Music

Compose yourself

Professor Emeritus of Music David Evans Jones conducts a group of musicians playing one of his compositions for Korean instruments, including a daegeum (second from left), a long bamboo flute, and gayageums (middle and right), 12-stringed zithers that Jones said produce “the most beautiful sound in the world.” Credit: Courtesy of David Evans Jones, with permission.

Professor David Evan Jones discovered traditional Korean music in 1996, at the first of now six UC Santa Cruz Pacific Rim Music Festivals, the last held in 2017. Organized by Professor Hi Kyung Kim, Jones's Music Department colleague and fellow music theorist and composer, the festivals bring to campus musicians from Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and Korea, among other countries, to share and perform new music. It was there, Jones said, that he began to form lasting friendships with a community of Korean musicians, leading to the professional premiere of his chamber opera, Bardos, in downtown Seoul.

That first trip to Korea in 2004, Jones said, sparked his interest in composing music for traditional Korean instruments, including the daegeum, a long bamboo flute, and the gayageum, a 12-stringed zither. “I have technical and theoretical curiosities about the ways music can be and is put together in different cultures,” said Jones, who also creates music compositions using computers and unconventional sources such as audio from news broadcasts.

Writing music for Korean instruments required multiple attempts to get right, Jones said. Ultimately, though, he said he was very pleased with the 2017 performances in New York, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and Seoul of his Dreams of Falling for a full Korean orchestra. His favorite instrument? The gayageum. “It makes the most beautiful sound in the world,” Jones said.

—Annie Melchor

Electrical and Computer Engineering

Reimagining imaging

Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Shiva Abbaszadeh reads at least one journal paper a day to stay versed on potential applications for the complex imaging instruments she and her laboratory team develop. Credit: Christopher C. Lee, courtesy of Shiva Abbaszadeh.

On September 20, 2018, some 50 Bay Area dance artists, choreographers, educators, funders, and administrators gathered in Oakland for a “long-table discussion.” On the table? A social justice issue still unacknowledged by most in dance—racial inequity. The Oakland public forum, the first of many around the country, kick-started Dancing Around Race, a community engagement project sponsored by Hope Mohr Dance, a dance organization dedicated to “creating and supporting embodied art and social change.”

At the center of the conversations stood their lead organizer, Gerald Casel, a person whose lived experience gives him first-hand knowledge of dance’s racialized issues and the skills and drive to do something about it. Casel wears many hats: queer, Filipinx immigrant, first-gen college graduate, highly accomplished dance artist, award-winning performance maker, cultural and community activist. Oh, and, also, Associate Professor of Theater Arts, and, since 2020, Provost of Porter College.

Insights from Dancing Around Race now extend into workshops Casel is piloting, as well as teaching modules for higher education and K–12 performing arts curricula, all directed at facilitating candid discussions in brave spaces. “It’s the system that’s racist, not necessarily the people,” Casel said. “There’s a lot of potentially problematic issues around appropriation, tokenism, and cultural mismatch—we want to unpack all that and talk about it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.”

—Erin Malsbury

Ocean Sciences

Helping kelp

Sea otters, like this one caught snoozing in the Monterey Bay, today have fewer spots to park themselves due to recent, atypically massive declines in the kelp forests that usually blanket a good deal of Northern California coastal waters. The origins and extent of this ecological upset, as well as potential interventions to address it, are a focus of research for the Raimondi-Carr Lab. Credit: Pixabay (CC0).
With the die-off of the sea stars that kept them in check, populations of purple sea urchins have exploded, contributing to massive declines in kelp forests along the California coast and replacing them with “urchin barrens” like the one seen here. Credit: Katie Davis/UC Santa Barbara (public domain).

In 2014, kelp, an iconic feature of coastal California, started dying—and kept dying. Per a UC Santa Cruz-led study published in 2021, the once lush forests of this bulb-topped, giant algae off the California coast had, by 2019, receded by more than 95%. Taking their place? A barren sea floor crawling with spiny sea urchins.

Historical records indicate that kelp abundance cycles with environmental conditions, typically declining as coastal waters warm. But the latest die-off appears poised for persistence. An atypically dogged warm water mass lasting from 2014 to 2016 (nicknamed “The Blob”) likely initiated the kelp decline. But then, a strong El Niño followed. The unusually extended warming exacerbated disease-related die-offs of the sea stars that eat urchins. Not surprisingly, the numbers of purple sea urchins—the voracious primary predators of kelp—exploded. How long this possibly climate change-related ecological upset will last is unclear. “I think the kelp will return,” said Professor Peter Raimondi, who co-leads the coastal ecosystem-focused Raimondi-Carr Lab with Professor Mark Carr. “The more important question is will such die-offs become more common.”

