A Woven Fabric of Science, Discovery and Partnership

Art Basel, Miami, Florida, December 2016

This story was originally published by University of Miami here on April 24, 2018. 

A scientific public-private partnership between the University of Miami and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spans over 40 years and is interwoven into nearly every discipline at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

In 1977, when Miami-Dade County’s population was nearly half of what it is today, the city recorded its first and, as it stands today, last snowball—perhaps in part because average temperatures have risen steadily ever since.

Plenty has changed in South Florida over the last four decades but one staple, the 41-year-old Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS), has remained, supporting academic and workforce development, and saving lives, ecosystems, and marine life globally by making scientific advances in understanding our oceans and atmosphere, and working on everything from improving hurricane forecasts and climate models to making fish stocks, like tuna, economically and environmentally sustainable.

The location on Virginia Key for CIMAS, a scientific public-private partnership between the University of Miami and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was strategically chosen. The offices of the Cooperative Institute’s federal partners—the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) and the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC)—were built literally across the street from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

However, the lifespan of the Fisheries Science Center building is ending, and there are ongoing discussions on whether to relocate SEFSC to St. Petersburg or another coastal city, or keep it on Virginia Key in a renovated or new facility.

Rosenstiel faculty want to keep the facilities on Virginia Key, and local officials are lobbying for the same, with Miami-Dade County, City of Miami and the Village of Key Biscayne all passing resolutions in support of keeping the status quo.

“Rather than leaving Virginia Key, there has never been a better opportunity in Virginia Key to build on excellence and continue to be the beacon of knowledge and crucial problem-solving that our partnership has provided,” said Roni Avissar, dean of the Rosenstiel School. “We have an extremely successful and enduring 40 year relationship in researching solutions to pressing problems facing the world.”

Key Biscayne Vice Mayor Frank Caplan said the longstanding partnership has been a benefit to local communities and its residents.

“The cutting-edge research that’s coming out of RSMAS, leveraging the CIMAS relationship, is being delivered at our doorstep in the form of lectures, social events and citizen science projects,” said Caplan. “We love those things. They’re great for our community, for the University and for the region as well.”

NOAA is able to fluidly collaborate with CIMAS researchers and University of Miami faculty by leveraging its close proximity to Rosenstiel, a renowned top-tier marine and atmospheric science institution working on cutting-edge research.

“Universities are at the bleeding edge of research,” said Ben Kirtman, Rosenstiel professor of atmospheric science who has been the director of CIMAS for the last two years.

A Scientific Three-Legged Stool

The CIMAS complex can be likened figuratively as well as geographically to a triangle, whose three sides are equally pivotal to its existence.

But Kirtman said it can better be understood as three legs of a stool. “I hate the cliché but it’s really true in this case. University of Miami and RSMAS are one leg, another leg is AOML, whose main focus is the physical sciences, and the other leg is NOAA Fisheries (SEFSC), which focuses on the biological sciences.”

With research themes that include climate research and impacts, tropical weather, ocean and coastal observation, ocean modeling, ecosystem modeling and forecasting, ecosystem management, and protection and restoration of resources, CIMAS’ work is so interwoven into the fabric of Rosenstiel that many people often don’t realize the breadth of work that is supported by funds and personnel associated with the Cooperative Institute.

“We’ve been here for 40 years so it’s easy to forget how important this collaboration has been,” said Kirtman. “It just becomes so seamless that you don’t even notice it.”

Announcements from NOAA on Rosenstiel’s email listserv—a de facto digital bulletin board—on everything from seminars and job postings to internships and volunteer opportunities for students to work on research vessels denotes the subtle yet pervasive interconnectedness of the government-academic partnership.

The divide within the CIMAS partnership is nearly indistinguishable in NOAA AOML’s offices, where both UM and NOAA employees work side by side in the federal offices.

“The research is very, very close. We work hand in hand,” said Molly Baringer, NOAA AOML deputy director who started her scientific career in Miami over 30 years ago as a CIMAS post-doc before becoming a federal employee with NOAA. “CIMAS also helps us bridge the gap between the rest of the faculty at UM and the Cooperative Institute researchers who are out here with us.”

Baringer said the Cooperative Institute incubates innovation and introduces graduate students to NOAA and its ongoing work. “You want to train the next generation with your data and products,” she said, adding that about a quarter of the roughly 75 CIMAS researchers at NOAA AOML are post-doctoral associates, or post-docs.

“We’re very involved with post-docs. We’re bringing in the next generation of scientists and they’ve all just got freshly minted Ph.Ds., with new thoughts and ideas. It’s a whole different perspective to bring to science problems,” said Baringer, who is a physical oceanographer by training.

Bringing in the younger generation of researchers through the CIMAS partnership helps inculcate NOAA’s focus on mission-driven, applied scientific research. Many Rosenstiel and CIMAS alum go on to work for NOAA, a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“The NOAA culture,” said Baringer, “is a little different than academia because we’re focused on applicable research that saves lives, saves money and makes fish easier to catch. Our focus is the blue economy, if you will.”

