Dr. Ellen Prager ’84 is a renowned marine scientist who loves to share her passion for science with everyone. To that end, she has written several books, including her latest, The Shark Whisperer, to bring ocean science to a popular audience. Dr. Prager’s work has also allowed her to see first hand the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans. Be sure to check out her talk about popularizing and effectively communicating science at Wesleyan on March 5th.
What was the environmental scene like at Wesleyan when you attended and what, if any, ways were you involved in it?
When I was an environmental science major at Wesleyan – way back when – it was a small, but fun and eclectic department. I helped out on a research project and loved the field trips we took as part of the courses. At that time, there was not much going on in terms of environmental activism on campus as I remember (though I was heavily involved with sports so maybe my attention was elsewhere). Things such as climate change and recycling had not come to the forefront of people’s attention quite yet.
How has your Wesleyan education helped you post-graduation? What did you learn at Wesleyan that has helped you in your field?
My time at Wesleyan was wonderful in many ways, both for personal and professional reasons. I had a great experience on both fronts. The rigor of the academic program and some excellent professors provided the study habits, background, and challenges that carried over into graduate school and my work experiences. I was exceptionally well prepared for graduate school and carried with me an independence that Wesleyan fosters. Wesleyan is a school where, in some respects, you decide what to make of it and how much to get out of the experience. I took that with me and tried to make the most of all the opportunities that presented themselves after that or to go after new ones. Several of the professors, especially my major professor, Peter Patton, also provided excellent mentoring and passed on his passion for geology, field work, and the fun that could be had while working hard. As a marine scientist who has been involved in a lot of field work (in, on, and under the ocean), crucial to my success were independence, hard work, passion, willing to get my hands dirty, or wet as the case may be, and an excellent academic background.
In what ways is climate change negatively impacting marine life and ecosystems? Is ocean acidification – “the other CO2 problem” – actually one of climate change’s most harmful effects?
In the ocean, climate change is a triple whammy. Accelerated seawater temperature rise, ocean acidification, and sea level increase are all having negative impacts. Shifts in populations geographically or in size have already been seen and some organisms are struggling to survive. Big questions exist regarding the ocean food web and specific populations and habitats. Ice-loving organisms such as polar bears are at great risk as are habitats such as coral reefs that are particularly vulnerable to temperature shifts and ocean acidification. Organisms with a skeleton or shell made of calcium carbonate are especially vulnerable to shifts in the ocean’s acidity. One example is the problem showing up with oyster farm larvae mortality due to lower pH conditions. While we cannot predict exactly what they will be and when they will occur, the impact of climate change in the ocean is already happening and it is not good.
Your research has taken you to numerous different countries. What have you learned about the differing effects of climate change in these areas?
My research has not focused on climate change. As a scientist that has been working in the ocean for several decades, however, the impacts that are most obvious come from a number of factors, including climate change. To those of us who have been diving on the world’s coral reefs for almost thirty years, the change is disheartening. Climate change along with overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and invasive species have harmed most of the world’s coral reefs. From Florida and the Bahamas to the Caribbean and Pacific, our coral reefs are not what they once were. Many are still beautiful and something everyone should see, but they are not what they were years ago. Gone are an abundance of live coral along with the larger predators, grazers, and even some of the smaller creatures that once were present. We need to work on solving all of these problems along with addressing the issue of climate change.
I have taken a non-traditional track as a scientist and now focus much of my time on bringing ocean and earth science to broader audiences through writing books, public speaking, working with the media, and developing innovative partnerships. I’m especially excited about my newest project and it’s been a long labor of love. I’ve got a new middle grade fiction series coming out with the first book, The Shark Whisperer, to be published this spring (already available for pre-order). The books combine humor and adventure with learning about the ocean, marine life, and ocean issues. If you’ve got 8 to 12 year-olds that want a fun read check it out on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. And I’m so pleased to say I’ll be speaking at Wesleyan on March 5th with a fun talk about popularizing science and how to effectively communicate science to broad audiences.
Jenna Shapiro ’17