How can you have a great career AND save the planet? Earth scientist Jesse Ausubel talks with Karina

We met with Dr. Jesse Ausubel to explore the possibilities that pursuing a career in marine biology holds for students. Enjoy!

How can you have a great career AND save the planet? Earth scientist Jesse Ausubel talks with Karina
"We can make tapes of a coral reef and using AI and so forth, figure out who's there."” – Jesse Ausubel

Professor Jesse Ausubel talks with student Karina Macosko about climate change, the positives of nuclear energy, and the problems with renewable energy. As an expert on the oceans, he looks into what opportunities exist for studying marine biology (and what it’s like to have a crustacean named after you). He offers advice to students on getting into a career in science and shares why it’s a prestigious and exciting opportunity.

See Dr. Ausubel’s Academic Influence profile

See additional leaders in Earth science in our article
Top Influential Earth Scientists Today

Karina Macosko’s Interview with Earth Scientist, Dr. Jesse Ausubel

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:15.0Preventing climate change

Karina Macosko: Hi, I’m Karina Macosko from AcademicInfluence.com and I’m here with Professor Ausubel from Rockefeller University. You study Human Environment, so I wanted to ask you... I’m pretty sure every person my age has heard about climate change and heard about what we need to do to prevent the world from going to this place that everybody talks about with climate change.

So I wanted to know what advice do you have for us young people in order to prevent the effects that everybody’s talking about with climate change?

Jesse Ausubel: I think there are three ways, major ways, to address climate change and the hard one is nuclear energy. People like to talk about solar and wind, but the fact of the matter is solar and wind are environmentally very destructive if we try to scale them up for seven, eight, nine, 10 billion people.

Renewables may be renewable, but they are not green. They are made out of cement and concrete and cadmium batteries, of course, are made out of lithium in dreadful mines that operate in Northern Argentina and Southern Bolivia and Northern Chile. Now there’s an effort to open a lithium mine in Nevada. We’ll see. You certainly could never open a lithium mine in Massachusetts or California.

So the problems of renewables are going to become very obvious over the next 10-20 years as people try to grow them. What does that mean? We can do something with renewables, but not a lot.

That means nuclear energy on the supply side, so can we make nuclear energy that’s acceptably safe and reliable for different cultures and societies? So the nuclear energy question is the number one question, I would say, climate.

The number two question is, how do we get from here to there? 85% of the energy on the planet is still generated by coal and oil and gas.

Coal is pretty awful stuff and I would say let’s just get rid of it as fast as possible. Oil has wonderful attributes. It’s compact and safe and doesn’t explode and all kinds of things, but also it has well-known problems.

Gas has some problems, but it has the fewest problems of the fossil fuels. So a big challenge for us is how can we burn methane, natural gas, as cleanly as possible for the next 30, 40, 50 years until we have alternatives?

And I think there are ways to do that with so-called zero emission power plants where we separate the one carbon atom from the four hydrogen atoms and bury the carbon again back where it came from.

The third way to deal with climate change, of course, is adaptation. I think the single most important thing may be to improve weather forecasts because finally all climate becomes weather whether it’s a hurricane or a tornado or a flood or a drought.

And if we really had good forecasts not just, let’s say, to five days that we have now for the weather, but if the weather forecasts really can get good out to 7, 8, 10, maybe 20 or 30 days, then the harmful consequences for agriculture, for water resources, for human health could be greatly reduced.

"There's a whole set of ways that we can make the society less demanding of energy."” – Jesse Ausubel

So I’d say, if you really wanna make a technical contribution to climate change as a scientist or engineer, I’d say... Or it could be a lawyer or an economist, I’d say, “Help make nuclear energy work. Help make the transitional decades of natural gas as clean and safe as possible and do the things that help adaptation, like better weather forecasts.” Of course water resources law, things like that are also very important, how cities are designed, obviously overall the efficiency of buildings. There’s a whole set of ways that we can make the society less demanding of energy.

0:04:29.0Getting a career in earth science

Karina: That is so interesting. And I know that there’s a lot of people my age who are really passionate about climate change and trying to reduce things like our carbon footprint…

So what advice would you give them if they really want to go into something in this field? I know you mentioned that you were one of the first people to really get a salary for doing things within climate change, so how do you think somebody my age could end up making a career out of this?

Jesse: You’re asking a question about jobs and employment. First I would say the scientific enterprise in the US and the rest of the world is large. Hundreds of billions of dollars around the world do go for research and monitoring in biomedical sciences and earth sciences, all the different fields of science, and science has something very powerful, prestige.

Now it has prestige because of the expert knowledge and the analytic tools that underlie it, but prestige gives people influence in society, influence that’s not proportionate, that’s in a good sense, much greater than what’s in your checking account.

So I’d say training in sciences and engineering is in fact a very good way if you want to have influence because people will listen to you if you have something to say. So I’d say first technical training, which is hard. My grandmother said, “You need sitzfleisch.” That’s flesh that can sit in a chair.

I like field work, I love going to the Arctic or to forests, but a lot of what the training and science is is about patience and waiting and learning things. But I’d say science offers a great base because you can be influential.

