Not everyone is going to kick back at the beach this summer.
Drew Talley will spy on scorpions and spiders on islands in Mexico. Marni LaFleur will live among chatty lemurs in the merciless heat of Madagascar. Tom Rockwell will dig trenches in the misty spa region of the Czech Republic. And John Hyde will navigate swift, tricky currents in the cobalt blue waters off California.
This story is for subscribers
We offer subscribers exclusive access to our best journalism.
Thank you for your support.
They are among the scores of scientists who will leave their labs and offices in San Diego County to embrace the summer field research season, which is expected to regain a sense of normalcy after being disrupted for more than two years by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the first time in a while, there are no countries on the “Do Not Travel” list maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Scientists at all five of San Diego’s major universities and some of its research centers are scrambling to make sure they have the right approvals and equipment to fan out across the world in everything from Jeeps to panga boats to horse-drawn carts.
For many, there is risk involved.
Some scientists will be working in forests that are so dense a person could become instantly lost by stepping off a trail. The coastal winds in certain research areas of Mexico have proven to be deadly. Others will climb in rough, jagged mountains where medical care is scarce or non-existent.
Here are snapshots of nearly a dozen scientists who are preparing to hit the road.
Field biologist, Point Loma Nazarene University
Mooring will hike into the Cloud Forest region of Costa Rica in July and use temperature-activated cameras to study a variety of mammals, including jaguars, pumas, tapir, and an agile little spotted cat known as oncilla. It’s part of a physically challenging conservation project. Mooring and several undergraduates will follow steep, muddy trails out of tropical montane forests to a point 12,000 feet high in the Talamancan mountains. Lingering just out of sight will be Baird’s tapir, an animal that’s related to rhinoceros and sports a proboscis similar to that of an elephant. “These are very elusive animals,” Mooring said. “We’d be lucky to see one on the trail.”
Political scientist, Cal State San Marcos
Simati will return to his native Kenya in June to study how the country’s political policies might be alienating young men, leading them to join the Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab. The group is based in Somalia but has factions in northern Kenya, which is home to ethnic Somalis. In 2015, Al-Shabaab stormed Kenya’s Garissa University College and killed 148 people and injured dozens more. Simati, the son of a church pastor, plans to study government papers dating back to the 1960s to evaluate policies and look for ways for Kenya to cultivate a more peaceful culture among its youth.
Geologist, San Diego State University
Rockwell will travel to the West Bohemia region of the Czech Republic in June to dig trenches in the Mariánské Lázně fault zone. He will be looking for signs of past earthquakes to help him more clearly determine the frequency and size of temblors in a system that might be capable of producing quakes in the magnitude 6.5 to 7.0 range. He also will examine whether movement along the fault is tied to volcanic activity. The fault has Rockwell’s attention because it could produce a quake that would shake a large area of central Europe, including eastern Germany and the Czech capital of Prague. It is also interesting from the perspective of earthquakes in tectonically “stable” regions that experience volcanic activity.
Anthropologist, University of San Diego
LaFleur will travel to Madagascar in southern Africa in July to study how and why female ring-tail lemurs are socially dominate to males. This trait is extremely rare among mammals, but prevalent in lemurs. “They are totally in charge,” said LaFleur, who thinks the trait might be tied to the animal’s diet, which is mostly composed of leaves and plants. She will examine that possibility while working in Tsimanampesotse National Park, a spiny forest that averages less than one inch of rain per year. The field site is home to a cave fish, Typhleotris madagascariensis, which is nearly transparent creature and doesn’t have eyes. “Sometimes these fish end up in my bathing water. They are endangered, so I just gently return them to their cave,” LaFleur said.
Physical oceanographer, UC San Diego
MacKinnon will board a research ship near New Orleans in June to study how the fresh water that flows into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River can have a harmful effect on the region’s fish and shrimp industries. The comparatively light river water floats on top of the salty gulf water, creating a lid, of sorts, that limits the amount of life-giving oxygen that sinks into the deeper salt water, making it harder for marine species to survive. “This is a natural phenomenon that is poorly understood,” said MacKinnon, who works out of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “But there are better scientific tools now that will help us understand the physical processes that mediate the pathway and fate of freshwater, including autonomous Wirewalker buoys from Scripps.” Most of the research will occur during the first half of summer “because you don’t want to be there during hurricane season,” MacKinnon said.