In a step towards potentially helping kelp to recover, Raimondi’s genetics-based research has identified kelp subpopulations adapted to thrive at different water temperatures. If coastal policy called for human intervention, Raimondi said, “You could theoretically restore kelp populations from a “seed bank” with stock adapted to current or expected temperature ranges.”

—Bethany Augliere

Computational Media

Playing for real

BTS, a popular, seven-member Korean boy band, sold out their largest ever concert, attended by some 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, part of the bands’ 2019 “Love Yourself” tour, in 10 minutes. Seen here is the “Purple Ocean” of fans during the tour’s concert in Bangkok, Thailand. Per band folklore, purple became significant in 2016 when, on a stage bathed in purple light, band member “V” exclaimed to fans that he “purpled them,” interpreted to mean “I will love and care for you for a long time.” Credit: Chris Belison (CC BY 3.0).

Kate Ringland can spend hours each day on Twitter “posting tons of nonsense” while engaging with accounts dedicated to the popular Korean boy band BTS. But for Assistant Professor Ringland, a long-time member of ARMY, the official—40 million-strong—fandom of BTS, scrolling through the memes isn’t just for fun. She’s making observations, taking notes, and asking questions, all part of her research to explain and characterize how playful online communities like ARMY enable acts of care and promote social activism.

Contrary to the craziness some might imagine happening in a stereotypical fandom of rabid teen girls, real mental health support occurs in ARMY, Ringland said. With outcomes like those achieved in, for example, a depression support group, online interactions amongst ARMY members have the potential to provide substantial benefit. On Ringland’s Twitter account where she shares content for disabled ARMY members, as many as half a million people have viewed her posts. “That kind of reach is unheard of in other support settings,” she said.

Social media content, like this meme posted by one of the 40 million fans in ARMY, the official fandom of the popular Korean band BTS, often include inspirational quotes from one of the band’s members. Credit: Courtesy of Kate Ringland (public domain).

By studying the ways play-based online communities support marginalized individuals, especially people with disabilities, Ringland hopes to better understand what it means to be social. “There are really positive, important caring activities happening in these online spaces,” Ringland said. “We shouldn’t disregard them.”

—Emily Harwitz

Anthropology

Eat your medicine

In their roles as Global and Community Health Wellbeing Fellows, undergraduate students tend to the Community Herb Garden in April 2022. With the attention of the Fellows, mentored by Anthropology Professor Nancy C. Chen and Assistant Farm Garden Manager Kellee Matsushita-Tseng, this long-neglected patch of the Center for Agroecology’s campus farm is receiving a much-needed makeover. Credit: Kellee Matsushita-Tseng, with permission.

When Professor Nancy N. Chen feels a cold coming on, she prepares a pot of fresh garlic, ginger, honey, and lemon tea. Making sure to inhale the steam from the smashed—not chopped—garlic, she drinks the brew all day. For Chen, a medical anthropologist, food stands at the frontline of healing and she “eats her medicine.”

Recipe for Ginger Garlic Tea. Credit: Courtesy of Nancy N. Chen, with permission.

How food, medicine, and culture intersect animates Chen’s research. The notion that food can heal is not new—“These concepts have been around for centuries,” Chen said. Building on this knowledge, Chen partnered with Kellee Matsushita-Tseng, assistant manager of the UCSC farm garden, to mentor and support students in the Global and Community Health Wellbeing Fellows program while they tend the Center for Agroecology’s newly revitalized Community Herb Garden. The work, Chen said, aims to reconnect BIPOC students to their ancestral heritages via food and herbal cultivation, as well as through “active engagement” with the soil, each other, and local communities.

In practices developed over thousands of years, traditional Chinese medicine employs herbal products—like the ones sold at this shop in Vancouver, Canada, as well as some now growing in the Community Herb Garden—to create well-being and address many of today’s common health problems. Credit: Edna Winti (CC BY 2.0).

Chen’s scholarship facilitates her role, since 2018, as the Division of Social Sciences’ associate dean for health, wellbeing and society. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of good health, said Chen. “My hope is that people become more mindful about the health benefits of eating for long-term wellbeing.”

