Diving Deep for Ocean’s Week with Peter Girguis

HMSC Connects! Podcast, Episode 5
SPEAKERS: Peter Girguis, Jennifer Berglund

Jennifer Berglund 00:00
Hey, this is your host Jennifer Berglund. Before we begin today's podcast, I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the pain reverberating across our nation. This podcast celebrates the ways in which we're connected as creatures inhabiting this pretty incredible place we call Earth, as well as the inextricable fact that we're always stronger together than we are apart. We hope we may bring you comfort in this trying time. Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. And I'll be your host. Today we have a very special guest here to celebrate an exciting week. It's Oceans Week, and here to talk about it is Peter Girguis, a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. He's also a dear friend of mine and HMSC. Peter studies microbial life in the deep sea, an occupation that requires him to use an engineer cutting-edge instruments and even robots at crushing ocean depths. I wanted to ask him about his journey to such an exciting occupation, and to reflect on the importance of our oceans during their special week. Peter Girguis, welcome to the show!

Peter Girguis 01:54
Thank you very much, Jennie. It's a pleasure to be here.

Jennifer Berglund 01:59
So you grew up in LA in the 1970s. Can you tell me a little bit about how your upbringing influenced who you are today?

Peter Girguis 02:08
Yeah, so I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s. And in a town called Downey, California. And Downey was the home of a number of Aerospace Industries, namely Rockwell International. That was the company that built the Apollo rockets and built the space shuttle. And it was a really, really heady time. There were engineers and scientists and machinists and managers and custodians, everybody working together to achieve these goals of building the first reusable spacecraft, right, the space shuttle system and the like. So I was steeped in this culture of innovation, and enthusiasm, the sense that anything is possible. That really shaped how I relate to the world. As a kid, I thought that's what everybody did. And so it was a really influential part of my upbringing. As a student, I wasn't an exceptional student, but I would always thrive when the subject of exploration or space or innovation came up. My mom worked for a small company that built some of the components that were on the lunar rover, the little car that they took up to the moon, and the motor that she worked on and helped design is on the lunar rovers, and, you know, there's a little plaque up there that has a little bit of gratitude to her company and her and the team that worked on it.
Jennifer Berglund 03:37
You must have idolized her.

Peter Girguis 03:39
Oh, yeah. I mean, both my parents really were great inspirations. But my mom and I share a love of engineering and science, and it was a real formative part of my upbringing to see, you know, my mom thrive in this challenging field. And given that my parents were immigrants from a small farming town in Egypt, this was something that she was very proud to have been a part of, and that too shaped a lot of who I was, as a student, watching my mom work in this, frankly, male-dominated field at the time—even now—and make a substantive contribution in a way that I still find utterly impressive and fascinating till today.

Jennifer Berglund 04:21
What was it that your dad did?

Peter Girguis 04:23
My dad is an agricultural biochemist. And so at the time he was really pushing for organic products in agriculture and in horticulture at a time where it was really a cottage industry. And so he built and ran a company in the Los Angeles area that was really well-regarded for its production of these high-value, high-quality organic amendments for agriculture.

Jennifer Berglund 04:49
That explains a lot.
Peter Girguis 04:52
Yeah, except I can't grow anything, Jennie. I mean, that is I missed out something there.
Jennifer Berglund 04:57
I don't believe that.
Peter Girguis 04:58
Oh, no, it is true.

Jennifer Berglund 04:59
You can grow microbes.