Research Through Active Learning and Engagement

CIMAS works through a multi-pronged approach: education, embedding of students and scientists, and workforce development. The Cooperative Institute is one of the very few in the nation, Kirtman explained, where NOAA federal scientists lead doctoral students’ dissertation committees, can fund students directly and can have student post-doctoral associates. And the scientific partnership is engaging students long before the graduate level—grade school students enjoy field trips and open houses to NOAA facilities, including the SEFSC Fisheries complex, high school students work summer part-time jobs in the labs, and undergraduates can intern with CIMAS and gain hands-on experience in their academic field.

“I recently spoke on campus to undergraduates promoting internship opportunities working with operational scientists at the NOAA facilities,” said Kirtman. “I can’t tell you how important that is. Often, they look at their educational component as working on theory and it’s hard to see the practical implications, but when they get the opportunities to go into one of these operational labs that has a defined mission, it really changes what they’re working on in the classroom.”

That hands-on, active learning that students enjoy by interacting with NOAA scientists and facilities, and vice versa—federal researchers can often be found working in Rosenstiel facilities and labs—is crucial for developing a strong workforce of dedicated and competent scientists ready to face current and future global challenges. About 40 percent of Rosenstiel’s research budget goes to CIMAS, said Kirtman. In other words, about 40 percent of the research that’s being done on the Rosenstiel campus is being done through the Cooperative Institute mechanism, a vast web that connects federal scientists, university researchers, graduate, and undergraduate students in areas of crucial regional, national and global importance.

“The graduate students who join my research group want to drill down to the level of week 3 or 4 hazards, weather and hurricane forecasts,” said Kirtman. “They want to be at the interface between the science that’s forward-thinking but also can be applied to saving lives. They really are citizens of the world. They want to make lives better and they see this as a way to help save the world. CIMAS is a critical component in making that happen.”

Growing and Sharing Knowledge in Our Backyard

The Cooperative Institute leverages its unique geographic position near the southeastern tip of Florida, providing a distinctive niche of conducting what Kirtman calls “in-place science” in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

Part of the research on some of the world’s biggest problems today are done in a corner of South Florida by renowned experts with a relatively modest, yet scientifically flexible budget of $125 million over five years. The applied research spans areas such as everglades restoration, fisheries research, including fish stock assessments, ocean acidification research, coral reef restoration, and hurricane modeling and forecasting. CIMAS staff, students, and researchers provide personnel and operational support to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center. Most people who fly into hurricanes to study them are part of CIMAS, and most are Rosenstiel graduate students, providing invaluable hands-on scientific research and data collection experience.

A large focus of CIMAS research has been studying the global climate system and climate change, including natural variability and anthropogenic, or manmade, change, such as researching the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). Commonly known as the Gulf Stream current, AMOC is a big part of the climate change puzzle, explained Kirtman, who was a coordinating lead author for a chapter in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth report, the most comprehensive analysis of climate change produced yet.

“We’re studying the changes and effects of AMOC, and of freshwater being dumped into the ocean from the melting of glaciers in Greenland. This is all being done here at CIMAS,” he said.

The Cooperative Institute’s location in Miami also helps NOAA AOML be a leader in what’s known as the global ocean observing system, which includes programs such as the Global Drifter Program and the ARGO Program that measure “everything from ocean surface currents to deep currents to taking a pulse of the temperature, salinity, oxygen, pH and other chemical properties of the ocean,” said Baringer. “The collaborative work NOAA does with CIMAS has really transformed the way that we observe the ocean. It’s been real game changing.”

Advancing Science Across the Country

There are currently 16 Cooperative Institutes consisting of 42 universities and research institutions across 23 states and Washington, D.C. that are associated with NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR). The research carried out at each Institute varies somewhat, but it generally “helps anticipate and respond to climate and its impacts, prepares for and responds to weather-related events, develops sustainable marine fisheries and habitats within healthy and productive ecosystems, and improves coastal and Great Lakes communities that are environmentally and economically sustainable,” according to NOAA.

“CIMAS is meant to provide a vessel to align NOAA’s operations with the fast-paced research being done at Rosenstiel,” said Kirtman, “and is in the top three of the longest running Cooperative Institutes in the country.”

It’s also the only one with a fisheries component and a physical sciences component, added Kirtman. Rosenstiel’s unique geographic location in Key Biscayne allows for seawater to be pumped in directly to the saltwater labs from the surrounding waters to support everything from pelagic fish stock assessments and coral reef restoration research to hurricane research by studying simulated storm surge and wind damage in Rosenstiel’s SUSTAIN (SUrge STructure Atmosphere INteraction) tank, a 75-foot-long, 38,000-gallon wind-wave facility that is the only one in the world capable of generating category 5 wind speeds (157 miles per hour or higher) over water.

With predictions of an increase in the number and intensity of storms and extreme weather events due to climate change and climate variability, CIMAS’ climate and storm research in its unique corner of South Florida is all the more necessary.

“We live surrounded by this marine environment. CIMAS is so obviously relevant,” said Caplan, the Key Biscayne vice mayor.

Story by Jessica M. Castillo

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