—Bethany Augliere

Politics

Senatorial stalemate

Rather than addressing what most Americans recognize as critical issues, including voting rights and climate change, today’s United States Senate serves as a place where legislation—as some have put it—“goes to die.”

How this sad state-of-affairs arose—and what reforms might correct the problem—is the subject of Professor Daniel Wirls’s latest book, The Senate: From White Supremacy to Government Gridlock (University of Virginia Press, 2021). In the book, Wirls discusses, among other matters, how the two Senate features of equal representation and the filibuster, the first fundamental and the second adopted, have effectively stalled lawmaking, maintained white supremacy, and become institutional barriers to democracy. “If we were to start over again, the Senate would have neither,” said Wirls.

In his latest book, The Senate: From White Supremacy to Government Gridlock, Professor of Politics Daniel Wirls exposes the current dysfunction in what many used to call “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” and how it is undermining effective democratic government and maintaining white supremacy in America. Credits: Courtesy of Daniel Wirls, with permission; University of Virginia Press (public domain).

The problem arose as urban populations exploded in the 19th and 20th centuries, exacerbating the rural-urban divide. Equal representation meant Senate seats increasingly stacked in favor of less diverse rural areas, resulting in disproportionately reduced sway for the greater numbers of voters living in more diverse urban areas. “We're sending a Senate to Washington that not at all accurately represents the American population,” said Wirls. “Senators elected by a very small minority of the American population can stop anything the majority of voters might want to do.”

—Katie Brown

Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology

Bon voyage

When Professor Yi Zuo gives her research subjects “non-hallucinogenic” psychedelic drugs, she actually does not know they don’t hallucinate. “You can’t ask them,” she said, “because they are mice.” This actually important question aside, her lab’s basic science work supports the growing excitement about the potential clinical use of psychedelic drugs to treat medical conditions like intractable depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Zuo and her team study how connections between neuronssynapses—constantly change, through a process called synaptic plasticity. “Synaptic plasticity means making or losing, strengthening or weakening synapses,” said Zuo. “By changing these connections, you’re basically changing the network of how neurons communicate.”

The brain’s neurons, like the ones shown here, make connections to each other, called synapses, which appear or disappear, and strengthen or weaken, in response to external stimuli. This process, called synaptic plasticity, and its role in, for instance, learning and memory, is the subject of the basic science research conducted in the laboratory of Yi Zuo, professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology. Credit: Yi Zuo, with permission.

In their experiments, Zuo’s team explores how external stimuli like stress, disease (e.g., Alzheimer’s), or drugs can physically alter networks of synapses in the brains of their living research animals. They then look for correlates of these brain alterations in the mice’s behavior. In dual papers published in 2021, for example, they reported in one how chronic stress physically rewires neuronal connections, making it harder for the mice to learn. In the second, they reported the reversal of stress-induced brain changes with just one dose of a non-hallucinogenic psychedelic drug. But no hallucinations? The mice aren’t talking.

—Annie Melchor

ECOLOGY AND EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY

Happy places

Taking a break from her field work, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Kathleen Kay kneels behind a flower of Costus montanus, one of the highly biodiverse Costus species she studies in the lush neotropical forests of Central and South America. Her research seeks to better understand the forces that drive speciation in these and other flowering plants. Credit: Courtesy of Kathleen Kay, with permission.

Though growing scattered across Asia and Africa, spiral gingers (plant family Costaceae) really found their happy place some three million years ago when they took root in Central and South America. It got especially happy for one group of these corkscrew-stemmed plants. Over the millennia, the genus Costus evolved into a whopping 59 neotropical species, sprouting all the way from sea level to the great heights of cloud forests.

A late comer to this plant party, Professor Kathleen Kay began studying Costus two decades ago while earning her doctorate in plant biology from Michigan State University. She zeroed in on neotropical Costus specifically for its unique diversity, perfect for studying how closely related plants become separate, distinct species. “I try to figure out why they stop mating with their close relatives,” said Kay.

Both the stems and flowers of plant species in the spiral ginger family Costaceae grow in corkscrew shapes. Credit: Courtesy of Kathleen Kay, with permission.

