Holiday Updates + Progress on Fighting Marine Plastic

Happy Holidays! If you are reading this congratulations- you’ve almost made it through 2020! (knock on wood! keep on going, be healthy and try to be happy… you got 29 days left!). After this zoommester-I feel like myself and all of my students should win an award at this point, and looks like a lot of people feel that way based on this plaque I just found on Etsy:

In addition to surviving the 2020 zoommester- I recently blogged about how the last paper from my Delta Science Postdoctoral Research Fellowship was accepted to the Journal of Biological Control. Now it is hot off the press (Hopper et al. 2021) in all of its glory! You can access this free link and download the free scientific article for about 45 more days.. so have at it (and share it if you like it). I also want to thank California Sea Grant and the Delta Science Program for helping to fund this project and give a shout out to all of my coauthors from USDA and UC Davis. This includes my long-time undergraduate mentee (Somanette Rivas) who worked for me both when I was a grad student and when I was a postdoc, and is now at the USDA as a Research Technician! (I’m a proud mama bear… what can I say..)

Graphical Abstract from Hopper et al. 2021 (Biological Control)

If you want to learn even more about this postdoctoral research, check out my earlier blogs from 2016-2018.

Beach cleanup I organized in Oct. 2020: Photo by Maurice Roper

I also have some really exciting news related to my last blog post, where I discussed the huge problem with marine plastics and potential solutions, including beach cleanups. I promise I will soon post a Part II that details how we can all decrease our waste (including single use plastics) and how we can be more sustainable, even in these weird pandemic times. However, for now I’m excited to share that I will officially be part of the 2021 Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge! I will be on the data mapping team working with other researchers, students and activists to help solve our ocean plastic pollution problem. This program is a 6-month program focused on identifying effective, evidence-based approaches to curb the flow of plastic into the ocean, with a specific focus on marine cultural preservation and marine conservation areas along California’s coast. 

Aside from these two bits of news, I just plan on using my teaching break to chip away at all of my Fusarium spore-suspension samples from my research in collaboration with Tom Dudley’s group at UCSB on an invasive fungus-beetle team that invaded Southern California in 2004, as well as taking a road trip to Sedona w/ my hubby, mom and pitbull rescue pup- Yesenia (lots of hiking planned), and then spending some time with my in-laws! Stay heathy and happy y’all!

Sustainability and COVID19, Part I: Combatting Plastic Pollution with Socially Distanced Beach Cleanups!

I’m sure all of you have heard that our oceans are in a crisis.

Humans have been drastically altering marine ecosystems through our overexploitation of marine resources (eg. over fishing), our contribution to rising global sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification (via the greenhouse gas effect from our dependencies on and combustion of fossil fuels) and the massive amounts of pollutants that we pour into the oceans every day (eg. plastics, oil spills, toxic waste, and more). In fact today I just stumbled upon a shocking and horrifying LATimes article on the 1950s dumping of DDT off the coast of San Pedro and near Catalina island, with the latter resulting in approximately 384 to 1,535 tons of DDT dumped on the seafloor. (Absolutely awful…. I know). Plastic pollution has also been getting a lot of press in recent years as it has been acknowledged that these plastics breakdown into micro and nano particles, likely lasting for long periods of time and transferring of plastic particles and chemicals up the food chain (including to us!). In fact this plastic pollution might even threaten ocean carbon sequestration (a process which is critical in decreasing the rate of global warming).

Fig. 1 from Shen et al. 2020:
“Carbon sequestration, transportation and cycling in the ocean. DOC, dissolved organic carbon; POC, particulate organic carbon; LPOC, labile dissolved organic carbon; RPOC, recalcitrant dissolved organic carbon. Microplastics can affect the development and reproduction of marine phytoplankton and zooplankton, thus affecting the ocean carbon sequestration”

Thus- it is critical that we all take steps to prevent more damage to our oceans and at the same time help the oceans recover. The first step is reducing our waste, which I will cover in a future blog, but another step that we can all do is to cleanup our parks, streets and beaches to prevent more plastic waste from entering our oceans. We can even do this during Covid19- while socially distanced outdoors and wearing our masks and gloves!