Peter Girguis 05:00
I can grow microbes. Also true.
Jennifer Berglund 05:05
When was it that you discovered the deep sea?
Peter Girguis 05:10
You know, my love of the deep sea, again, goes back probably to fifth grade when I was so into the space shuttle, that was about 1981, the launch of the very first space shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981. And around the same time, Jennie, they had just discovered the hydrothermal vents over the last two years, right. So sort of 77, 78, 79, 80, 81. These were really astonishing times in deep sea research as scientists were finding these extraordinary underwater ecosystems that were fueled by hot water coming out of the crust. So just take something like Yellowstone Park and put it 6,000 to 8,000 feet underwater, and that gives you a sense of what these events are like. Those discoveries caught my attention even as a young boy thinking, wow, this is kind of an alien world.
Jennifer Berglund 06:16
Why do you think it's important to study the deep sea?
Peter Girguis 06:20
First and foremost, the deep sea is the largest habitable space of our planet, and, you know, I have said this countless times in talking with, you know, innumerable students and other folks, but it's 80% of our planet's living space. And I never get tired of hearing that.
Jennifer Berglund 06:38
That's just so incredible to think about, you know, to just think about how much of our planet we don't understand, and we've never laid eyes on.
Peter Girguis 06:48
It's a great way of framing it. I mean, we've never laid eyes on it. Imagine, Jennie, you went out and bought a five-room home, right, with a kitchen, and a dining room, and a living room, and a bathroom, and a bedroom. Let's add a basement in there, right, and you never ventured beyond your kitchen. Well, how in the world would you know where your electricity came from? I mean, it's a bit of a, you know, simple-minded analogy, but the ocean, it plays this inextricable role in keeping our biosphere running, not just the ocean, Jennie, but the whole planet. In the absence of an ocean, the temperatures on our planet would be so much more extreme than they are. And I don't think we would be here. The ocean plays this self-evident role in keeping our planet running. It's 80% of our planet's living space, and it's full of all sorts of interesting creatures and amazing ecosystems which are unreal and fascinating in their own right. But even the most ocean-hating, you know, human-centric person on earth, frankly, has to acknowledge that the ocean is what keeps us alive. So with that said, studying the deep sea is important. Because of its intrinsic value. It is a major part of our planet's ecosystem. It is intrinsically important. It harbors 10 to the 27th microbes, which is an astonishingly large number.
Jennifer Berglund 08:13
Yeah, it's hard to wrap your brain around a number like that.
Peter Girguis 08:15
It's silly. It's just, it's just one of those silly numbers. And it's so big that if I just string those 10 to the 27th microbes end-on-end like little pearls, you know, in their actual size, one micron each. End-on-end, they span the Milky Way galaxy. Stretch out 105,000 light years.
Jennifer Berglund 08:32
That's crazy.
Peter Girguis 08:33
It's nuts. Many people have heard me say this before, and I'll say it again. Big numbers to me are no longer astronomical. They're microbial.
Jennifer Berglund 08:42
I like that.
Peter Girguis 08:44
So we have all these microbes, they're not lethal. They don't go around making people sick. They make the nitrogen that gives us proteins and amino acids that keeps our ocean and our land ecosystems running and healthy. They, the microbes in the deep sea play a big role in moving carbon and nitrogen and also metals around, believe it or not. A lot of the vent microbes play a role in helping mobilize some of these metals like iron that all life on Earth needs in trace amounts. In some ways, the deep-sea hydrothermal vents are like our ocean's multivitamin. When we go and study the deep sea, we're studying its intrinsic beauty and intrinsic value, but it also has an extrinsic value to humankind. Much of humankind's commerce takes place across the ocean, a vast amount of human’s protein needs are met by seafood, right? And again, the upper ocean is tied directly to the deeper ocean, especially through the provision of trace metals and things like nitrogen that come up from the deep sea. All of those matter to humankind.
Jennifer Berglund 09:55
Not many people know that.
Peter Girguis 09:57
That's on us as investigators. So, I love this question why, you know, why is it important to study the deep sea? And my job is, in large part, to help share what I've found with others and share not just my enthusiasm for it, but to empower them with the facts and understanding that help them appreciate it in its own right, and help them make contributions to our understanding and love and protection and conservation of the ocean.
Jennifer Berglund 10:26
You have three little boys. Do they understand how cool you are?
Peter Girguis 10:32
