I'm going to be honest with you: I never had much interest in the marine world. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, probably the most landlocked city in the United States. I never even saw the ocean until I was nearly 15 and was always way more engaged in the medical side of science. I suppose this was because I thought medicine was more relevant to me, and by learning about this area of science, I was learning about myself.
The same can be said about my interest in protecting the environment (please don't hate me!) I felt that climate change was so big of a problem that I'd never make much difference in contributing to a solution. The issue is so overwhelming that I put up a mental block against it like I was putting my fingers into my ears and saying, "I don't want to know!"
My interest in medical science led me to my current job at CÚRAM, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Medical Devices, based at the National University of Ireland Galway. Scientists at CÚRAM are developing medical solutions for people to live more comfortably. Many people live much longer than they used to, which means they must live with chronic health conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The medical devices developed at CÚRAM are made from biomaterials. These biomaterials can be made from synthetic materials, such as plastics or metals, or natural materials from nature.
Natural biomaterials from the marine world are currently being studied for various medical applications. To showcase how we can learn from the amazing capabilities of ocean creatures to create medical solutions, CÚRAM partnered with Galway Atlantaquaria to develop a new exhibit, "Marine Meets MedTech". My lack of interest in the ocean and climate change was entirely transformed by making this exhibit with Galway Atlantaquaria.
Galway Atlantaquaria are incredible at educating people (including myself!) about the ocean. They find creative ways to link with educational activities and community events. For example, they have designed special "Maths Week" tours for primary students. Maths and the ocean can be connected? Of course they can, and Galway Atlantaquaria can show you how! Another example is the monthly beach clean-ups, which allow people to meet others and learn more about the environment as they help their community by cleaning up the shore.
While developing the exhibit with Galway Atlantaquaria and marine scientists, I came to realise that marine organisms have superpowers that do not exist in land-dwelling creatures. Marine organisms live in extreme environmental conditions that do not exist on land. Depending upon what ocean zone they live, organisms can encounter unique conditions such as high pressures, cold temperatures, low light exposures, high salt concentrations, and low oxygen levels. In response to these living conditions, they must evolve special structural, physiological, and behavioural adaptations. These adaptations have led to the evolution of diverse natural compounds with beneficial chemical and physical properties. Sam Afoullouss, an SFI-funded PhD student at the National University of Galway Ireland studying deep-sea natural product chemistry, explains this superpower evolution perfectly with his prize-winning Threesis presentation, "Ireland's Deep Sea Pharmacy".
Sam also strongly influenced my change of heart towards the ocean. I highly recommend that you listen to Sam speak about the sea. He is very inspiring and paints a vivid image of the underwater world we are just beginning to discover. He has a TedxGalway talk, "The Deep Sea's Medicinal Secrets", that has received over 146,000 views.
Sam is also a deep-sea photographer and has captured incredible images of his ocean dives. It's hard to believe that the videos were filmed off the coast of Ireland and not some exotic location in the Caribbean. One video, "Connemara's Coastline", features a steely-eyed Cat Shark staring down the camera through some kelp. There is also a cheeky Spiny Spider Crab who looks as if he is trying to snatch the camera away from Sam's hands. One creature, a Violet Sea Slug, looks more like a flower that should be growing in your garden and not some animal living off the Connemara coast. Sam also captures Jewel Anemones under ultra-violet light, allowing paisley patterns of yellow, blue and orange to appear.
After a year of development, we launched our interactive exhibit at Galway Atlantaquaria, highlighting the importance of protecting the diversity of marine organisms and how they can provide cures with their unique properties. The sponge display shows where different species live around Irish coasts and how scientists are testing if the chemicals found in sponge slime can fight cancer and harmful microbes. The barnacles' area explains how new medical adhesives can be created by copying how these marine organisms glue themselves to things. The exhibit also shows how alginate from seaweed and chitosan from crustacean shells can be transformed into easily injectable 'hydrogels' that heal wounds and deliver medicine. Eye-captivating diatoms are showcased for their beauty and how their porous architecture allows for the controlled release of drugs more slowly over a longer time inside the body. Images of coccolithophore blooms are displayed, and their importance as "carbon fixers" is discussed with their potential for use in drug delivery.
Isn't it incredible that slimy sponges and jewel-like algae are helping scientists develop new ways to heal our bodies? If we lose the biodiversity of our oceans, we also lose potential ways to help fight diseases. Keeping our oceans healthy helps us discover new ways of developing medical device technology, which, in turn, keeps us healthy. Thanks to the influence of Galway Atlantaquaria and inspiring marine scientists, I now want to make an effort to protect these tiny sea creatures who can potentially offer such big cures!
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