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Life on the Mesa: Saving the World With Algae

Bring on the future of farming!
Talking surf, science and soirees with local SIO marine biologist, B. Greg Mitchell

By Amanda Caniglia

Come sit by me…

Almost every day I have the pleasure of meeting someone new who turns out to be a genius in their own right. But there are those times when you meet someone so extraordinary, that you need to take a step back and stew on it for a while. Two weeks ago I had a blast meeting this person for drinks, which segued into dinner down at the Shores. Uncertain of why I asked to meet up after a party at SIO, he was a bit perplexed and nervous. What’s her angle? Her hidden agenda? It’s simple. I meet fascinating people on the Mesa and want to learn who they are, apart from the science. So the pressure has been mounting as I put off writing about our colorful conversation, worried I would not do his story justice. Who is this intriguing mystery man I speak of? None other than the quirky yet legendary B. Greg Mitchell.

There is too much to take in about this genius mind. Peeling back the layers, I learn about his passions, projects and restless soul. Greg is an explorer, who travels the world studying algae. Trips to Antarctica and the Arctic and Central Pacific are the norm for this globetrotter and he has been known to practice his yoga headstand on a meter of Arctic sea ice. Dude even worked for NASA Headquarters as Ocean Biology Program Manager. Naturally I had to bring up the scene from Spies Like Us. “No Amanda, I didn’t do the G-force training.” Bummer. His current work is the study of microalgae photosynthesis from laboratory, to commercial, to global ocean scales. “Take a deep breath”, he says. “Microalgae in the ocean produce half the oxygen you breathe. Pretty important for ocean ecology but they are also so efficient we need to put them to work.” Therefore, he has spent twenty plus years preaching mass culture of algae to mitigate and wastewater nutrient loading, and believes algae is the solution for biomass CO2 for fuel and animal feed. Greg is thinking long-term solutions to save our planet. So why aren’t we listening? With oil prices crashing, it’s no wonder that many have gone back to their myopic views. But Greg points out that algae is for conserving water, and feeding the pigs, cows, and chickens, not just fuel. “Bring on the future of farming!”

Humble, Greg always diverts me to other scientist’s research, eager to share their discoveries and how they can play an integral role in solving our planet’s most pressing issues. Wait, you can turn sewage into potable water? Seriously? And the very scientist who discovered this now lives in San Diego! And what about a better system to capture rainwater and run off?

I ask Greg what made him want to be a scientist. He looks at me with his kind eyes and reveals it was an article he read in Surfer magazine about 1967. On the cover was Black’s Beach and the article said the marine biologists at Scripps were pioneering big wave surfing at Black’s. At the ripe age of 13 he set out to become a Marine Biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he could surf daily at Black’s. His story came full circle at the Moore’s Cancer Center Annual Luau & Legends of Surfing Invitational at the shores that he surfed in for the SIO team. When speaking of that very article to a former SIO student and world champion surfer Ricky Grigg, Ricky turned, smiled and replied, “I wrote that.” Gotta love life’s moments of serendipity. That article changed a boy’s life and perhaps will change our lives as he brings his passion of oceanography as a solution to a world running out of natural resources. Greg still loves to surf Black’s, where the morning crew refers to him as “the professor.”

This man has a mind that does not rest. Greg, how do you do it? How do you shut it down? Turns out, when not traveling the world or throwing rock ‘n’ roll shindigs at SIO, Greg found the time to write an entire musical based on the music of U2. A frickin’ musical? U2 sent him a cease and desist letter but that did not stop him. He went back and decided they’d write all original scores. Walking to our respective cars under the drizzle outside Piatti’s I yell to Greg… “You fascinate me!” These minds on the Mesa are a true wonder.

What’s come out of our memorable meet up? We are now on a mission to mindful and game changing discussions with our local scientists able to solve San Diego’s water crisis together. Last week I also ran into Imperial Beach mayor and surfer Serge Medina and he is all in. Something is definitely in the works for a rockstar event on Water up on the Mesa. There are also talks of exclusive soirees set on the terrace of the BellaV and Sanford Consortium. Guest list to include grad students and post docs from SCRM’s member institutes and SIO. Greg says it best, “Let’s gather, dance brainstorm, and change the future with a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll for inspiration!”

Upcoming events on the Mesa (I’ll be at the fun table…)

  • San Diego Women in Finance: Economic Outlook 2016
    So. How about that 2016 Economy? Need an expert opinion to help you through your next dinner party? Why not learn from our local expert, Ryan Ratcliff? Ratcliff is Associate Professor of Economics at USD, specializing in forecasting, macroeconomics, and financial economics. Before making his way to San Diego, he was with the UCLA Anderson Forecast, spent time doing market research with the Franklin-Templeton family of mutual funds, worked as a market analyst for the U.S. Treasury’s Mexico Task Force, and at the Frankfurt Headquarters of Deutsche bank. Sprechen sie deutsch? Be sure to make it early to network a bit. If you don’t know a lick about Finance you can chat him up about world travel at the very least no? Discussion begins at 6 p.m. sharp. Sponsored by TriNet.
    January 21, 5:30-7:00 p.m., TriNet Group Inc