So this ‘Zoomester’ I decided to organize a Plastic Cleanup- with an in-person beach cleanup event at Playa Del Rey Beach in Los Angeles and a remote option for those individuals that were living afar. This took place last Saturday (10/17/20) and all in all it was a tremendous success with about 15 people that participated! This included faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduates, including four undergraduates from my Environmental Studies class that I had never met in person prior to this day (I get so excited to meet people in real life now.. ha). In the below photo are two students (and roommates) from USC posing behind some of the trash that they and several others collected. Unfortunately I forgot to ask everyone to stack their trash, so I wasn’t able to document all of it.

Two USC students, Emilia Weske and Raquel Lazaro, posing in front of some of the trash they helped clear off the beach in Los Angeles, CA! ps. They live together.. hence the close proximity!

The fabulously talented photographer: Maurice Roper (USC) also came and documented the whole event! Below I have included a gallery showcasing some of the photos he took!

In addition to Maurice Roper documenting the event, I was very fortunate to have the wonderful support of USC’s Environmental Studies Program and the Wrigley Institute. I want to give a special shoutout to Dr. Jill Sohm (Director of the Environmental Studies Program) and Dr. Ann Close (Wrigley Institute, Associate Director) for their help. Lastly, I was able to use hands-free online waiver forms with the help of Kate Tucker at Resmark Systems with “WaiverSign” (I highly recommend them for your hands-free events!).

I truly felt like this event was impactful. Aside from all of the trash that we cleaned off the beach (the majority of which was plastic), there were many people that watched us and thanked us, and even some that joined us! So I have hope that this event spread awareness as to the little things that WE CAN ALL DO to help our oceans and environment!

Black Lives Matter, COVID19 and Environmental Justice

Wow has 2020 been an insane year globally and in the USA..

But has it? In my opinion things have always been insanely messed up in this country and finally now the majority of Americans paying attention and trying to do something about it.

We have seen protests all over the country and world, which is a promising sign. However, we have also seen anti-protestors, white supremacists and fascists trying to stop these protests and trying to cause harm to the protestors and African Americans.

In fact, my cousin-in-law Daniel Gregory, whom is African American, was recently shot while trying to stop an anti-protestor that had driven his car through a crowd of protestors in Seattle, WA on June 7th, 2020. You can read the article here. I am relieved Dan is in stable condition now, but he is ridden with medical expenses, so please donate to the gofundme page here if you are reading this and want to help Dan the Hero (or you can bypass the fees and send Dan funds directly through cashapp: $Dthunderg).

 “A man drives toward the crowd at 11th and Pine, injuring at least one person, before exiting the car and brandishing a firearm”. Image: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times Daniel Gregory (my cousin in-law) is pictured here reaching into the car to try to stop the driver (he was soon after shot by the driver, and now is in stable condition at a hospital). Please donate to him to help him cover his medical expenses via gofundme.

Perhaps protests like these, and those all around the world, as well as long overdue-attention have finally arrived due to the imperfect storm of COVID, Environmental injustice and civil injustice including the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other African Americans in the image below.

I’m not African-American, so Im not going to act like I know everything, or try to tell their narratives. I also have not gone into sufficient detail describing the atrocities against people of color in this nation or the concept of structural racism. Instead I’ll link to resources below this post that have been distributed from graduate students in the Earth and Sciences Department and have been circulating around at USC. Many of the resources (listed and linked below this blog) have been produced by African Americans, the very voices that deserve to be heard louder than any white narrative.

However, one subject that I am more knowledgeable in that relates intensely to the Black Lives Matter Movement is the intersections between Environmental Health and Social Justice – aka Environmental Justice.

To clarify Environmental Justice, let’s use the definition from the EPA:

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys: the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work”.

To explore how communities of color are exposed to more pollution and hazardous waste- check out this environmental justice mapping tool, and enter in your address to see what types of pollution or environmental hazards are near you.

If you live in a wealthier area, go ahead and enter in an area where you know more low-income people or people of color live.. I guarantee you that you will be shocked (or maybe not if you are already well-informed) to find out that not only are people of color more likely to be discriminated against in their day to day lives. .but they are also living in hazardous areas that are affecting their health!!! I think this outrageous, and we need to do more about this issue in our country, and around the world (Not to mention how we ship a lot of our hazardous e-waste to countries in Africa.. leading to environmental injustice from global change).

