Jennifer Smith, Marine Ecologist, La Jolla
When marine ecologist Jennifer Smith was a child, she loved swimming so much her family had to pull her out of the water kicking and screaming. Years later when she discovered scuba diving, she realized she wanted to spend her life exploring the ocean’s depths, so she turned to a career in marine science.
Smith has performed extensive research on coral reef ecology and human impact on marine communities. She is on the ecological team of the 100 Island Challenge, a research initiative that composites and examines 3D renderings of coral reefs around the world. This initiative took her as far as the Palmyra Atoll, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. It is considered one of the most pristine tropical marine environments in the world.
“One of the first times I jumped in the water (there) I almost cried. I couldn’t believe there were still ecosystems that looked the way those looked. It was like being on another planet,” Smith says. “It was a humbling experience to realize that’s what coral reefs looked like 5,000 years ago.”
Today, Smith has pivoted her research to a species of red algae seaweed called Asparagopsis taxiformis, which is different from what causes Red Tides. She’s growing the seaweed in a series of bubbling flasks inside her laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Previous studies have revealed that this type of seaweed can significantly reduce methane emissions produced by bovine burps when the seaweed is fed to cattle. Part of the challenge is to figure out how to scale the algae’s growth, so enough could be produced to feed even just California’s cows.
Smith says the ocean contains great potential to heal the planet if we figure out how to work with it.
“The ocean is an incredibly wonderful large body with many different species that are all important to humans in different ways,” Smith says. “I feel like those of us studying the ocean have a responsibility to make sure it’s protected for future generations.”