In November this year I was lucky enough to be flown to Irvine, California for “the Woodstock of conferences” – the 2016 National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI). I was invited in order to bring my biomedical engineering perspective to a diverse group of artists and scientists discussing ocean exploration.

Diverse interests in the Deep Blue Sea

For each of the 15 years it has been running, the conference has had a different theme, from prosthetics to nuclear technology and in it’s final year, the theme was Discovering The Deep Blue Sea. About 65% of the 150 or so attendees were ocean scientists of one kind or another. The rest were outsiders, like myself, coming from other scientific fields and various streams of art and design such as film and music. Attendees were selected not only because of achievements in their own fields, but because they had demonstrated a deep appreciation for multidisciplinary work. It was wonderful to be at a conference where it was the norm for every scientist/engineer to have other interests such as a semi-professional dance career or running a public-engagement project.

What was unique about the NAKFI conference format was that the cohort spent almost every waking moment together over the 4 days. The atmosphere was similar to a school outing. By the end I felt like I knew at least half the people there and the intensity of the schedule meant that everyone felt a connection because of their shared experience.

Kicking-off from the Pacific Ocean

The conference kicked off with a welcome reception at our swanky hotel in Huntington Beach, with lots of speculation and trepidation about how this improbable sounding conference would unfold:

The first day opened with introductory talks about multi-disciplinary work, including talks by David Edwards from the Wyss Institute, artist and film maker Doug Aitken, and Oliver Morton from The Economist:

Forming groups and developing pitches

Next, attendees split off into multi-disciplinary groups based on their particular interest in the ocean, such as climate change, biodiversity, energy or aquaculture. I chose the technology group because of my interest in sensors. (At Science Practice we’re interested in sensing technologies, whether that might be soil tests or cognitive assessments.)

We were told that the conference would culminate with each group presenting their proposal to improve some aspect of the ocean, and that these proposals could be developed into funding applications for the Keck Futures Initiative.

In our groups, we explored some of the challenges and opportunities in our areas. Groups spontaneously resized and reorganised. Ideas that were explored in my technology group ranged from the fantastic (biodegradable cameras made out of jellyfish), to the imminently feasible (a citizen science scavenger hunt for lost oceanographic measurement instruments).

By the end my group had settled to include impressive ocean scientists Melissa Omand, Ken Buesseler, Anela Choy, Anna Michel, and students Joshue Molina and Kristen Torralba from the ArtCenter College of Design.

If NAKFI is the perfect Science Practice conference, then the next activity was the perfect Science Practice brief: putting scientific concepts into practice. My group identified a need for improved ocean monitoring, as well as a promising new measurement technique inspired by Melissa’s recent trip to a photography exhibition. Over the remainder of the conference, we developed our pitch for a small, low-cost device to measure the falling rate of marine snow.

Marine snow is not something I knew existed before the conference but I learnt an incredible amount from my group. In turn, I tried to relate our project to approaches and challenges in the healthcare domain. For example, flow cytometry which is used for counting cells could also be useful in oceanography. There were a surprising number of common concepts: the fact that both the human body and the ocean are harsh environments for sensors with the common problem of bio-fouling. There were also a couple of approaches from Science Practice which I found helpful while working in our groups:

  • Question long-held assumptions, ask the basic questions and don’t be afraid to be wrong: when you’re not immersed in the scientific field or considered an expert, you have a lot more freedom to do this!
  • Create a prototype quickly which exposes all your assumptions: we turned abstract ideas into a sketch, and sketches into a 3D model we could pass around. This makes sure everyone is on the same page and stimulates further questions and ideas quickly.
  • Use some detail to make the idea more tangible: seemingly mundane details are sometimes the ones that help turn an overwhelming idea into something that seems achievable, even if they are just guesses.
  • However, don’t forget to see the big picture: especially when trying to communicate an idea, avoid falling down a rabbit hole of detail. We wrote out the key points of the idea on less than 5 post-it notes of keywords.

The intense brainstorming sessions were also punctuated with refreshing activities like a visit to an exhibition called The Trouble With Jellyfish, and an outdoor poster session, where I presented SoilCards. I worried that SoilCards might seem too terrestrial a topic for the conference, but many ocean scientists are interested in chemical measurements and low-cost, portable technology for remote sensing. Ocean scientists are also appreciative of technology which prevents run-off of excess fertiliser into rivers and ultimately, the ocean.

Pitching ideas to improve ocean science and conservation

The final presentations were a very clear reminder that NAKFI is no typical scientific conference. With the lights turned off in the auditorium, one group used the illumination of their phones to act out the lives of deep-sea luminescent fish. Another group entangled the entire audience in a ball of string and instead of Powerpoint slides overcrowded with graphs, there were illustrations that unrolled on a scroll of butcher paper. Through all this, the main theme that emerged was an interest in using technology to create a multi-sensory, immersive experiences that engage more people with the otherwise intangible deep sea.

With my background in engineering for human health, I never expected to find myself presenting on stage at an ocean science conference. However, feedback from other ocean experts was that our group’s project is worth pursuing.

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My group on the final day of NAKFI2016 when we pitched our idea for a small, low-cost device to measure the falling rate of marine snow.

The conference not only taught me about ocean science, but gave me a new appreciation for ocean conservation. I loved working with scientists in a completely different field, which made me think that scientists in seemingly disparate fields may have more in common than they think. Many attendees remarked that it was an incredibly productive 4 days of research. This was partly due to not having any distractions, the wonderful selection of people and the very experienced organising committee. But mostly it was an amazing conference because working in inter-disciplinary teams can produce pretty amazing results.