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Plunging into Data: Q&A with Karen Stocks

As a research scientist at SDSC, Karen Stocks pursues interdisciplinary research at the interface of biological oceanography and information technology. She leads and is part of projects in biodiversity informatics, marine biogeography, and seamount ecology that are bringing together far flung oceanographic data collections, making them more widely accessible to scientists. She has been at SDSC since 2000 and holds a Ph.D. in biological oceanography from Rutgers University.

Your research involves projects with intriguing names such as SeamountsOnline and the Ocean Biogeographic Information System. Tell us about the new era of integrated oceanography and some examples of the science your projects make possible.

Stocks: My work focuses on using information technology to bring together data that have never been brought together before, data from many countries around the world, from different kinds of institutions, and from across disciplines of biological, chemical, geological and physical oceanography. Once we make this happen, scientists can ask questions that haven't been asked before, larger questions. For example, some of my research focuses on examining patterns of life on seamounts, which are undersea mountains. Seamounts are special environments, with lots of endemic species that are unique to that seamount. Many people have studied individual seamounts and seamount chains, and by bringing together data from many seamounts around the world we can now ask how and why one seamount differs from another across the globe, and decipher the intricate messages that seamounts can tell us about patterns of how new species are created, and how they are dispersed through the oceans. And having integrated information also opens the way to gaining crucial insights into how to manage the fragile environments of seamounts in sustainable ways for the long term.

This is an exciting time for scientists, with rapid advances in observing technologies giving oceanographers immense amounts of data. While this opens great opportunities, what are some of the challenges in having all this data?

Stocks: There are definitely a lot of technical challenges in bringing all these data together and making them available. But another problem is how to organize and coordinate such a big effort. To share data in a common system, people need to agree to document their data the same way and use standard approaches to some degree. If you are setting up international data federations, this coordination needs to happen on a global scale. I think this "social engineering" is in many ways harder than the computer engineering.

Finally, the really big challenge is for oceanographers to learn to think in new ways. These information resources aren't just to help us do our traditional work better, but perhaps more importantly will allow us to think and pursue science in entirely different ways. It will take real innovation and insight to make full use of the new tools oceanography will soon have, and it will be exciting to take part in helping these changes become part of how the ?new? oceanography is done.

What do you find most rewarding about your research at SDSC?

Stocks: I like the challenge of being at the interface of two very different fields. I need to keep current on what is happening in oceanography, but also learn about new information technology approaches, so I get to spend a lot of time learning new things. It keeps my job interesting.

Tell us about your background and how you as a biological oceanographer wound up at SDSC.

Stocks: While I was working on my doctorate at Rutgers, I became involved in a project my advisor was leading called the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). I found the work very exciting, because I saw a huge potential to make scientific advances. For my dissertation work, I was studying the ecology of salt marshes with very traditional methods -- people had been working on the same general questions for decades, and I just didn't see that my research could contribute much. But when data are brought together on a large scale for the first time, like OBIS was doing, totally new questions could be asked, in new ways -- how could that not lead to exciting advances? I knew that I wanted to pursue this research in my postdoctoral work, and UCSD was the perfect place for this -- where else is there a world-leading information technology center like SDSC right next to a world-leading oceanographic research institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography?

What activities do you enjoy outside your research?

Stocks: I have to confess that I enjoy the ocean off work as well as on. I SCUBA dive and kayak, but also like heading to one of San Diego's dog beaches with my retriever after work, just to walk and enjoy being outside. It's one of the real joys of living in San Diego. I'm pregnant with my first child now, though, so I expect that kayak trips may soon get replaced with trips to Chuck E. Cheese and the playground.

More information on the research of Karen Stocks can be found at:
Ocean Biogeographic Information System/Census of Marine Life
Marine Metadata Initiative
A Global Census of Marine Life on Seamounts (CenSeam)