The life side of science: 15 years of milestones, funding woes, and perseverance in long-term monitoring projects

High resolution spatiotemporal patterns of seawater temperatures across the Belize Mesoamerican Barrier Reef

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Dispersed across Belize’s barrier reef, you might find small devices floating above the seafloor that have been measuring water temperature for 15 years. These data are now published in Nature Scientific Data and offer an unprecedented peek into the dynamic environments of coral reefs. Despite the importance of collecting these data to advance our understanding of how climate change will affect coral reefs, this long-term monitoring project went largely unfunded. Loggers were deployed and retrieved by piggybacking support from other projects because we knew that while long-term monitoring is seldom glamorous, empirical data offer insights that can’t be captured by any other means. These data (and similar data by our peers) speaks a) to the importance of maintaining long-term monitoring efforts, but also, b) the passion for maintaining long-term scientific pursuits, even with scant resources. It also provides a view of the human side of research: data gathering is never truly disconnected from the people doing the work.

Diver swapping loggers at Carrie Bow Caye. (Photo credit: Clare Fieseler)

Indeed, the passion for these delicate reefs, coupled with the collaborative and open friendship among the collaborators, is evident in the dataset if you know how to look. When putting this manuscript together, we reflected upon what are often obvious data gaps, noting that most correspond to unique major life milestones that occurred for each of us along the way. One PI had multiple interruptions to logger deployment/retrieval when she was pregnant - either culminating in two healthy babies or two quiet miscarriages. One PI was getting married while another was experiencing a challenging divorce. In a way, this dataset not only provides valuable information for the scientific community, it is also a record of our personal history. We share these personal insights because we recognize that while we are not alone in these challenges, this is an issue that needs more discussion in academic circles.

Example dataset showing the data gaps that correspond with personal events. 

There is a major push to demystify the lives of scientists and other STEM professionals. While to us, the gaps in the data are highly personal, we hope that they serve as a reminder that scientists (and science) are not immune to life events, and that small funding to help bridge gaps could have made a large difference. 

As coral reefs continue their unpredictable, roller-coaster ride through the Anthropocene, our ongoing efforts to study, document, and hopefully help corals are not independent of our own humanity. We look back at these data with pride and nostalgia - pride that the data exist despite the challenges, and nostalgic for the time when the corals were healthier, we were younger, and the CO2 in the atmosphere was below 400 ppm. Part of the importance of these in-situ temperature records is their utility in understanding how climate change is impacting the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef (the second-largest barrier reef in the world). Even as we write this, Belize corals are bleached (again). Insights from these (and other) long-term data will hopefully help to provide critical insights but also provide a reminder of the human side of science.

By Randi Rotjan, Francis Choi, and Brian Helmuth. With support from Claire Fieseler, Jim Leichter, Scott Jones, and Karl Castillo.

Randi Rotjan

Professor, Boston University

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