More generally, Kay’s research blends field and greenhouse studies with genomics to understand how flowering plants diversify through adaptations and speciation. In a study published in 2020, for example, while Kay and collaborators confirmed a correlation between Costus species richness and mountainous terrain, they also showed how Costus speciation occurred by similar mechanisms regardless of elevation. Beyond its basic science value, her lab’s work could have a more immediate impact. “Understanding how things adapt has important implications for climate change,” said Kay. “Everything’s getting hotter.”

—Katie Brown

History

All that jazz

What do jazz improvisation, African American activist and intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, and the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) have in common? They are all subjects of books written by historian Eric Porter. Professor Porter describes his research interests as cultural and intellectual history, ethnic studies, music studies, and urban studies—in his own words, “kind of eclectic.”

His latest project, a soon-to-be-published book, A People’s History of SFO (UC Press, 2023), provides a recent history of the Bay Area, where Porter grew up, by focusing on how the airport was developed and how it became a public stage for activism. The book contains more than history, though, touching on “race, class, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and imperialism,” Porter said, all foundational elements of each subject he chooses as his next research muse. “Airports,” he said, “are really interesting places where lots of different people and networks come together.”

SFO has long provided a go-to stage for protest for people upset over a range of issues, from the more mundane, like noise pollution from jets, to the more attention-grabbing, like labor rights and discriminatory immigration policies. Through this lens, Professor of History Eric Porter sees the airport as a catalyst for social change. “It’s a focus in part because people are unhappy with things that happen at the airport,” he said, “but it’s also a very public place where you can get seen and heard.” Credit: Peter Giordano (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

With music, jazz enthusiast Porter’s interest centers on how a city’s culture influences the music people make, and vice versa. As “a way of expressing ideas, feelings, and experience,” music reveals a lot about how people relate to each other and their communities. In all his work, Porter said he seeks to understand how urban development shapes people and their communities. “Sometimes it’s representing people who have been marginalized,” he said. “And sometimes it’s complicating familiar narratives and celebrating radical thinking.”

—Emily Harwitz

Literature

Shakespeare asks

Professor of Literature Sean Keilen, shown here giving a lecture at a “Slugs and Steins” event in downtown Santa Cruz, returns to Shakespeare’s play Hamlet most often in teaching and discussions. “Hamlet is just such a vastly interesting play,” he said, “able to absorb attention and questions from so many different directions.” Credit: Courtesy of Sean Keilen.

Sean Keilen’s lifelong fascination with Shakespeare began early, as an eight-year-old intrigued by a small-town production of Macbeth. Now, as a professor, Keilen channels Shakespeare to examine modern life and connect with both academic and non-academic communities.

Shakespeare remains relevant after 400 years because his work captures human nature, said Keilen, who directs the Shakespeare Workshop, a research center at The Humanities Institute that has hosted public performances, lectures, and discussions since 2013. During the pandemic, in collaboration with long-time partner local theater company Santa Cruz Shakespeare, the workshop organized live virtual productions and conversations in a series called Undiscovered Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s plays hold up a mirror to modern life, providing a powerful vehicle for self-examination, Keilen said. A play that questions monarchy as an institution, for example, can spark conversations about the fragility of our current political system. “No one I work with—students, actors, people in the community—comes to Shakespeare for answers,” said Keilen. “They come for questions we're not asking because we're so focused on our own moment and place and culture.”

“Shakespeare is alien enough to allow us to look at ourselves differently and ask new questions of ourselves,” said Keilen. “But he's connected to us enough that we understand what he's talking about and why it has purchase for us.”

—Erin Malsbury

ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER ENGINEERING

Biopower plants

Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Colleen Josephson and her collaborators have deployed 12 of their first prototype “mud batteries,” or MFCs (one held here by Josephson), four at one field site in California and eight at two sites near Chicago. “Our oldest two cells were deployed in July 2021,” Josephson said, “and we're still collecting data.” Don’t expect a widely available product soon, she said—“A lot depends on the economics.” Credit: Courtesy of Colleen

We all know about power generation from the sun and the wind, but it’s probably a surprise to learn that electricity can also come from the dirt beneath our feet. The dirt itself, however, is not the source—it’s the so-called exoelectrogens, mostly bacteria, that inhabit healthy soil all over the world. As they break down and metabolize—i.e., “eat”—complex molecules like sugars, these miniscule organisms release a steady trickle of electrons.

