Teacher at Sea: Q&A with Cy Lakes’ Denis Costello

Teacher at Sea: Q&A with Cy Lakes’ Denis Costello
Written by: Cy-Fair ISD

On Sunday, May 11, Cypress Lakes High School chemistry teacher and team leader Denis Costello will embark on a monthlong research cruise aboard the R/V Melville to study ocean acidification in the Pacific Ocean. Costello’s exploits can be followed through his Twitter feed, @SoCalCostello, or on his blog at http://socalcostello.blogspot.com. Prior to leaving on the National Science Foundation-sponsored cruise, Costello answered a few questions about the journey:

When most people hear the word “cruise,” I don’t think they picture a Scripps Institution of Oceanography vessel like the R/V Melville. Describe your new home/office for the next 25 days.

Living and working at sea is very different than doing so on land. First off, we all live and work together in the same confined space. Secondly, due to the constant rocking of the vessel, seasickness can make the job much more difficult.

My living space will be a small room that I will share with another scientist. It’ll be about half the size of a college dorm room and mostly likely not have windows.  Each “berth” is a mounted bunk bed.

My office is pretty much the entire ship. I’ll work on deck to collect samples and move indoors to test our samples. Many of the lab spaces are common areas, so we will have a flurry of activity going on most of the time.

When the work is done for the day, I’ll either watch a movie with the group in the ship’s lounge or head to the back deck to gaze at the night sky.

Cypress Lakes chemistry teacher and team leader Denis Costello leaves for a 25-day National Science Foundation-sponsored research cruise on Sunday to study ocean acidification in the Pacific Ocean.  Photo Courtesy of Cy-Fair ISD

Cypress Lakes chemistry teacher and team leader Denis Costello leaves for a 25-day National Science Foundation-sponsored research cruise on Sunday to study ocean acidification in the Pacific Ocean.
Photo courtesy of Cy-Fair ISD.

The program you are participating in will study the effects of upwelling in the eastern boundary of the Pacific Ocean, examining the result of fluctuating amounts of iron in the water. What does this mean to the layman?

Upwelling is a natural process in which cold, nutrient-rich water is brought back to the ocean surface. These nutrients are necessary for the growth of phytoplankton—plantlike organisms found at the base of marine food chains.  One of these key nutrients is iron, which can be limited in their availability in seawater. We also know that our ocean is becoming more acidic due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. We want to know how iron availability and ocean acidification affect the nutritional quality of phytoplankton. As I tell my students, no phytoplankton—no fish sticks.

 

This marks your fourth research cruise in 10 years. What has been your most memorable experience at sea thus far?

On my first cruise aboard the R/V Kilo Moana in 2004, we spent 42 days at sea and transited from Hawaii to the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and back. I felt a large degree of personal and professional growth by working alongside such great scientists. That cruise changed me as an educator. The most memorable and unexpected experience from this cruise had to be our stop in the middle of the north Pacific for a rare swim call. I got to swim in warm, blue water, with a depth of about 14,000 feet. That is when I truly appreciated the power and vastness of our world ocean.

 

Your college professor, Dr. William Cochlan of San Francisco State University, will be a chief scientist on the cruise. How big of an impact did he have in shaping your educational career and interest in science?

I am who I am as an educator because of Dr. Cochlan. He had a way of connecting with students in the most direct, but effective way possible. He made science relevant and interesting. I try my best to reflect his style in my own teaching—that includes wearing a shirt and tie every day. I consider him to be a mentor and a good friend.

Costello, who will spend long days researching and collaborating with scientists aboard the vessel, will log his experiences through social mediums Twitter and Blogger.  Photo courtesy of Cy-Fair ISD

Costello, who will spend long days researching and collaborating with scientists aboard the vessel, will log his experiences through social mediums Twitter and Blogger.
Photo courtesy of Cy-Fair ISD.

You’ve called the ocean “the world’s biggest museum.” Why does it fascinate you? 

I love museums—take me to one and I’ll get lost in all that there is to see and do.   Our ocean is a vast and unknown museum. Growing up in California, I spent most of my time at the beach.

As a scuba diver, I’ve been able to discover a lot of what happens below the sea’s surface. When I taught in Torrance, CA, I used to take my students to various spots around South Bay to stoke their interest in the ocean. Whether it was a tide pool, a snorkeling trip, or a lecture at a local aquarium, I wanted my students to actively learn more about the largest museum available to them.

 

Your days at sea will be quite lengthy (6 a.m. to 7 p.m., on average). What do you do to keep the energy levels up?

Lots of black coffee! Kidding aside, there is always a good vibe when working on a research vessel. We all understand that we have work to do, but we have fun doing so. We have a good group on this project, which makes it easy to keep the energy levels up.

 

Through the power of social media, your followers will be able to track your journey in real time. What do you hope to show them through that medium?

I hope to tell the story of how science is done. It’s more than what is in a textbook.  It’s the process of obtaining data and working collaboratively toward the common goal of trying to learn more about some of our planet’s problems (and maybe uncovering new questions). I also hope to shed light on the support given by the ship’s crew. They play an important role in our research.

Costello and his fellow researchers will board the Scripps Institution of Oceanography vessel, R/V Melville, and sail out of San Diego on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Cy-Fair ISD.

Costello and his fellow researchers will board the Scripps Institution of Oceanography vessel, R/V Melville, and sail out of San Diego on Sunday.
Photo courtesy of Cy-Fair ISD.

How have your students and fellow staff at Cypress Lakes reacted to the fact that you’re taking this trip?

I think that there’s a great deal of interest. My students have been asking great questions—everything from the experiments we’ll conduct to how we tie knots. I hope that I can bring back some great stories that might encourage them to take more science…maybe even pursue a science-related career. I will miss them while I’m gone.

My colleagues have been great. I hope they can take my experience and incorporate it into their lessons. Whether it’s a science, technology, geography or photography class—it’s all very applicable.

 

After your 25-day journey is complete in June and you take that first step back onto soil, what is the first thing you will do?

I’ll help unload the ship and then head over to our hotel. Then, I’ll most likely join the group for some celebratory pizza.