Cool Job: This ecologist is studying an ocean of changes

He’s collecting data to better understand humanity’s role in and on the warming seas

Malin Pinsky, 38, is a marine ecologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Since shortly after finishing college, he’s been curious about the oceans and how people and our changing climate are affecting them.

Jeff Heckman, Courtesy of Rutgers Univ.

Malin Pinsky had the first of two lightbulb moments in 2003 while crossing the churning Drake Passage. It separates the tip of South America from Antarctica. He was standing on the bridge of a research ship. Just five months earlier he had finished college, where he studied biology and environmental science. Now he was scanning the sky for seabirds. It was one of his duties as a research technician on the cruise. But his eyes kept straying to the vast, mysterious slate-blue ocean.

As the ship entered nutrient-rich Antarctic waters, water-temperature gauges on the bridge abruptly dropped. Whales suddenly showed up all around the ship. “It was stunning,” recalls Pinsky, now 38. Today he’s a marine ecologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. But that moment on the bridge helped him realize “that the ocean looks featureless from the top, but there’s so much going on underneath.”

The second lightbulb moment hit him several months later. The locale was far less captivating. Pinsky was then an intern in Washington, D.C. for Oceana. It’s a conservation group. His job was making photocopies. Lots of them.

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Goddard_Photography/iStock/Getty Images Plus
While scanning for seabirds here, in the Drake Passage, Pinsky began to appreciate that “the ocean looks featureless from the top, but there’s so much going on underneath.”

It was around when two big reports had come out. Both focused on what policies might best preserve U.S. ocean resources. “And I realized, wait a minute. We have all these laws and policies that determine how we as a society interact with the ocean. And they’re far out of date.” The problem, Pinsky realized: “We don’t yet have the science to know what the new policy should be.”

Today he runs a sprawling lab — with a cast of about 20. And it’s leading a charge to collect those data. Amidst this era of global warming, “The overarching focus of the lab is to understand how marine ecosystems are changing,” Pinsky says. His team wants to learn why ocean ecosystems are changing. They also are searching for “choices we can make as a society to alter that course.”

One research area has gotten a lot of media attention over the last year: how warming ocean waters are reducing the share of fish that can be harvested sustainably around the globe. His team’s work was included in a high-profile international report. It suggested that nearly 1 million species are facing possible extinction. Part of what’s putting those fish at risk is what people are doing. 

Pinsky’s team also seeks to learn how our changing climate, as well as overfishing and habitat destruction, might be driving changes in fish and other animals in the sea. To find out, team members travel each year to coral reefs near the Philippines. There, they carefully catalog populations of clown fish. They collect data on the growth and mating of these fish, their diversity and other factors. A staggering number of different things could affect clown fish numbers.

These researchers are also studying whether recent changes in climate have driven genetic changes among Atlantic cod and other fish in the sea. Maybe that would explain why some fish are now maturing at younger ages, for example.

Focused and data-driven

Such a rigorous, data-driven approach to studying how well species can tolerate warming seas is “incredibly important,” says Kimberly Oremus. She’s a fisheries economist at the University of Delaware in Newark. Pinsky’s broad approach to the problem — looking at species, where they live and how fisheries are managed — is setting the pace for other scientists, she adds. “He’s pushing the whole field to respond to his growing body of research.”

Looking for the big picture has always been a trait of Pinsky’s, says Stephen Palumbi. He works at Stanford University in California. He also was Pinsky’s PhD advisor at that school. Pinsky was “always raring to do a thousand different things in a hundred different ways,” Palumbi recalls.

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M. Stuart/Rutgers Univ.
A swarm of fish surrounds marine ecologist Malin Pinsky at a reef off the coast of Leyte island in the Philippines in 2017.

Pinsky’s seemingly boundless energy has become legendary. Michelle Stuart is a marine biologist who has worked in Pinsky’s lab since 2013. She recalls sitting on the team’s boat, exhausted after a long day of fieldwork. “Someone was just below the surface, kicking,” she says. “And it was like one of those windup dolls that you put in the bathtub, you know, ch-ch-ch.” She realized it was Pinsky. Here it was “after a long day of diving,” she says, and “he’s still, like, 120 percent.”

At times in the past, Pinsky has been more interested in “what’s the big idea?” than in small early-stage ideas, says Rebecca Selden. She’s a marine ecologist who joined the lab in 2015. (Pinsky concurs, noting that he once had a reputation as “Dr. No.”) But over the last four years, she says, Pinsky’s leadership style has evolved. He now creates space where ideas have room to grow. Selden, who in July left Pinsky’s lab to start her own at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, plans to take those lessons with her.

Visit www.sciencenews.org/webinars to join an Oct. 22 chat with Malin Pinsky.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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