By David Templeton
For students and scientists learning about and researching the condition of the ocean and its coasts, it’s hard to imagine a more scenic location than the one awaiting scholars and teachers at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies. Tucked in along the water’s edge at the southern edge of Marin County, the Romberg Center is San Francisco State University’s premier marine research facility. The remarkable facility, established in 1978 on a 46-acre parcel of land, has been the home of everything from a 19th century codfish-packing plant, to a Navy coaling station, to a nautical training school to a WWII anti-torpedo net-building factory.
These days, the facility remains focused on education and research, and has a robust program of public lectures and workshops. For the last three years, the facility has been under the direction of Karina Nielsen, who previously served on the faculty of Sonoma State University. Nielsen took some time this week to answer a few questions about what the Romberg Center is, what happens there, and whether it has anything to do with talking dolphins.
Karina Nielsen: The short version is, we’re part of San Francisco State University, and we have a number of faculty out here. We teach classes, mostly marine science-related classes. We have graduate students and undergraduate students from San Francisco State who travel out here and actually do coursework here.
Templeton: How many students do you have?
Nielsen: It fluctuates. We have maybe 100 students this semester, who are in and out. We also have the graduate students, who spend most of their time out here. They are doing more focused research projects, and less coursework. They might be developing a thesis, so they might have a field experiment they are working on. Or they’re having a laboratory experiment that they are working on. Their education is their research.
In the summertime, we have summer research internship experiences, and some of those internships are funded by the National Science Foundation. Students from all over the United States can apply to come out and do research projects with some of the faculty, or some of the graduate students.
Sometimes we train teachers out here, too, through our professional development programs. For example, last summer we did a weeklong special program with San Francisco Unified School District teachers, kindergarten through eighth grade. We took the teachers out on a boat, talked about the estuary. We took them out to Ocean Beach and China Camp, and talked about Best Practices, next generation science standards. Basically, talked about how to think like a scientist, and how to get their kids to start thinking like a scientist.
Templeton: Tell me about your public programs.
Nielsen: We have a number of public programs. Those are the seminars, the evening programs, the Discovery Day program and the various ad hoc tours we sometimes give.
Templeton: And the focus of the research and education you do there is primarily environmental?
Nielsen: Yes. It’s focused on the environment of our coasts and the oceans. And locally, we study the estuary, the San Francisco Bay, the Gulf of the Farallones, marine life, sealife, climate change. All of that.
Templeton: So, how much of that is studying water and tides and temperatures, and how much is face-to-face encounters with sea animals?
Nielsen: [Laughing] So … book learning versus touch-and-feel? I would say it’s pretty much an even balance. We do have facilities here to keep marine life alive. So we have things like sea hares here in tanks. We grow eelgrass, the vegetation that grows under the water and is very important for herring and other critters to live in. But we also do a lot of things through computer simulations, and think about theory, too. I’d say it’s about fifty-fifty.
We have some small research vessels, and another boat that’s docked up the road. We take a lot of the classes out. Most of the instructors will have at least a day out on the water, even if it’s just an undergraduate class. They all have at least one full day out on the boat, visiting various field sites around the area, looking at interesting organisms and the different places where they’re living, which might be on the beach or the rocky intertidal. There’s a lot to study out there.
Templeton: Short of asking you to betray trade secrets or divulge confidential work before it has a chance to be published in scientific journals, what kind of work is being done out there?
Nielsen: I think some of the most important work we’re doing right now has to do with toxic algae. We have scientists here working on defining the environmental conditions that promote the bloom of toxic algae like the kind that affected the Dungeness crab fishery. We have scientists who are working on the combined effects of the temperature and the acidification of the oceans, which is related to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and how that influences their behavior.
We have other scientists who are working on what are the very best ways to use nature-based approaches to adapting to sea-level rise, in areas that may get inundated. How can we use salt marshes to slow the flow, and keep the ecosystems and human communities safe from inundation behind the water’s edge, up on the land?
Templeton: Speaking of global warming and ocean rise, you’re right on the water there in Tiburon. So when ocean levels rise, that’s going to seriously affect you, isn’t it?
Nielsen: Oh, yeah, definitely. It could affect us a lot. We think about that. We are right here at the edge of the water, so in our site-based planning, we are definitely giving consideration to what we are doing, and the changes we might need to make five, 10, 15 years from now. That definitely does come up. How high is the water going to get? What parts of our site here might we have to be thinking about?
I wouldn’t say we have any concrete plans yet. Wait. That’s a bad analogy. Let’s just say, we are working on those plans for the future.
Templeton: Out there in Tiburon, do you tend to get a lot of people stopping by and asking what it is, exactly, you do out there?
Nielsen: [Laughing again] We get a lot of cyclists riding by, that’s for sure. It’s a very popular bicycle route, where we are.
Templeton: Do you get crazy questions? “A marine research facility? What are you doing, teaching dolphins to talk or something?” In movies—like The Day of the Dolphin, and Deep Blue Sea, very interesting things are being done at facilities like yours.
Nielsen: The Life Aquatic, right? The Bill Murray movie? There are, actually some things about that movie that did accurately capture the weird, nerdy fun that scientists sometimes have. We do tend to get very deep into our own specialties.
But all fun aside, the students who come here are very concerned about climate change and the environment, and how humans are threatening the existence of the oceans in the form we see it now. People come here to study evidence-based tools to help us learn how to adapt and respond, to manage our natural resources better, to look at the evidence and realize these are real threats that are upon us, and that we should be considering how to respond as a society.
If I were to sum it up, I would say, ‘What do we do here?’ We support scientific study of the sea, and we’re hoping that the work we do helps us make sure we have healthy coastal ecosystems for the future.
Templeton: If there’s any one thing you’d like people to know about the Romberg Center, what would that be?
Nielsen: Well, one thing I could say is that we love volunteers, and if people have a particular skill they’d like to offer, from scientific interests to artistry to landscaping, we’d love to hear from you.
The main thing is, we are doing the hard work to ensure healthy coastal ecosystems, and we support educating students and the public about those issues. And, we are a public institution that is underfunded. Anyone who cares about the future of the oceans, we would love to have them come and talk to us, to learn about our programs, and possibly get involved, and maybe even make a donation to help support some of our student scholarship programs or improve our facilities.
Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies, 3150 Paradise Drive, Tiburon; 415/338-6063; rtc.sfsu.edu.