Commensurate with their microbial size, the electron output of a single bacterium is quite small. But their immense numbers and density in the soil can collectively produce enough of a spark for Assistant Professor Colleen Josephson and her collaborators to attempt to harness it. Josephson’s work aims to create what she calls “a mud battery,” more technically known as a microbial fuel cell (MFC). If she succeeds, MFCs will power soil moisture sensor networks on farms, potentially saving a lot of increasingly valuable water.

About 70% of all the potable water we use today goes to agriculture, said Josephson, noting that the sensor networks she envisions could improve the sustainability of farming by saving up to half of this water. And with another expected two billion people added to the world’s population over the next 30 years, “it’s going to be critical,” she said, “to use water more efficiently.”

—Bethany Augliere

Linguistics

Doublespeak

In the UCSC Bilingualism Research Lab, Associate Professor Mark Amengual performs acoustic analyses, like this one (top panel) for the pronunciation of the trilled “r” in the Spanish word “perro” (“dog” in English), as study participants produce target experimental words in a soundproof booth. The second panel shows the recording’s voice onset time (VOT), a measurement of the duration (usually milliseconds) between the release of a plosive consonant, such as the ‘p’ in ‘pan’ or the ‘t’ in ‘time,’ and the beginning of the following vowel. Different languages, including Spanish and English, have distinct timing patterns. “We can measure really fine-grained differences between individuals,” said Amengual, “and we can compare to what degree the two sound systems are interacting in their speech.” Credit: Courtesy of Mark Amengual, with permission.

The mental gymnastics of speaking another language requires using a new sound system while suppressing the dominant one of your first language. How people achieve this feat—and its linguistic, social, and cognitive consequences—centers the research of Mark Amengual, associate professor of applied linguistics and director of Spanish Studies. “I’ve always been intrigued by how seamlessly bilinguals switch between languages,” said Amengual, himself multilingual, speaking English, Spanish, and Catalan.

In the UCSC Bilingualism Research Laboratory he directs, Amengual analyzes the acoustic profiles of multi-lingual speech collected under controlled experimental conditions. In one study, for example, Amengual compared two groups of Latino Spanish-English bilinguals—one speaking Spanish at home and not English until starting school and the other exposed to both languages from birth—with a third group of bilinguals who grew up English-speaking and then acquired Spanish by studying it in college. It turns out the degree of exposure to each language in the formative, early years of life has a persistent effect, influencing adult speech acoustics in a quantifiable way.

These photographs show the experimental setup, within a soundproof booth, for collecting data for the bilingual speech perception (left) and production (right) research Amengual conducts in Mexico in collaboration with colleagues from the Laboratorio de Estudios Lingüísticos at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro. Credit: Courtesy of Mark Amengual and Stanislav Mulík, with permission.

To get a fuller picture of “what bilingualism is all about,” Amengual also studies speech perception among Indigenous bilingual populations in Mexico who speak Spanish and an endangered language, Hñäñho. “Perception and production,” said Amengual, “are two sides of the same coin.”

—Elizabeth Devitt

EARTH AND PLANETARY SCIENCES

Geological faults

At the 2018 American Geophysical Union conference, Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Tamara Pico stands in front of the Great Falls of the Potomac River and describes how the changing weight of ice sheets alter the landscapes around them. She compares the process to placing a rock on bread dough. As the weight compresses one spot, the rest of the dough—the Earth’s crust—puffs up around it. Pico uses physical signs of these changes to model where glaciers once existed. Credit: Courtesy of Tamara Pico, with permission.

Perusing the library stacks, Tamara Pico, then a Harvard University PhD student, discovered an old book by Nathaniel Shaler in which the eminent 19th-century Harvard geologist argues that certain climates or landscape features produced superior humans in Europe compared to other parts of the world. “No one in my department had any idea,” said Pico.

The discovery prompted Pico, now a UC Santa Cruz assistant professor, to dig into the history of geology to better understand how bias influenced scholarship in the field, whose practitioners were—and largely still are—white and male. The work birthed GeoContext, a collaborative website project that provides historical background to topics covered in undergraduate geology courses. Its teaching modules connect, for example, oceanography with the slave trade, and volcanology with colonialism. Pico hopes teaching this history will help address geology’s diversity issues. “Having a sense of that history helps because bits of that are still here with us,” she said.