"…science has the advantage, the power of prestige."” – Jesse Ausubel

Then every field can contribute to a knowledge of nature. So you can be a forest... You can be a forester. Again, you can be an expert on coral reefs, you can be an expert on the physics of the atmosphere. So environment in that sense is a hybrid of all the fields, and that’s really true for social sciences as well, because again, you could study economics, law, and even in the humanities, of course, in relation to environment, much of the greatest art that’s ever been created is art about nature, much of the greatest poetry... There are amazing novels. So I don’t limit it to science, but science has the advantage, the power of prestige.

0:07:24.0Discoveries

Karina: Wow, that is so interesting. And you were talking about how you created this catalog of marine life and you develop... Or you discovered thousands of new species in the ocean.

How did you discover these? Was it actually going out and doing the field work, scuba diving to find these or how did you go about discovering all these new species?

Jesse: Sometimes, it’s just luck. Sometimes you may go somewhere looking for... Not looking for something new, but it’s there. But some time... But you can use knowledge to identify areas that have been less explored.

So for example, the deeper parts of coral reefs. People have scuba dived a lot, let’s say in the top 200 feet of a reef, but if you go deeper than that, there’s a lot still to be discovered. The very deep sea, of course, is still largely unexplored.

Then there are also a particular species groups, taxonomic groups that haven’t been looked at much. So the worms, for example, marine worms, a lot of people, of course, like to study birds, all the fishes, the ichthyologists or the... There are about 10,000 species of birds and probably 20,000 bird experts.

But if you ask about marine worms, there are tens of... There are probably tens of thousands of marine worms, but only maybe 10 people in the whole world who study them. So if you become a marine worm expert, you’ll probably discover hundreds of new forms of life. They’re extremely beautiful, by the way, amazing. They make a living in incredible ways. So you can bias your search in favor of success.

Karina: Well, that’s so funny. So basically, we all should go into marine worm discovery. [chuckle]

Jesse: But there are probably still 2000-4000 more marine fishes waiting to be discovered.

Karina: Wow.

Jesse: So the age of discovery is not over. My own family has a lobster named for it, some colleagues of mine discovered a new lobster near the Philippines in about 1000 meters, 3000 feet of water or so. And we were incredibly excited, my family were incredibly excited that our colleagues named it Ausubel’s mighty claw lobster and of course we made T-shirts and everything.

0:10:00.5Fieldwork and passive acoustics

Karina: That is so cool to have a lobster named after you. Well, and how do you go about counting all these fish or lobsters or whatever it is, ’cause I can imagine you don’t actually count them one by one.

Jesse: Well, field work, direct observational work, of course, in many ways, is the most important, most exciting part of our work, it may only be one week out of 52, because if you go out and listen and tape and photograph everything, you get a lot of data and then you need to go back to your lab or your office and analyze it.

But of course that going out into nature, whether it’s in a desert or the rain-forest or in the ocean is incredibly exciting. And science funding agencies as well as private individuals, wealthy individuals, do fund expeditions of that kind. And you go with all the tools you have.

So for example, I’m very excited now. I’m part of a group of people who are interested in using just what we hear, listening, passive acoustics. You listen to a coral reef... A lot of the animals on a coral reef make noise, for example, there are snapping shrimp which snap, there are croaker fish that croak. There are all kinds of different noises.

And now with artificial intelligence and signal processing that have been developed for other purposes, we can make tapes of a coral reef and using AI and so forth, figure out who’s there.

Similarly with genomics now and genetics, we can save DNA from sea water and all animals when they swim in sea water release DNA, whether you’re a turtle or a fish or a crab, and then we can match that against DNA that’s in databases.

So there are the traditional ways of scuba diving and using nets and trawls, which are still very valuable, but there are these, I’ll say 21st century methods, like the passive acoustics with artificial intelligence or the genomics, where we can go and learn a lot, and those are at the frontier of science, which makes it especially exciting.

Karina: Well, I’m so curious…

what does a coral reef sound like when you listen?

Jesse: Well, it sounds different by day and by night, and it sounds different, for example, during a storm, it may become much quieter. Also if there are noises of predators or of a vessel nearby, it may quiet down, but you get... Different animals make sounds at different frequencies.

So some animals are quite high-pitched and some animals have deeper voices, so to say. Whales for example, the large cetaceans, whales and seals, so forth, are famous for having deep voices, and those deep low frequencies travel long distances, which is why whales can find each other in the ocean when they are hundreds or even thousands of kilometers apart, whereas high frequencies don’t travel very far. But if you’re just trying to reach... If you’re one shrimp and you’re just trying to reach another shrimp that’s very nearby, that may be fine.

So you’ll get a distribution of noises through the frequency spectrum and through the volume spectrum. Again, there are some animals that are quite loud. Another amazing thing is that when the background noise rises as used to happen before COVID when you were in a restaurant, then you speak louder, and that’s called the Lombard effect.

And animals, some animals do the same thing. So if the background is pretty quiet, they’ll, so to say, be pretty quiet in communicating with one another, but if it gets noisy because of a lot of activity or because a jet ski goes by, they’ll start shouting. So there are all kinds of things you can learn from the passive acoustics of just listening.

0:14:13.3Sign off

Karina: That is amazing. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I learned so much about marine life and just, yeah, the environment in general. So thank you so much.

Jesse: Thank you, Karina. Good luck to you.

Karina: Thank you.