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SF State students share their science through art

A new EOS Center program is supporting artistic marine scientists and expanding science education opportunities

“Pictures really do paint a thousand words, regardless of the language you speak or your scientific knowledge. The pictures, [they’re] universal,” Diana Neacsu said of her scientific illustrations. A San Francisco State University graduate student researcher and artist, she was part of the inaugural 2023 cohort supported by a new scientific illustration grant of the University’s Estuary & Ocean Science (EOS) Center.

The program began due to a $10,000 grant from the Maxwell|Hanrahan Foundation specifically to support scientific artists and was recently funded for a second year. Recruiting for the 2024 spring semester cohort, the EOS Center program coordinators emphasized that the program is not restricted to a particular major or students affiliated with the EOS Center. Any student researcher in Marine and Estuarine Sciences was encouraged to apply.

“We are thrilled to be able to offer these funds as a way to support science communication skills for the University’s budding marine scientists,” said EOS Center Interim Executive Director Katharyn Boyer. “We want our graduates to not only be trained in the rigors of cutting-edge science but to have tools they can use to share how and why they do their work.”

Last year, the EOS Center offered three one-year fellowships to student researchers with a penchant for art. Inspired by student enthusiasm, the EOS Center gathered additional donated funds to support a fourth student. Faculty helped identify and nominate students working on marine or estuarine science research. Students received funding to work with their mentor to complete the project.

Neacsu, a graduate student in Physiology and Behavioral Biology, designed a colorful 24-page manual bedecked with dozens of illustrations of squid, octopuses and other creatures studied by her adviser Associate Professor Robyn Crook’s research group. Neacsu filled the manual with detailed illustrations on animal husbandry and experimental protocols with the goal of helping student researchers joining the lab. There’s a steep learning curve for students learning research, she explained.

Others in the 2023 cohort produced a variety of work. One student simplified the complex food web of longfin smelt into a graphic illustration. Another student created cartoons representing several EOS Center labs, designing icons with whales, otters, oysters and more.

“Creating visual interpretations of science can be a powerful way to reinforce concepts not just for the viewer but for the scientist-artist,” Boyer said.

Though her project was for scientists, Neacsu has plans to reach other audiences. Her goal is to freelance and use her art to educate a variety of audiences. Frustrated with the way academia and the sciences can exclude people, she sees art as an easier way to capture people’s attention.

“A lot of people are afraid of science or don’t like science or were belittled. I am totally sympathetic,” said Neacsu, explaining that academia can be quite gated. She hopes to develop her illustrations to help draw in non-expert audiences. She hopes scientific illustrations could capture the interest of grade-school children at stages when their interests veer away from science. “I think illustrations are a great way to break that barrier. Who doesn’t [prefer] a pretty picture [instead of] a block of text that’s full of jargon and heavy. It turns people off.”

For Neascu, the connection between art and science was natural. She grew up loving the “creepy crawlies” and doing art for fun. In high school, she joined an art-intensive school where she sharpened her artistic chops. But she knew she wanted to become a researcher. It’s a path that allows her to channel her creativity and get continuous inspiration.

“I get art-blocked often. Months go by where I don’t produce any art. But with academia and research, I feel like I can always keep going at it,” she explained. “As I was doing research, I realized that I could incorporate my art, improve my research and expand my communication with others by using my art as a tool.”

Students and faculty interested in the scientific illustration grant in future years can email the EOS Center.

EOS Center aims to expand workforce, empowerment to increase local coastal resiliency

The SF State research center is taking a multipronged approach to environmental issues affecting the San Francisco Bay

San Francisco State University’s Estuary & Ocean Science (EOS) Center has received a $4.35 million grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy (SCC) to build coastal resiliency in the San Francisco Bay. The multipronged three-year endeavor will work on nature-based adaptations to mitigate the effects of climate change, provide community partners with guidance and develop academic curricula and field trips for local youth. The proposal consists of four main projects, with several aiming to boost the number of people qualified for related jobs.

“I think this proposal represents a direction that the EOS Center and the University broadly are  embracing. Understanding climate change and adapting to and mitigating climate change are really important topics for us to focus a lot of our attention on,” said EOS Center’s Interim Executive Director and lead scientist Katharyn Boyer, noting how this work intersects with other topics that “we at San Francisco State hold dear, like social justice.”

“We’re certainly interested in training scientists, but we’re also interested in the fact that there is so much work to be done now,” said Boyer, explaining that more hands-on experiences might help youth interested in entry-level jobs related to the Bay. “For coastal climate adaption, there needs to be people who know how to design and fabricate and actually implement these kinds of projects. There’s a wide range of workforce needs.”

