Next Generation: Blake Clark

December 30, 2016

Hometown: Nipomo, California (near San Luis Obispo)

Advisor: Raleigh Hood, Horn Point Laboratory

Research Area: My work focuses very broadly on the dissolved organic carbon cycle: We have all this carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it’s a greenhouse gas and plants on land as well as plants in the ocean (phytoplankton) take up that carbon and convert it into biomass, or the living tissue of those organisms. My focus is on what happens to all that organic stuff. 

Why it makes a difference: There is as much dissolved organic carbon in the ocean as there is carbon dioxide (CO₂) in the atmosphere. You can’t see it, just like if you took a spoonful of sugar and dissolve it in a cup of water, but unlike sugar—which is just one compound that we can easily characterize—we don’t really know what dissolved organic carbon is. It’s a mixture of thousands of different things and we’re just now getting the capability to characterize it analytically. One of the most important things we’re still trying to figure out is how long is it going to stay organic? If you burn a piece of wood, you turn it back into CO₂, but if it remains wood, it will remain removed from the atmosphere for an extended period of time. So with this huge pool of organic carbon, we want to understand how long is it going to stay that way and how is it changing over time. If there’s a very small change in that pool that causes some of it to go back to CO₂, like for instance when the oceans warm up, that could exacerbate the problem of global warming.

Why did you get interested in environmental science? I started my degree in my undergrad at UC Santa Barbara (Go Gauchos!) in aquatic biology because I love the outdoors and I love fishing. Now I study chemistry and microbial ecology—far from fishing—but I am passionate about researching the important role the microscopic realm plays in global chemistry. There are more bacteria in the ocean than stars in the known universe, so it’s a great place for discoveries.

There are more bacteria in the ocean than stars in the known universe, so it’s a great place for discoveries.

Why UMCES? I have been at Horn Point as an UMCES student since the summer of 2014. I came to Horn Point because of the opportunity to work in a cutting-edge laboratory under my advisor, Raleigh Hood, and the strong interdisciplinary research at UMCES. The wonderful challenges and opportunities that the Chesapeake Bay provides also appealed to me. The great fishing and Eastern Shore lifestyle sealed the deal.

What are your future plans? I plan to stay in academia pursuing a career in higher education and research in oceanography and environmental chemistry. I want to educate and train future scientists so we can continue to find solutions to human-induced climate change and increase our general understanding of the complex place we call home.

What’s the most important thing people can do to help the environment? We all need to constantly think about our carbon footprint on an individual basis. We can do small, easy things to reduce the impact we have on the environment in a big way. No more plastic bags!