Dive Into the Ocean and Learn the Secrets of the Brain

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The Exchange played cruise director for a diverse group of entertainers who gathered together in La Jolla, California, to tour the Salk Institute of Biological Studies and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Among their ranks were producers, writers, directors, and educators who came together to learn about the newest and most exciting scientific innovations that southern California has to offer.

The group was split in two after breakfast. Much like a movie where twins are separated at birth, both groups went on similar tours throughout the day, mirroring the other’s experience. While one group toured the Salk Institute, the other half went to explore what lies deep below the ocean surface.

At the Salk Institute, head scientist, Ricardo Gil da Costa, led the group around the expansive and beautiful campus that is perched right on the shoreline. Established in 1959 by Jonas Salk, the Salk Institute boasts an impressive array of scientific innovations. 

The majority of the labs contain technology that can been seen only on the Salk campus, nestled along the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean, and many experiments seem as if they are ripped straight from the silver screen. The Salk Institute focuses its research on biological studies and on this tour our group received a special look inside the brains of the Salk scientists, literally.

Film and new media producer, Diana Williams and director, Jon Amiel bravely volunteered to partake in what is known as a functional MRI. Functional MRI technology allows scientists to see a real-time picture of what is happening within a patient’s brain. 

While inside the machine, Diana and Jon were asked to do a series of tasks, including lying still, relaxing, tapping their fingers, and also visualizing themselves playing tennis against an opponent. These tests allowed the scientists to view which parts of the brain were active during each activity. When Diana found herself creaming her fictional tennis opponent, the motor cortex of her brain lit up on the screen! This demonstration certainly gave a whole new meaning to the saying “I want to pick your brain.”

While the morning tour could have easily been enough to fill an entire day, the team marched on to check out some of the amazing work that is being done just down the street. 

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography is easily one of the most beautiful places to work that we have ever seen. Similar to Salk, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has beautiful sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, rife with surfers trying to catch the next best wave.

Among the “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” our group of entertainers got to learn a little bit about what lies beneath the surface of the crashing ocean waves. Doug Bartlett was the chief scientist on James Cameron’s expedition to the Mariana Trench last March. He spoke to us about the expedition and what it was like to explore the deepest part of the ocean floor. Talk about vacation photos that you actually want to see! 

One of the most exciting parts of the tour was when an intrepid group of students welcomed us into their nearly pristine laboratory to give us a glimpse of some of their experiments.

Full of life and incredibly knowledgeable, these students explained the ins and outs of their experiments that center on a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Ocean acidification occurs when ocean water absorbs an excess amount of carbon dioxide from polluted air. The excess carbon dioxide leads to an imbalanced PH level in the ocean water. This can in turn have a direct impact on the deterioration of the beautiful coral reefs that many of us love to view during our family vacations and snorkeling excursions.

The Exchange had a great time exploring the southern California coast! If you would like more information about upcoming tours or to see more photos of our trip, visit us on Facebook or Twitter @SciEntEx

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.