A series in which SGI members discuss their approach to their profession

Oceanographers: Taken by the Sea

Victor S. Kuwahara was born in Los Angeles, USA, and earned his doctorate in Biological Oceanography in 2000 at Soka University, Japan. He conducted postdoctoral research at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is currently an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Soka University.

Teruaki Yoshida was born in Penang, Malaysia, and earned his PhD in Marine Science in 2007 at the National University of Malaysia (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), where he currently teaches in the Faculty of Science and Technology.

What does the ocean mean to you?

Victor: The ocean is the single most important biome on our planet and regulates our global climate system and biogeochemical cycles. It also provides food, allows trade between cultures and has been an inspiration for artists throughout history. To me, the ocean is a vast horizon of mystery and inspiration; but at the same time, paradoxically, it presents itself as a powerful force of nature that can pummel human endeavors and take life with no remorse. On a day-to-day basis, the ocean is a scientifically motivated research endeavor and fruitful resource for education about physics, chemistry, biology and life.

Teruaki: To imagine that the diversity of Earth's life today originally derived from some single-celled organism from the ocean amazes me. The ocean remains a frontier of discovery and adventure even in this day and age. But when I go scuba diving, I simply relax and enjoy the beauty of Mother Nature.

What do you find most fascinating about your field?

Victor: The amazing thing about ocean science is how much we still don't understand about how the dynamic and interrelated aspects of the larger puzzle come together. As a researcher, I am continuously fascinated by the constant spatial and temporal variations of the sea--from micro to global scales both horizontally and vertically, and from milliseconds to hundreds, even thousands, of years. My current research is focused on how ultraviolet radiation from the sun affects coral reef ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles.

Teruaki: The Earth is 70 percent water, and yet we understand so little about it! Currently I am studying the zooplankton ecology in the tropical waters of Malaysia. Zooplankton form the basis of the marine food web as a resource for consumers on higher levels of the food chain including fish. Research in the tropics is still limited, and I am interested in finding out the important roles each organism plays in the big picture.

How does your perspective as a Buddhist influence your approach to your work?

Victor: Being a Buddhist doesn't really change my "approach" to work. Science is a profession that has clear quantitative approaches to resolving or deciphering natural phenomena. I think being a Buddhist only influences my motivation to conduct good science, and helps me broaden my research initiatives to cover applicable changes for the sake of humanity. Buddhism has allowed me to figure myself out, so that I can be a better scientist. I would say that my life mentor, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, is more influential in my approach to work than Buddhism itself. He is a man of continuous action for peace, culture and education, and this has influenced my own actions as a scientist.

Teruaki: Practicing Buddhism inspires me to always challenge myself and be an example to others. The Buddhist concept of the oneness of life and its environment was a core value when I decided to pursue my studies related to the environment. This concept also teaches us to change our environment through self-motivated action. We continually need to self-reflect and muster the courage to take action.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your work and what are the most challenging?

Victor: Initially, I wasn't very interested in the science; it was out at sea where I found oceanography to be most exciting. Only later during my doctoral program did I start to think about the larger impact the science results could have on the world. For me, there is nothing quite like the smell of salt water in the air, the sound of waves gently or crushingly shaving the coastline, the sensation of floating in or on water, and the indescribable sunsets and sunrises. It's a serene and humble feeling being close to or in water. I really enjoy collecting data in innovative ways, and it's very exciting to then sit down in front of a computer to analyze it.

Victor and colleagues servicing a NOAA TAO buoy for measuring El Niño conditions

The most challenging aspect of my work is disseminating my research results to the broader community. It's hard to compete for research funds and publish results. Sometimes it is also challenging to convince people that oceanography is a necessary endeavor.

Teruaki: I have always been intrigued by the workings of nature, how it keeps things in balance, and its innate ability to regenerate. I enjoy going out to sea and also going underwater. I also take pleasure in reaching out to the public and to the students through lectures and talks, and I try my best every time to convey the importance of the ocean as effectively as possible. Laboratory work could be time-consuming and exhausting, but I always get excited in anticipation of some interesting results or even a new discovery at the end of it. Conversely, it's a challenge to overcome the discouragement of a failed experiment or unrequited hypothesis.

Why is oceanography important and what is one interesting current objective of the field?

Victor: Everything we do in daily life, no matter where you live, depends on this ocean to function properly--the water cycle, temperature circulation, carbon circulation, and so on. The hottest topic today is climate change: how will the warming of the ocean affect everything? On a more positive note, scientists are trying to find ways to harness the incredible amount of kinetic energy in the ocean, from waves to tides to currents.

Teruaki: The ocean also plays a major role in the carbon cycle as more carbon dioxide is being absorbed by photosynthetic ocean organisms compared to terrestrial plants. Experiments to increase the CO2 uptake by these marine autotrophic organisms are being carried out in the hope of finding a solution to global warming. It is vital that human society become knowledgeable about the sea and why we should care for a healthy ocean.

What is one thing that concerns you about the state of the oceans?

Victor: I am really worried about our coastlines. Whatever happens on the coastlines will eventually affect the open sea as well. Even in the advanced economies many of the waterways are poorly regulated and directly flow out to sea. For far too long, many countries have relied on the massive volume of the ocean to naturally process various pollutants. And we are really beginning to see frightening results. On top of this, vast volumes of ocean are literally dying due to dramatic depletion and unbalancing of food webs from overfishing and pollution.

It is critical that every one of us reflect on our personal footprint in this world and make conscious efforts to limit our excesses.

Teruaki collecting plankton at a coral reef near Tioman Island, Malaysia

Teruaki: The ocean is invariably interconnected with other ecosystems, and the impact on any one of them will form a chain reaction that ultimately affects the other. Exploitation, pollution and other human impacts on the ocean often transcend political boundaries. This makes separate, isolated efforts to resolve them unlikely to succeed. Ecological integrity is the shared interest and concern of all humankind, and any solution will require a strong sense of individual responsibility and commitment by each of us as inhabitants sharing this same planet. I feel we should all strive together in becoming "global citizens" with each one of us developing an active awareness of our commitment to humankind as a whole.