If you live in Los Angeles, CA you can even see what uncovered oil wells are near you (releasing toxic fumes daily btw… ). You can read more about how you can take action here:

“A map of active oil and gas wells in Los Angeles. (Source: DOGGR)”

Thus, in addition to restructuring police systems, holding police accountable and letting the community have a direct role in how funds are spent in a given city/town in terms of policing and safety- I also think the community needs to have a more direct role in their surrounding environment, and control over water they drink and air the breathe. For instance – remember the Flint Water Crisis? Aka the city trying to cut costs, switching water sources and then lying to the people about the quality of their water all while the residents of Flint were drinking water with extremely high lead levels and other toxins- leading to permanent health issues for many of these residents. Oh and guess what % of Flint’s population is African American?: 57%!… exactly.. that is why issues of environmental justice are CRITICAL to discuss in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement.

To illustrate another example of environmental justice, I recently worked with another professor at USC this past spring semester to incorporate a question on the intersections between Environmental Justice and COVID19 as a final essay question in my Environmental studies. Remember all of those articles about people of color, primarily African-Americans, having higher infection and mortality rates from COVID19 compared to white people in New York City? Due to systemic racism in this country, again low-income individuals and people of color predominately live in areas with poorer air and water quality, and often don’t have access to sanitary infrastructure, much less access to health insurance- and aka health care. (By the way its not like these people choose to live in these places, on the contrary -a lot of companies choose these regions because they can get away with polluting more in these areas compared to areas that are primarily white and upper class…If that’s not an unjust criminal act then I don’t know what is). All of these factors compound, and leave these people not only more susceptible to infectious diseases such as COVID19, but also less likely to recover.

Go ahead, and explore this for yourself, by using the COVID mapper:! and then again go back to the environmental justice map I showcased previously: and you will see for yourself how environmental health and social justice intersect (again this is called Environmental Justice).

I will stop here, because this has already become very long, but Environmental Justice extends way beyond what I have covered here. To learn more: check out a free youtube lecture by another professor, Chelsie Romulo (University of Northern Colorado) on environmental justice,

In addition to learning more about environmental justice and using the mapping tools above, you can take action by calling the EPA in your region about environmental justice issues of local concern, and check out the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice page.

Below, I have also included list of what you can do to become more educated about anti-racism and being a better ally to the black community. Because remember Environmental Health and Social Justice are linked, and you need to be informed about both to make a difference! You can do it.. now go out there and be the bad ass activist that you are!

Daily Learning:

Justice in June – a syllabus for folks new to anti-racism (or wanting to learn more) to spend some time each day in June learning how to be a better ally to the black community (this contains several of the resources listed below)

75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice, Corinne Shutack

Race and Racism in the Geosciences, Dr. Kuheli Dutt

Why Are College Campuses So Tense?, Claude Steele

(you can get around this paywall with your library proxy if you are part of a University)

If Not Now, When? The Promise of STEM Intersectionality in the Twenty-First Century, by Drs. Kelly Mack, Orlando Taylor, Nancy Cantor, and Patrice McDermott

Collectors, Nightlights, and Allies, Oh My! White Mentors in the Academy, Dr. Marisela Martinez-Cola

Why Teaching Black Lives Matter Matters, Jamilah Pitts

What Do I Want From White People (An Illustration of Being Black in America), Tianna (from the blog What’s Up With Tianna?) 

Sorry, I Can’t Just Focus on the Science, Naia Butler-Craig

The American Nightmare, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

Letter to my Son, Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Why is this Happening?” An Introduction to Police Brutality (some articles, some videos)

To watch:

Black Feminism & the Movement for Black Lives Matter, by Barbara Smith, Reina Gossett, and Charline Carruthers

13th (Ava DuVernay) — available on Netflix and Youtube

To listen:

A Decade of Watching Black People Die, NPR Code Switch

The Limits of Empathy, NPR Code Switch

1619 Project, created by Nikole-Hannah Jones (New York Times)

Books to read:

How To Be An Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (for an excerpt, see “Letter to my Son” above)

New Teaching Gig at USC: Ecology and Env. Studies!

