The pilot of the submersible will be Chris Welsh.  The project is being supported in part by Sir Richard Branson and thus the "Virgin" connection.   The sub is being designed by Graham Hawkes a well known ROV designer.  More on this in a bit. I note I had written about this in my blog a few days ago --- not knowing I would soon be meeting some of the people involved.

We then headed back to the meeting room (the library) and got going.  We did mini introductions.  At the suggestion of Chris Welsh, everyone in addition to saying who they were also said who their hero was.  Among the people listed were relatives of participants, Charles Lindberg, Yoda, Charles Darwin, superheroes, and oceanographers.   We then got a more detailed introduction to the C-DEBI project and also got a very brief introduction to the Virgin Oceanic Deep-Five project (more on this below).

We then had a mini coffee break and I somehow handed over digital SLR my camera to Katrina's daughter.  She then took it and generated quite a collection of good pictures of the people at the meeting.

Jonathan Eisen
Bill Nelson
Katrina Edwards
Loretta Whitesides
Jennifer Biddle
Jason Sylvan
Craig Moyer
Billy Brazelton

Chris Welsh
Ben Tully
John Heidelberg

We then had some additional discussions about evolution and the C-DEBI project.  I learned, for example, about a group of bacteria I alas had not heard of before - the Zeta proteobacteria (see Moyer's PLoS One paper on them here).  This is a group that is particularly abundant in some C-DEBI related sites.  In particular they seem to do well in iron-oxidizing microbial mat communities.  Moyer presented some interesting data on biogeography of this group of bacteria.  I also learned some new things from the others at the meeting. And then we broke for lunch up the hill in the dining hall.

After lunch we hear much more detail on the Virgin Oceanic project.  It is completely fascinating, though a bit scary.  The plan is for Chris Welsh to pilot the submersible down into the deepest sites on each of the five main oceans.  Right now the submersible is still being finished.  We also learned about the sailboat that will be the mother ship for the submersible.  The boat seems quite fast and has some nice features but it will also be a bit tight on space.  I note Welsh mentioned they are still looking for crew for the boat so if you are interested ...

Their plan is to do some testing in a few months in various places and to then do the deep dives.  What was most interesting to me about the project is that the people involved really seem to be committed to doing interesting science.  Loretta Whitesides has a science background and seemed to have an excellent grasp of many of the scientific issues being discussed.  Welsh also seems to have a deep interest in the science.  The group also has some good people lined up that they are working with and are still looking for other ideas and collaborators to participate in the science.  It reminded me of some of the stories I have heard about the great explorer's doing science along the course of their voyages.

I briefly discussed a few things including the Genomic Encyclopedia of Bacteria and Archaea project I coordinate and our recent study of phylogenetically very novel sequences that we found in metagenomic data.  And then the Virgin crew had to take off:

Then back for some more meeting and discussion.  During the course of the day I learned about an enormous number of cruises and surveys and plans for drilling in various sites and how the C-DEBI folks study microbes beneath the sea floor.  I also learned that they have a lot of education and outreach activities and are looking for more.  I also learned that if you want to keep up to date on C-DEBI related activities and if you want to participate in some of their projects, they are very open.  A good way to keep up to date is to join their mailing list.  One can also learn a great deal by browsing their web site and some of the publications listed there.  Anyway - I am going to do a whole post just on C-DEBI later --- focusing here on the big picture parts of my trip.

After the discussions we went back to Boone House for another reception and then dinner.  After dinner we hung out in the Boone House again.  And then went to sleep (though there were rumors of some weird sightings in and around the housing complex that night.

The next morning I got up a bit late and missed breakfast but I grabbed some cereal from the dining hall, made some coffee and headed down the hill again. We had some discussions in the AM about the future plans for evolutionary studies associated with the C-DEBI project and then headed back up the hill for lunch. There was a little bit of time before lunch so I wandered around the hills and took a few pictures.

Then we had our last group lunch and many of the folks headed down to the USC boat to get back to the mainland.

I spend the next few hours doing a bit of work and also went to the beach to collect some shells for my kids.  You see, I did not have to get on the USC boat because I had snagged a ride on a helicopter back to the mainland.

The helicopter eventually arrived and Katrina gave me a ride down to the water in her golf cart (she had recently injured her leg and had a hard time walking around).

And we got in the chopper and were off.  Katrina's daughter and John and Karla Heidelberg's son enjoyed the ride quite a bit.  It was my first helicopter ride too - and it was quite fun.  The best part the pilot saw and then flew over a massive pod of dolphins.

And then we headed on into San Pedro (which freaked me out a bit as they had said we were going to Long Beach and I had to catch a plane).

John Heidelberg however had figured this out and met us there.  The chopper took off, Katrina and her daughter went to wait for her husband, and John gave me a ride to the airport and I got there in time for my flight home.

All pics from this trip are in the slideshow here.


  1. man, I really wish I could have made it to that workshop! next time...

  2. well, you should get them to do it again and to invite me ...

  3. This is NOT a blog post. This is a masterful piece of ART !!

    Brilliant work, Jon.

  4. Thanks Graham - I spent about five hours working on it yesterday ...

  5. Hi Jonathan,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Catalina Island to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you :)


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