Archaeologist, University of San Diego
Parkinson will descend into Uganda’s grand Albertine Rift Valley in June in an ongoing effort to help piece together the story of human evolution. She says she’ll search for human fossils dating back 2 million to 5 million years — the early stages of human evolution. Special attention will be paid to things like gully systems, where erosion can reveal the fossils of both humans and animals. Something as tiny as a tooth can help identify animal species not previously known to exist. The valley is home to many large animals, including lions, hippos and elephants. “I was once locked in my cabin for several hours because a hippo decided to nap outside my front door,” Parkinson said.
Coastal ecologist, University of San Diego
Talley will explore the small, delicate web of wildlife that lives on a rugged chain of islands in Bahia de los Angeles, a coastal bay in Baja California, Mexico. The gulf has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Talley, who heads south in June, will focus on a subset — the assortment of scorpions, spiders, snakes, lizards, beetles and small rodents, that manage to get by on islands that have little vegetation. He is trying to figure out how these creatures draw sustenance from nature, especially the ocean. The work is part of larger conservation efforts in the area. Talley inherited the project from his postdoctoral advisor, Gary Polis, who died along with four other scientists in 2000 when the region’s fierce winds sank their boat.
Archaeologist, UC San Diego
Rissolo will travel to Quintana Roo, Mexico, in July and delve into a network of dark and often partially-flooded subterranean caves to digitally document small Maya shrines and altars. Scientists say the masonry structures strongly resemble temples and pyramids found above ground, in places like Tulum, and that they were a part of important religious traditions in the Maya culture. Rissolo will document the shrines and altars with a 3D scanning system developed at UCSD, and a handheld LiDAR device. He will be working about 30 feet below the surface, at shrines connected by a dizzying maze of passages.
Fisheries biologist, Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla
Hyde will travel to Tanner Bank, a major seamount about 100 miles west of San Diego, as well as other offshore sites in September to search for endangered white abalone, a treasured type of marine snail that has long been in decline off California. He and his colleagues will survey for the creatures, and if found, measure, and attempt to collect genetic samples. The abalone were a key source of food for native American people for thousands of years. The offshore banks and islands have historically been the areas of highest abundance for this species, so studies of these areas provide critical information on its status and could help to better understand its habitat needs. Scientists are using this information to determine how to successfully transfer abalone cultivated in laboratories to the ocean floor to help recover a species decimated by historic overfishing and disease. “We probably have more white abalone in our labs than there are currently in the ocean,” Hyde told the Union-Tribune.
Astrophysicist, UC San Diego
Keating will travel to the Atacama Desert in Chile in September to build platforms for three deep-space telescopes that will be part of the emerging Simons Observatory. Keating and collaborators from around the world will use the telescopes to study the early universe, particularly the “tremors,” or gravitational waves, that were generated by the Big Bang. Atacama is the driest spot on Earth, which means there are few things in the air — notably moisture — to interfere with capturing signals from deep space.
Plant geneticist, Salk Institute in La Jolla
Busch will travel to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in June to join collaborators in cultivating carefully selected varieties of soybeans whose root systems might be better able than other crop plants to store large amounts of atmospheric carbon for long periods of time. The research project, which is partly funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is part of the Salk’s efforts to fight climate change. “We’ve been examining thousands of varieties of plants and choosing the ones we think will do well,” said Busch. “Now we’ll see what happens in the fields.” Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative also involves cultivation this summer in Missouri, Kentucky and South Carolina.
Structural geologist, San Diego State University
Almeida will travel to the Cordillera Real mountains in Ecuador in June to study the deformation of rocks, a process that can create earthquake faults and increase the height of mountains over long periods of time. He’s done similar work in Nevada, Utah and the Himalayas, helping to clarify basic structural changes in the earth. Almeida said he will be accompanied in Ecuador by two of his students, who will “spend six weeks working from a local university to study rocks that are thought to have formed at depths of about 25 miles in a region where one plate (the Nazca) went under another (South America). This leads to the formation of chains of volcanoes (‘the ring of fire’), a process that is still happening in Ecuador. These rocks are now at the surface, but how this happens is still poorly understood. We hope that these studies will shed light on this.”