No, of course not. They're talking about No, no, no, no, no, no, no. My three boys are way cooler than I'll ever be. And I think and I say that, you know, both because I'm, you know, a proud dad. But I also say it because I've tried to tell my kids to just figure out what it is they love and to do those things. And I think that they and so many kids today have an extraordinary opportunity to really reshape our world in a positive way. And I am also saddened by the fact that they're left with a kind of a messy planet. You know, the oceans are they're suffering and our continents are suffering, our atmosphere is suffering. But I have faith. I really do, that kids today are growing up with perspectives that we did not have with a knowledge base that we did not have. I have hope in that.
Jennifer Berglund 11:29
This week is Oceans Week.
Peter Girguis 11:31
Jennifer Berglund 11:32
Which is a global movement to call on world leaders to protect 30% of our blue planet, our oceans, by 2030. And that's a really big job. What do you think are the biggest challenges we face in protecting that much of the ocean?
Peter Girguis 11:52
I love that it's Oceans Week, and I love this call to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. I think that you know, humankind is in such a good position to make changes that are going to echo throughout the future, and I am hoping that this call to action is taken seriously by our world's leaders. Why? Well, protecting 30% of the oceans is a way of ensuring that our planet continues to be, well frankly, habitable for as many of the living creatures on this planet as possible. Sometimes, those of us who are, let's say, environmentalists, wish beyond words that humans could just leave Planet Earth alone. But Jennie, I don't, I just don't think we can. We live here. And so we are going to have an impact on Earth, we are going to use Earth's resources. But protecting 30% of our ocean is a lot like protecting the principle in your retirement account. Think of the biosphere as a kind of savings account, right? And think of all of its resources as the principle. I would love to see humankind find a way to live off of the interest because then the principle continues to do work for you. And to me, that's, that's my idea of sustainability. How much of the biosphere can you tap into for humankind's needs and not adversely impact the biosphere? You know, if I had my druthers, I bet that we could find really creative and culturally acceptable ways to do that. There are a lot of people in this world who don't really understand the role that the ocean plays in running our planet. And that's my fault and the fault of every educator out there, and I don't mean that in any kind of pejorative way, but it really, you know, it is our responsibility to continue to educate and inform all of humankind. And that doesn't just mean the kids in our own homes are those in the affluent neighborhoods. But, I mean, it's really reaching out to our global community and helping people understand the value of the ocean. Because once they do, once they understand that you can look at it through that lens of a savings account and think of the ocean as your principal and let it do work for you, then people will begin to understand that not only is their well- being secure, but the well-being of their children is secure as well. And I think that's how we should approach ocean conservation.
Jennifer Berglund 14:29
Yeah, that's a really good way to think about it. I have this issue though, with 30% of the ocean. I mean, yeah, I mean, it seems like we should be protecting all of the ocean right? 100%.
Peter Girguis 14:42
Right. But if we have to protect just 30%, how do we decide which 30%?
Jennifer Berglund 14:48
Oh, Jennie. That is a brilliant question. I mean, you cut right to the chase. So how do we protect 30% of the ocean? Well, the how is in the hands of policymakers. Which 30%? That is the question, isn't it? And given that we have mapped just a small fraction of our ocean in high resolution, and we're talking single-digit percent here, maybe a little bit more now, we don't have a good view of all ocean ecosystems. So when people say protect 30% of the ocean, and we don't even have good high- resolution maps of the whole ocean, that's a bit of a challenge.
Peter Girguis 15:25
I thought we'd mapped all of the bottom of the ocean, we have what I would call low-resolution maps of the entire seafloor that are taken from satellites. Think of it as a kind of blurry view of the sea floor. So even though the maps look really pretty, and you can see mountain ranges and valleys and all that, many of those features actually aren't quite accurate. In some cases, we see a sea mount and we go there and it's not there. If I could wave a magic wand and move us towards the 30% by 2030, we would go out and, as fast as humanly possible, finish the maps, then we would set out on some campaigns to use robotics and human-occupied vehicles and all the tools in our arsenal to visit some of the more interesting sites to really, to pull a Lewis and Clark of the deep sea, right, to really go and see what's there. And then you can make informed decisions about what to protect. Otherwise, we can make educated guesses, don't get me wrong, we're not flying totally blind, but if we were, you know, told to protect 30% of the United States, and Lewis and Clark had not done their expeditions, and, you know, let's say, we're just haphazardly guessing, we might be protecting 30% of the least interesting parts of the U.S., right? I know I'm being cheeky, but the point is, in the absence of those data, we really are limited in our ability to do this well. When people talk about preservation, sometimes we assume that means that humankind does not engage with it in any way, shape or form, but that is not true. When we look at our national parks, for example, they are national treasures. They are also financial engines for their communities, aren't they? They are ideeed, right?