In her primary research, Pico models changes in glaciers by measuring how the land that surrounds them moves in response to the weight of the ice. Her interest in geology’s history is a separate endeavor, but she considers it important to think about how it applies to all her work. “I try to put myself in a social context,” she said. “Why is this work valued in my field? Why do I value it? What is the consequence of my doing this?”

One of the GeoContext modules developed by Pico and her collaborators covers landscape science and geomorphology, exploring the motives driving geologists like John Wesley Powell (seen here in this stereopticon photograph with Tau-ruv, a Ute woman). Known for his geological work on rivers, including his much-heralded 1869 expedition through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado river, Powell also spent time writing about the “inferiority” of Native American languages and making recommendations for cultural assimilation to the US government. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (CC0).

—Erin Malsbury

Theater Arts

Inclusive dancing

A still from former Associate Professor of Theater Arts Gerald Casel’s latest ensemble piece, Not About Race Dance, which he describes on his website as “a collaborative, choreographic response to the unacknowledged racial politics in U.S. postmodern dance.” In this photograph of two of the ensemble’s five BIPOC members, which includes Casel, undergraduate Audrey Johnson dances in front of a live video backdrop of Styles Alexander. “I make dances that celebrate and affirm folks who have been historically excluded,” said Casel. Credit: Robbie Sweeny, with permission, courtesy of Gerald Casel.

On September 20, 2018, some 50 Bay Area dance artists, choreographers, educators, funders, and administrators gathered in Oakland for a “long-table discussion.” On the table? A social justice issue still unacknowledged by most in dance—racial inequity. The Oakland public forum, the first of many around the country, kick-started Dancing Around Race, a community engagement project sponsored by Hope Mohr Dance, a dance organization dedicated to “creating and supporting embodied art and social change.”

At the center of the conversations stood their lead organizer, Gerald Casel, a person whose lived experience gives him first-hand knowledge of dance’s racialized issues and the skills and drive to do something about it. Casel wears many hats: queer, Filipino immigrant, first-gen college graduate, highly accomplished dance artist, award-winning performance maker, cultural and community activist. Casel, formerly an associate professor of theater arts, recently left UCSC to become chair of the Dance Department at Rutgers University.

Insights from Dancing Around Race now extend into workshops Casel is piloting, as well as teaching modules for higher education and K–12 performing arts curricula, all directed at facilitating candid discussions in brave spaces. “It’s the system that’s racist, not necessarily the people,” Casel said. “There’s a lot of potentially problematic issues around appropriation, tokenism, and cultural mismatch—we want to unpack all that and talk about it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.”

—Katie Brown

Environmental Sciences

Sea rescue

Bushes line the former shoreline of the Salton Sea, far from its receding surface that since 2000 has dropped more than 10 feet. The drying of the lake poses considerable public health, environmental, and economic challenges. Proposals for “water importation” to refill the lake—sourcing water from the Pacific Ocean or perhaps Mexico’s Sea of Cortez—are being evaluated by a team of UCSC researchers led by Professor of Environmental Studies Brent Haddad. Credit: USGS (public domain).

Like the birds that still frequent its shores, people once flocked to the Salton Sea. Just hours from Los Angeles, the desiccated lakebed refilled in 1905 with spillover from Colorado River irrigation canals. But since its 1950s heyday as a popular tourist destination, the irrigation runoff that kept the lake filled has diminished, shrinking it dramatically. Wind-laden agrochemical dust off the exposed lakebed contributes to asthma rates in surrounding communities, and rising salinity has killed fish and jeopardizes migrating and nesting birds. Tourist destination no more, the Salton Sea now poses a considerable public health and environmental challenge.

The ruins of the Salton Sea Yacht Club offer a stark reminder that the Salton Sea was once a thriving tourist destination in the 1950s. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

Enter Brent Haddad, director and founder of the Center for Integrated Water Research. Professor Haddad heads a team of faculty, graduate students, outside consultants, and an Independent Review Panel charged with identifying—as part of the state-managed Salton Sea Management Program—a long-term plan for restoring the Salton Sea ecosystem and its languishing surrounding communities. In addition to evaluating proposals for “water importation” to refill the lake, the team’s remit includes considering the area’s economic future. “The region is of immense interest in part because of its potentially massive lithium resources,” Haddad said.

“We don’t have any templates for what we’re doing,” Haddad said. The hope, he said, is that other regions with evaporating lakes around the world can use their Salton Sea restoration process and plans as a model.

—Emily Harwitz