  • Steve Todd at the Engineering Leadership Forum
    You had me at multiple… career paths. Steve Todd, VP of Strategy and Innovation at Boston’s EMC, will be speaking Friday at the Engineering Leadership Forum. One of his topics will touch on his success navigating through multiple career paths. Any entrepreneur out there will be able to relate. Todd is the author of Innovate with Influence, Innovate with Global Influence, is a Top 10 Innovational blogger, VP of Innovation, and an active participant in EMC’s Innovation Conference… Man, we should drink every time I write the word “innovate.” Bottom line, you wanna meet this guy. RSVP and let them know you’re coming. I’ll bring the flask.
    January 22, 12-1 p.m., Gordon Engineering Leadership Center, UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

  • Salk’s Science & Music Series
    Couldn’t be more excited about Salk’s upcoming Science & Music Series this Sunday the 24th. A little jazz at Salk will be a fun twist and the slated speaker is one of my favorite usual suspects during lunch at the BellaV. I’ll never forget the time Sreekanth and his colleague were at my register and his friend ordered the Bella Vista in “Omelette format.” Format? Classic. Gotta love me some scientists. Sreekanth (also known up here on the Mesa as “Shrek”), is Assistant Professor of the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory. His lab is studying nematode C. elegans, that’s a fancy word for worms. Studying these invertebrate organisms allows his team to better understand how neural circuits in the brain “transform environmental stimuli into appropriate behavioral outputs.” In other words, they are studying a worm, with a much simpler nervous system than humans, to understand the difference between a healthy brain and a brain afflicted by diseases, such as autism or depression. This will be a fascinating talk paired with some swanky saxophone and clarinet. Sunday… at the Salk.
    January 24, Salk Institure

  • “South China Sea: What is the Future?” and The China Lymphoma Project Global Conference
    Double header on China this Tuesday. First up, the School of Global Policy and Strategy’s Panel on the future of the South China Sea. Donald Emmerson (Stanford University), Susan Shirk (China expert and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State), and Stephan Haggard (Director Korea-Pacific Program) will lead the discussion on how impactful the sea spanning from the Malacca Strait to the Taiwan Strait is to that region’s dynamics. Second batter up that is going to hit it out of the park, the China Lymphoma Project. Researchers from across the globe come together with the community to discuss China’s current cancer crisis. Organizer, cancer survivor, and patient advocate Jamie Reno is taking his mission global. This conference is the first of its kind and will help strengthen the ties of friendship with China while helping save lives.
    “South China Sea: What is the Future?”: January 26, School of Global Policy and Strategy
    China Lymphoma Project Global Conference:
    January 26 at the Sanford Consortium

Food for thought…

“Racism has always played a role in the debate on modern immigration. They just won’t admit it,” claimed Ruben Navarrette Jr. at last week’s San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Luncheon. Mmhmm, straight talk! Navarrette, a Harvard grad, wrote for our local Union Tribune before moving on to appear as guest host for CNN, CNBC, Fox, PBS NewsHour with Lehrer. He also provides regular commentary on NPR’s Morning Edition and tours the country giving talks. The Chamber snagged our San Diego local for this luncheon surrounding the upcoming elections on both side of the border and how it will influence on cross-border commerce. More often than not you see people sneaking away to network some more in the halls or immersed in the latest tweet on their cell phones rather than the conversation on stage. That was not the case last Thursday. You could hear a pin drop in the Presidential Ballroom of the US Grant.

Navarrette kept the entire room engaged with his prodding/provoking opinions about what is wrong with the current immigration crisis. He also shared thoughts on the most talked about candidate since Palin, good old Trump. Navarrette pointed out that Trump isn’t building a wall and denying access. Trump is the one who acknowledges that immigrant workers are the best and hardest workers in our country. As a businessman, Trump understands their value. Navarrette also added later in his talk that “Mexican Americans did not have a strong a work ethic as immigrant Mexicans.” This man is not afraid of sharing his opinion. “A ‘phsycological wall’ already exists” so even if Trump wanted to build one, there is no need. Funny, just a few days later my six-year old asked why we can’t just go through the door to get back and forth through Mexico. It is so indoctrinated in our culture we don’t event realize it. There needs to be a paradigm shift.

Navarrette said it best. The US and Mexico are interdependent. We are married. Divorce is not an option. We keep blaming each other but what we really need is a good marriage counselor to help us solve these problems. We need to accept responsibility for our respective actions in order to move forward. Names that he offered as possible counselors, former Mexican presidents Felipe Calderon or Vicente Fox.

“Let’s call out those demagogues trying to undermine our marriage.” When asked about how close we are to solving this issue on a federal level, Navarrette suggested at the very least twenty years. Ouch! SD Regional Chamber’s Power Woman and VP of International Business Affairs Paola Avila followed up with a strong point, suggesting that in the end, the solution would need to be piecemealed. Looks like the San Diego Regional Chamber is just the right group to lead the way on a local level. Our cross border mega region Cali-Baja Miracle Coast No Boundaries is perfectly poised to pave the way for our nation. Wouldn’t it be grand if San Diego serves as the shining beacon for others to follow suit?

Life on the Mesa: Saving the World With Algae

Talking surf, science and soirees with local SIO marine biologist, B. Greg Mitchell

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