So, I have some exciting changes and news! Starting Monday I will be teaching two undergraduate classes at USC this Fall! I recently changed positions at USC as a postdoctoral researcher (studying parasite-host interactions in the marine phytoplankton community) to a new postdoctoral teaching fellow position. As much as I love research, I really missed teaching and mentoring and wanted to dive deep into teaching to gain more experience as an instructor of record.

Photo of USC campus from:

I will be teaching an upper division Ecology course with a lab (BISC 315), and a lower division Environmental Studies course (ENST100). I’ll also be participating in USC’s CET New Faculty Institute , a faculty development program. I’m super stoked, and have been hustling for the past month to modify and design the curriculum and get all of the materials ready for the Ecology lab course. I thought most of my time would be modifying and designing new lectures and labs…. and I’ve definitely had some surprises along the way regarding where all of my time goes:

  • It takes a lot of time to prep a lab room/facility if by chance you are ‘lucky’ enough  to have a lab that does’t have a lab manager…. The benefits are that I don’t need to share the lab w/ too many other classes.. so I can leave things set up from time to time. Plus my TA can use the lab as her office hours! Cons- it is up to me to fix everything and get everything ready for the semester! So I definitely spent some time on tasks like getting rid of that old whiteboard that doesn’t erase anymore and fixing the new one that somehow arrived broken (thanks to the hubby for the latter!). On the same note- all of that old hazardous waste in the fume hood.. yup- need to condense it and call EH&S to whisk it away. ….Those old dead snails that have been rotting in the back of the room for over 6 months.. .yea I put those in the dumpster. That cart with some strange devices that look like broken microscopes.. turns out nobody knows who it belongs to.. but it can’t be thrown away. I think that one will just get put in storage….  Oh and then the broken Monitor that we need to use for presentations…thank goodness for IT support…


  •  Then there is the ordering and organizing of all of the supplies for each lab. Which means you have to modify or design labs and fully prep all of the lab instructions and hand outs before the semester starts (which is a good thing anyhow). I did this… and I even made sure we had phase-contrast microscopes before I designed a lab. However I learned a big lesson- always physically check out the equipment before you spend all of the time designing a lab and handouts! Turns out – the phase-contrast microscopes  that we have available for our teaching labs don’t have 20X objectives. Later I learned it is standard for most microscopes to only have 4X 10X 40X and 100X.. and I guess 20X is rare.. who knew!?! Unfortunately, one of the labs I spent a couple days designing (including all the handouts, instructions and reading materials)- requires 20X objectives lens… oops! So had to scrap that one and cut my losses. In the end it worked out and I extended a lab on insect diversity instead which I think will be better anyhow. On this note- I am super grateful to the Entomology Curator, Brian Brown, at the Natural History Museum for donating some of their no-data insects for my class insect collection. Im planning on putting them on a backdrop of the phylogeny and evolution of insects (Misof et al. 2014, Science) so students can see the different adaptations that have evolved through time in the Class Insecta.

In a couple weeks I will mount these onto a phylogeny backdrop w/ an evolutionary timescale.. new photos to come later. Insects courtesy of the Natural History Museum’s Entomology Collection in Los Angeles.

  • Lastly there are the little things- like moving into a new office and setting up the space so that it is beneficial for office hours; learning how to use the departmental printer/copier; going to all of the classrooms and making sure my computer connects properly (and organizing those chairs in the classroom since it looks like a rave recently happened!); and meeting with teachers and TAs that taught the classes in previous years so that I can get the run-down on what worked and what didn’t work.


Then when I do actually have time to work on my lectures.. I find myself going down rabbit holes of finding cool documentaries for my Environmental Studies lectures, such as my new one on the interactions of society, culture and the environment- (Check out this cool documentary series on Native Americans and their stewardship of the land and waters); or going through all of the scientific literature on interesting topics that I am incorporating into my lectures such as sex-changing fish for my ecology lecture on mating behavior and sexual selection (which by the way is how I got interested in ecology in the first place over 20 years ago!.. oh geez Im getting old!)