This SCC-funded project was designed with input from a variety of community collaborators, Boyer explains. Community partners included several community colleges, government agencies, other science and environmental organizations, including co-located partners at the EOS Center, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the National Estuarine Research Reserve. The projects are:

  • Climate workforce capacity building: In collaboration with seven community colleges, the EOS Center and partners will develop new curricula, provide real-world data sets and organize field trips to nature-based shoreline projects for hands-on work with implementation and monitoring. Scientists will also organize field trips and offer training relevant to nature-based shoreline projects for English-language learners from San Rafael's Canal community (via a collaboration with Conservation Corps North Bay) and underserved communities in San Francisco's Bayview/Hunters Point (via a collaboration with Literacy for Environmental Justice). Teachers and staff at collaborating institutions will also have educational opportunities and support. The intent is to build an educational pipeline to four-year institutions like SF State.
  • Oyster shell recycling pilot: Scientists are testing human-made oyster reefs to protect against shoreline erosion, and incorporating native oyster shells may help make these structures a desirable habitat for native species. Since there is no robust source of local shells, scientists will work with two major restaurants to collect and prepare the shells. Information about the project and its environmental importance will be shared with more than 250,000 restaurant patrons per year. Vocational training will be offered for the Canal community youth in San Rafael through a collaboration with the Conservation Corps North Bay.
  • Planning and permitting a living seawall at the EOS Center, Tiburon: A living seawall incorporates materials conducive for native species along traditional vertical seawalls, which typically have little habitat value. The seawall at the EOS Center will be retrofitted to include horizontal relief in a variety of configurations, which will allow scientists and students to determine best approaches to create habitat and shoreline resilience. This funding supports the first step: design and permitting of the seawall retrofit, which will also include a small boat launching facility to make the seawall more accessible for research and community visits.
  • Pilot Regional Climate Science Consortium: The EOS Center will dedicate offices/meeting spaces for groups of scientists focused on advancing innovative science guidance for nature-based adaptations along shorelines in the San Francisco Bay. This consortium will work with partners to identify scientific needs, summarize findings and advice, and provide guidance on environmental and shoreline projects.

In addition to supporting collaborations with community colleges and other local organizations focused on underserved youth, the new grant also has funds to support work with Indigenous communities. By providing youth with projects that educate them on the effects of climate change, Boyer hopes they can make informed decisions about their career paths and their communities.

“We want youth in these underserved communities to have some tools and some agency about what happens along their shorelines,” Boyer added. “And we want to know from these communities from the very beginning how they think this work should look.”

At SF State, the program also provides University students a chance to participate in field trips and be scientific colleagues. For instance, Boyer hopes SF State graduate student participation might encourage a near-peer mentorship relationship between SF State students and youth from collaborating organizations. 

“This is a major push for the EOS Center to expand our capacity to do climate adaptation work and to involve our students and to involve the region’s youth,” said Boyer. “Climate change is one of the biggest issues of our time and it’s exciting that scientists at SF State are leading in innovation and creation of educational opportunity to work with nature to lessen the impacts.”

Visit the EOS Center website to learn more about its work

SF State alumna hired as Sausalito’s first sustainability manager

Catie Thow Garcia (M.S., ’22) credits her experiences at the University’s EOS Center for her newly minted government position

The coastal city of Sausalito is no stranger to the impacts of climate change, particularly sea level rise. Now San Francisco State University alumna Catie Thow Garcia (M.S., ’22) has been named Sausalito’s first resiliency and sustainability manager to help mitigate the potential consequences of climate change.

In this new role, Thow Garcia will work on projects related to climate change, energy efficiency, shore habitat protection and sea level rise. The job will require her to work closely with government agencies, community groups, nonprofit organizations and local experts in energy and waste reduction, solar implementation and more.

“It’s one of the reasons why I was really interested in working at the local level rather than at the state level …,” Thow Garcia said of all the collaborations in her future. “I’m excited to see where it takes me, but I recognize that there’s still a lot of learning to do on my part.”

It’s the type of integrative and collaborative work that originally brought the New England native to the Bay Area. She was drawn to SF State’s Estuary and Ocean Science (EOS) Center’s master’s program in Interdisciplinary Marine and Estuary Sciences (IMES). As a graduate student, she also collaborated with San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) where she began working on coastal resilience. An environmental field scientist by training, she didn’t want to just learn about marine biology but wanted to know how it intersected with botany, water-land interactions, social science and economics.

