Meet The Scientists Behind The Wheel Of The ‘Biology Bus’

There’s lots to be said about the van life. It’s cheap, but certainly not without its complications. Yet many, many, many people are willing to deal with the rough patches in order to experience the unbound sense of freedom.

For University of California at Irvine students Nyssa Silbiger, Piper Wallingford, and Savannah Todd, the van life isn’t just about adventure. It’s also offering them a mobile workspace. Silbiger, a post-doctoral researcher, and Wallingford, a PhD student, needed to collect data for their research over the summer and knew that the hardcore science-ing would take them all the way up the Pacific coast. So, with the help of sponsors GoWesty, UCI’s OCEANS Initiative, and Uproxx, the trio secured a tricked-out Eurovan to act as their portable living space/lab from July to September.

We recently got the chance to catch up with the busy researchers behind the Biology Bus to see how life on the open road is treating them.

What is it that you are doing this summer, research-wise?

Silbiger: We’re traveling the coast of the U.S. from southern California all the way up to Washington, doing research on intertidal marine communities. Piper and I are doing two different projects, but the thing that joins us together is that we’re both looking at climate change, and how it affects our coastal ecosystem.

One of the greatest environmental challenges of our time is to understand how the carbon dioxide we are putting into the atmosphere is impacting our environment. Climate change resulting from human-based carbon dioxide is causing an array of stressors on our marine ecosystems, including ocean warming and ocean acidification. But, if we really want a handle on how these stressors may change the fate of our oceans, we must first understand how the organisms in the ocean respond to natural changes in carbon dioxide.

Every single living thing on this planet changes the chemistry around them just by breathing or photosynthesizing, changing the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the air and water. For my research, I’m using tidepool communities, communities made up of marine algae, mussels, sea anemones and many other beautiful critters, to test how these organisms both change and are impacted by their local environment. We’re in a collection phase — we’re only at the second site so far, but I am really excited about what this research will show.

Wallingford: I study predator/prey interactions. I look at how climate change is shifting the distributions of predator species and prey species, and whether they’ll overlap in the future. And I have two sets of data at this point. I look at the number of predators in an area, and then I also look at the vertical range of prey species.

What part does Savannah play in your research?

Silbiger: Savannah is a recent UCI grad helping us out with both of our research projects.

Todd: I’m traveling along and helping out. I worked with both of them in the lab when I was in college.

Silbiger: We literally wouldn’t be able to do this without Savannah’s help. All the research that we’re trying to do is a lot of work.

What does a typical day look like for you three?

Silbiger: Well, I can tell you about today, which was Piper’s project. Today we woke up at 3:40 in the morning and we went out to the tidal area, which is right over there. We laid out some transects and we counted mussels and barnacles and these little predatory snails called nucella. We were done before eight o’clock in the morning, so we came back, ate breakfast, took a long nap, and now I’m talking to you. That’s Piper’s day.

My typical day is actually day and night. I do experiments inside tide pools where I’m measuring chemistry over an entire tidal cycle, so in the morning we’ll go out, and every hour for six hours we’ll measure different water samples. We’ll look for nutrients, pH, measure alkalinity in fifteen different tide pools — and then we’ll go back in the middle of the night and do it again. The last experiment we did started at six in the morning and ended around noon, and then we went back again at nine p.m. and got home at five o’clock in the morning. So we had a daytime and a nighttime cycle.

The time between is basically spent prepping for the next day, sleeping, and eating. It’s a lot of work.

So you’ll do all the analysis when you get back to the lab at UCI.

Silbiger: Yes, exactly. We’re just taking samples, and then when we go back to school we’ll process all of the water samples I’ve collected.

Will your research be an ongoing thing, or is it just this summer?

Silbiger: Right now, just this summer, I’m looking at how these tide pool communities are changing the chemistry around them and how that interacts with climate change. Next summer, I’m going to be doing more manipulative experiments where I’m adding CO2 into the pools as if it was CO2 coming in from the atmosphere.

Wallingford: It’s sort of the same for me as well. This summer is more observational, but it’s part of my dissertation project, so I’ll be conducting more manipulative experiments to build off of it in the future.

Tell us about the Biology Bus.

Silbiger: GoWesty donated this bus to us for this entire trip, and last night was the first night we actually slept in the camper van. We were in Monterrey before — we hadn’t had the bus donated to us yet. Now we have this amazing camper van. It’s a popup with two beds, another area that turns into a bed, a kitchen…it’s got it all. It’s been really nice, because as students and post-doctoral researchers, getting funding can be really difficult.

Now we can sleep and eat in our laboratory, essentially.

Do you have to spend a lot of nights on the road?

Silbiger: Yeah, it’s a lot of nights on the road. We’re coming back August 25, and we’re going to be staying in the bus as much as possible. There are a couple places where we’ll be staying in some dormitories, because they’re already laboratories that are set up, but for the most part we’re staying in the camper van.

Any challenges with it yet?

Silbiger: The first challenge was really stupid! When I left the GoWesty parking lot, I forgot about the parking brake. They have that on video. Other than that, we haven’t had any challenges yet, because we’ve only had it for a couple days. It’s been really fun cooking in here and staying in here…it’s super nice.

It looks like you’re having fun, even if it is a lot of work.

Silbiger: Exactly. It’s super fun. Actually, we were just talking about this. This is our favorite part of why we became marine biologists. It’s super fun to be out in the field and doing things, getting our hands dirty. Sitting in the lab, behind a computer…we have to do it, but that’s not the fun part. I don’t want to be writing and analyzing constantly. This is the fun part for us.

If you’d like to support some awesome lady scientists doing awesome research, you can make a donation to the Biology Bus cause here.