Screenshot 2019-08-24 10.58.16
Figure 1: Todd et al. 2017. Female Mimicry by Sneaker Males Has a Transcriptomic Signature in Both the Brain and the Gonad in a Sex-Changing Fish. Mol. Biol. Evol. doi:10.1093/molbev/msx293

Anyhow… Monday is right around the corner.. so with that Im going to start uploading everything onto our online BlackBoard system… here we go!

Ps- if any of my students are reading this— don’t worry- I got this! You are in good hands… ha ha ha. 

Spring Bloom Sampling in California

One of the reasons I haven’t posted for a bit besides the normal-busy routine is that it is Spring Time! What’s that got to do with anything you ask?


Me in the Anza-Borrego Desert next to an Ocotillo plant
Me in the Anza-Borrego Desert in California, next to a flowering Ocotillo plant

Besides blooms of flowers in the desert  (such as those in the Anza-Borrego Desert), we also get blooms of phytoplankton along the coast in Southern California.

Here, in the spring we get very high winds that can result in upwelling events in the coastal ocean, pushing waters offshore and bringing up cold, nutrient rich water from the bottom ocean layers to the top layers.

This increase in nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorous, iron, etc.) can result in massive ‘blooms’ or increases in specific phytoplankton species (diatoms, dinoflagellates, etc.), since typically their densities are limited by nutrient availability. During these blooms, whoever wins the space and resource competition will dominate… until they get run down by grazers, parasites or viruses.. or run out of their limiting nutrient. Once these species decline this then provides space/resources for the next dominating species.

Upwelling Diagram from Sanctuary Quest 2002, NOAA/OER
of Upwelling (Image from Sanctuary Quest 2002, NOAA/OER)

These upwelling events also offer AWESOME opportunities for scientists to examine the species dynamics, and the mechanisms that result in some species or functional groups of phytoplankton to dominate over others.

This year, our laboratory  (the Caron Laboratory at USC) decided to start our sampling period after we noticed strong winds on April 9th.. and I mean Strong! I was biking to my circus class that evening, and a branch literally flew and hit me.. luckily I was wearing a helmet 🙂  During lab meeting that week, we were all telling each other the horror stories of the strong wind, and realized.. ‘woah!’… we should start our spring sampling asap! So we quickly contacted the amazing Santa Monica Pier Aquarium (Heal The Bay) and received permission to use some of the space there to do our sample processing for three weeks. Then we finalized our schedules, rotating each daily to sample and process the water off of the Santa Monica Pier. Each day at 8:30am, we get to the aquarium, load up our cart with the RBR (an oceanographic instrument that measures temperature, salinity, chlorophyll and dissolved oxygen), a bucket and container for loading up sea water, and a 20 micron plankton net to collect a concentrated water sample. Then by 9am, we are loading up water into our collection container, and then rolling the water back to the aquarium to filter some of it down as fast as possible onto filters that we flash freeze for DNA/RNA extractions. We also preserve some of the whole sea water for relative abundance counts of the different organisms via microscopy, and we  sample the water for extraction of chlorophyll and domoic acid (toxin produced by some diatoms). Once we get back to the lab, we inspect the concentrated samples from the plankton net to get a quick overview of who is in the water, and who is the dominating species.


This year the sampling has been super interesting! It started off with a diatom and dinoflagellate bloom, and it looks like the diatoms have been CRUSHED by a parasitoid, Cryothecomonas spp.! Once the diatoms crashed, the dinoflagellates  increased more, in particular two species are currently dominating: Akashiwo sanguinea and Cochlodinium spp. (species will be determined after we get our molecular sequences back). I also found some tintinnid ciliates parasitized by Eudoboscquella parasitoids.. so beautiful.


In addition to using molecular sequences for identification of the different taxa, our laboratory also analyzes the RNA sequences (using bioinformatics) to examine gene expression of the different taxa that are increasing and decreasing during the bloom. These methods can help us determine when species are taking up specific nutrients, when they are multiplying, when they are stressed, and even if they are being attacked by parasites. Lastly, my work in particular during this spring bloom will examine the dynamics of these species and their parasites through time using qPCR (quantifies the relative number of the hosts and parasites by comparing samples to standard curves).

We have five more days left of daily sampling, and I will be sure to follow up with another blog on the results of this spring bloom sampling period. I will also post soon about the exciting results from a massive laboratory experiment that I just finished. Stay tuned!