Jennifer Berglund 17:14
I would say so.
Peter Girguis 17:14
Absolutely. There is indisputable proof that setting aside protected areas increases the robustness of fisheries in the waters outside the protected area. So, just that simple argument alone gives us an economic rationale for protected areas. And that isn't even considering the myriad of other benefits, the very obvious ones like tourism. But really at the end of the day, protecting 30% of our ocean, from direct exploitation, gives us an opportunity to manage this asset, this principle, if you will, in terms of that savings account analogy in a way that is smart because we know that has been set aside, that we're not going to be dredging in there, we're not going to be fishing in there. And that is really critical, not only for the ocean but for us.
Jennifer Berglund 18:13
Pete, what concerns you about the state of the oceans right now?
Peter Girguis 18:19
You know, I think what, what concerns me the most are some of the more obvious problems that many people are aware, aware of, right? Microplastics is a big issue. We know that microplastics are problematic for a lot of the wildlife that lives in our ocean. And again, and not surprisingly to me, when we adversely affect those organisms, we adversely affect us. It's entering our food web, it's coming back to humans, and we don't really yet understand how problematic microplastics are other than we've seen a lot of evidence that they're really bad for the health of organisms. So those are, you know, legitimate concerns and some obvious ones. But there are also other things, Jennie, that we don't talk about often, and that is ocean ecosystems are, the animals and algae that live there, have evolved to those conditions. So let me give you an example. When you go to the beaches of Northern California, you see particular kinds of organisms that you would not see if you were off Cabo San Lucas, right? They are different ecosystems and communities. We're finding that climate change and warming of our ocean and changes in pH are driving these communities to expand or contract in ways that's really alarming. And that tells me that there are going to be a cascade of changes that come along with it. We're all so interconnected, it's a cliche, we've all heard the cliches, right? But they're true. And so, as we are changing our world, we are influencing ecosystems that are going to have cascade effects on other ecosystems, and other organisms, including us. Here's an example: The lobster fishery is moving, not because people are moving, but because the lobster are moving. How do you deal with that when you have an entire industry in our states here in the U.S. that have substantial financial investment in lobster fishing, and then because of the warming wob waters, lobster are moving north. So there's a direct impact on the financial well-being of those communities and those states. So, the things that concern me are not only what we see, but the many challenges that are unseen. And the fact is that whether we like it or not, it is going to come back to us as well. So whether you're an ardent environmentalist, or whether you'd be happy to eat every fish in the ocean, there's no escaping the fact that what we're doing to our planet is going to be impactful to those organisms and to humankind.
Jennifer Berglund 21:02
On the other hand, what gives you the most hope? Because I know you. You're a hopeful person.
Peter Girguis 21:09
Yeah, you know, I have a lot of hope for the future and I'm not one for blind hope, but I'm always inspired by the will of good people and human ingenuity. I have a lot of confidence in our youth, because I see in them a very different perspective on their relationship with the world around them, fundamentally different than what I grew up with. I grew up with TV dinners, and microwaves and jello, right, and about every, tang. Tang, like that's a great example. Tang was way cooler and way better for you than orange juice, right? I mean, we have, there's 100 little examples of how the world has changed since I was a kid. And children today, I love seeing their compassion and caring and kind of adamant advocacy for our natural world. It's delightful. So, oh, I feel much better about kids than I do about my generation.
Jennifer Berglund 22:07
Well, Pete Girguis, thank you so much for doing this. This has been just fantastic.
Peter Girguis 22:11
Jennie, thank you. It's always a delight to chat with you, and thanks for your attention and time.
Jennifer Berglund 22:25
Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Pete Girguis for his wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next week!
Transcribed by https://otter.ai