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Gray Matter

Three brilliant minds in our own North County backyard


Scientist: Jeffrey Bada, distinguished research professor at Scripps at UCSD

His Focus: The geochemistry of amino acids and their origins, along with how amino acids change over time in living organisms and how this can be applied as an aging tool for animals in the wild.

His Research: Bada retired from teaching last year to actively pursue his research at Scripps. A world-leading scientist studying how life began on this planet, he inherited the lab material and research notebooks of Stanley Miller, a pioneer and well-known professor of chemistry who was one of the first to study how to make organic compounds on a young Earth. Using samples Miller had preserved from his original work, Bada reanalyzed his mentor’s classic experiments on the chemical origins of life, produced by sparking the gases representative of the Earth’s early atmosphere. Miller had found that several amino acids were produced — the compounds that form proteins in living organisms. When Bada’s team reanalyzed the old samples with modern tools, they discovered even more organic compounds that would have formed “the prebiotic soup” needed for life’s origin.

“We are continuing to investigate how compounds were formed on early Earth using samples that have been archived for more than 50 years,” he says.

Bada has also found an exciting biochemical application from his work with amino acids: “Certain amino acids exist in the body from birth. We looked at teeth, particularly the first molar, which is formed in the first few years of life and never changes again. Sure enough, some of the reactions we found in the geological environment also take place in teeth. In humans, you can see a certain progressive change as a function of age. This application can be used as an aging tool for animals in the wild when we don’t have any knowledge about how long they live,” he explains.

“A recent project involves a change in amino acid chemistry in tissues, used to understand the aging of whales. The papers we have published over the past few years show that Arctic bowhead whales can routinely live for hundreds of years. We had one large male we estimated to be more than 200 years old. This was a real eye-opener and an interesting application of this work.

“Amino acid chemistry takes me in a zillion different directions. That’s what makes it exciting.”

Learn More: Read Bada’s compelling book written with Christopher Wills, The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup (Perseus, 2000; Oxford, 2001).

Scientist: Heidi Dewar, National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Her Job: Dewar is responsible for collecting data on movements, behaviors and biology in support of sustainable management of basking sharks and swordfish.

Her Research: NOAA studies swordfish, the target species of one of the largest sustainable fisheries for highly migratory species in the West Coast. This fishery is currently heavily regulated to reduce bycatch (species that are not sold in the market and thrown back either dead or alive). Dewar and her team have been putting satellite tags on swordfish for 10 years to observe where they go, their dive patterns and how they use the water column, as this will help fisherman to predict where they can catch swordfish and how to avoid the most bycatch.

In regard to basking sharks, NOAA listed them as a “species of concern” in 2010. Thousands used to be spotted off the coast of California, but their populations have declined dramatically due to a combination of overfishing and irradiation. The effort to develop a recovery plan has been complicated by the lack of data on basking shark movements and their basic biology. As a start, the United States has teamed up with scientists in Mexico and Canada to collect data, and NOAA has also implemented a satellite tagging program. Last summer, they made the first tag ever on a basking shark in the Pacific.

How You Can Help: Eat local swordfish, which has a lower carbon and ecological footprint. If you spot a basking shark, please report it to ­swfsc.noaa.gov/­baskingshark.


Scientist: Douglas Alden, senior development engineer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD

His Focus: Oceanography, meteorology and climatology through the Hydraulics Laboratory Technology Application Group in the Integrative Oceanography Division

His Research: Alden’s joie de vivre is designing and applying modern engineering tools to advance scientific understanding of the world, particularly in regard to climate change. He has developed a number of different instruments, including tide gauges, wave recorders, weather stations and temperature loggers, all of which improve data collection systems. Through his work with Dr. Dan Cayan in the Climate, Atmospheric Sciences and Physical Oceanography Division at Scripps, Alden has been building a network of hydroclimate monitoring stations in the Sierra Mountains as part of research supported by the California Energy Commission and the California Department of Water Resources.

Concern over climate change and the adverse effects on the Sierra snowpack keeps scientists like Alden busy improving methods for measuring various parts of the water cycle in the Sierra, from what hits the ground in the form of rain and snow to how much is absorbed by the soil and the amount of runoff into the streams and rivers.

“Over the coming decades, climate change will reduce the amount of snow falling in the Sierra,” he says. “We are already seeing an earlier spring and resulting earlier snow melt. This will likely result in a reduced and more volatile water supply for the state, which can be hard to imagine given the wet winter we are having this year. Detecting and understanding climate change is founded upon a sustained set of observations, which requires us to take a long view. This will help us to plan for the impacts on our water supply and adapt alterations that climate change will impose on both wet and dry years.”

Local Activism: Alden, a member of the Solana Beach Clean and Green Committee, which promotes energy conservation and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, has been working to create a more pedestrian-friendly community.

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