Catie standing in a marsh with a bucket (left) and Catie in a canoe on the water (right)

Catie doing field research as an EOS graduate student. Photos courtesy Catie Thow Garcia

“It’s why I drove 3,000 miles across the United States to come study here,” added Thow Garcia, who is originally from Rhode Island and was living in Colorado before moving to the Bay Area. After graduating, she was named a 2022 California Sea Grant State Fellow and worked with the California State Coastal Conservancy to support Bay restoration efforts. She plans to channel all of this training into her new position while expanding her knowledge in sustainability and resiliency.

Sausalito is in Marin County just like the EOS Center so Thow Garcia is familiar with the needs and environmental issues in the area. She also believes her experiences in sea level rise adaptations helped her get the position. She’s particularly interested in nature-based adaptations incorporating live organisms, something she learned about as an undergraduate but first saw in practice at the EOS Center.

“For nature-based solutions, there’s a scale we call green to gray. Gray being just the hardened sea wall and green being something purely green, like oysters [or] grass beds,” Thow Garcia  explained. “To me nature-based solutions mean finding somewhere on that spectrum that’s not purely gray.” An example of this could be a horizontal levee that is wider than a traditional levee, allowing migration space for plants and animals as sea level rises.

Though she decided to stay local, Thow Garcia says she’s aware of EOS Center alumni who work in local, county, state and federal government jobs throughout the United States.

“That spread of knowledge is really special and it all started with this little tiny marine science campus in Tiburon,” said the alumna proudly.

Learn more about the University’s Estuary & Ocean Science Center.

Estuary and Ocean Science Center opens marine lab to public April 30

After a three-year hiatus, the EOS Center’s open house welcomes the community to its scenic locale for family-friendly fun

What does an oceanographer do? How are scientists using oysters and eelgrass to save San Francisco Bay? Want to meet “slug bunnies”?

Answers to these questions and more can be found at San Francisco State University’s Estuary & Ocean Science (EOS) Center’s free Marine Lab Open House Sunday, April 30, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Community members can meet local marine scientists and San Francisco Bay critters and learn how EOS Center scientists collaborate with nature to conduct research and mitigate impacts of climate change.

“We miss welcoming the community to the EOS Center. Hearing what our community asks, what they don’t understand and how they would like to be involved makes us think and helps us be better scientists and communicators,” EOS Center's Interim Executive Director Katharyn Boyer said.

The EOS Center is located at San Francisco State’s Romberg Tiburon Campus (3150 Paradise Drive, Tiburon, California). This will be the first in-person open house EOS Center has hosted since its 2019 event, which drew over 1,000 attendees.

Boyer has noticed that the community has shifted its focus to wanting to understand the issues facing the local Bay ecosystem. Many EOS Center researchers work with onsite partners from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and National Estuarine Research Reserve to make advances in nature-based solutions to local climate change.

“The EOS Center is the only marine lab on San Francisco Bay. We do the on-the-ground, in-the-mud, under-the-water, in-the-lab research that reveals how the Bay functions,” Boyer added, pointing out that the Center has trained students and scientists for nearly 45 years. “Our deep and immersive (pun intended) understanding of this ecosystem means we are often the first to notice when those functions have gone astray.”

At the open house, the public will have access to nearly 100 active marine lab scientists who will be showcasing their work and are eager to talk to the community. The family-friendly event includes a variety of activities that range from a touch tank with Bay creatures and listening to whale and dolphin sounds to more informational activities about underwater plants that reduce ocean acidification. There will also be a food truck and oyster bar.

“One of my favorite things to do at our open house is point out the slug bunnies on the eelgrass in our tanks,” Boyer said, explaining that they are a type of sea slug called eelgrass sea hares that vaguely resemble a green, striped rabbit. More importantly, these little creatures promote eelgrass growth by eating algae on eelgrass blades — and this growth can calm shore water, store carbon and reduce ocean acidification. Boyer finds that the slugs are a great way to draw children and adults alike into larger science and conservation conversations … until they are distracted by the environment surrounding the EOS Center.

“A true open house story: a small grey whale breached right along our shore while I was waxing poetically about how sea hares are climate change heroes, and I quickly lost my audience,” Boyer said, highlighting EOS Center’s scenic and significant locale overlooking the water. “But I hope that the wonders of the slug bunnies had already sunk in, showing that the little things in the Bay deserve our attention too.”

Register for the free Marine Lab Open House and learn more about the EOS Center.