Algae to Energy: My Path from Marine Biology to Science Policy

March 29, 2023 | ,   | Contact: Mikel Shybut

A graphic with the blog title and a prominent photo of the author with some illustrations showing algae and energy bolts.
Sam Mahanes, PhD, is a 2023 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow placed with the California State Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee. After moving from Virginia to Southern California, Sam studied how seaweeds provide habitat to other marine species. Sam earned his PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of California, Irvine and a BS in Biology from the University of Miami.

How does the ability to flip a switch and turn your lights on relate to my coastal ecology research—studying seaweed species and counting hermit crabs?

More than you might think.

A few months into my placement on the Assembly Utilities & Energy committee, I’ve been surprised to find much of what I learned about biology translates to energy policy—both in direct and abstract ways.

Side by side photos of Sam conducting fieldwork on a coastal site, collecting samples and data.
Sam conducting fieldwork on tide pools in Sitka, Alaska. Sam studied how the seaweeds in these tide pools provide habitat for other species.

Connected ecosystems

California’s power grid is a complex network of energy producers, transmission lines, and countless pieces of infrastructure that collectively keeps the lights on for 40 million people. It forms a dynamic ecosystem, immense in scale, with a wide cast of characters, which is not fundamentally dissimilar to the tide pool ecosystems I used to study. In both ecosystems, it’s critical to understand how interactions bind the network together and how a disturbance to one part could ripple through the entire system, in order to predict how ongoing changes will affect each ecosystem.

 

Whether looking at a marine ecosystem and wondering if it functions differently across seasons or vetting a bill that would tweak the deployment of electric vehicle chargers, there are few things as valuable as a healthy level of curiosity.

 

Tradeoffs everywhere

Much of biology focuses on tradeoffs, and I’ve found the same to be true in policy. Enormous effort goes into balancing the priorities of affordability and reliability in energy, and keeping the lights on without breaking the bank, while rapidly transitioning the grid from relying on fossil fuels to using clean energy sources. A similar type of balancing is found all over biology, from faster movement requiring higher metabolism to thousand-mile migrations from places with abundant food supplies to those with more suitable breeding grounds.

Critical questions

The last similarity I’ll bring up, and the one I think about the most often, is the importance of asking questions. Whether looking at a marine ecosystem and wondering if it functions differently across seasons or vetting a bill that would tweak the deployment of electric vehicle chargers, there are few things as valuable as a healthy level of curiosity.

Photo from a field site of rocky shore, open water, and cloudy skies.
A field site on the southeastern Alaskan coast where Sam conducted his research.

Learning from the CCST Ecosystem

A few weeks ago, I was back on the coast, except instead of studying how seaweeds affect nitrogen cycling in an ecosystem, I was learning about the expanding role of hydrogen in reducing pollution at the Port of Oakland. It had me reflecting on my journey as a Fellow.

There are aspects of the CCST Science and Technology Policy Fellowship that feel extraordinarily unique. For one, the supportive mentorship system has made for a very welcoming experience, both officially and through an engaged alumni network—including three alumni who were on the Port of Oakland trip. My office mentor, Laura Shybut, PhD, is a CCST alum, who was placed with this committee during her Fellowship—and now she’s the Chief Consultant.

 

Now I can see, in my journey from algae to energy, the perspective and processes I learned as a scientist have proven invaluable long after leaving the lab.

 

Also, the staggering regularity with which impactful policy proposals are discussed in meetings still amazes me. There are so many important issues in the utilities and energy space, such as preparing the grid for growing fleets of electric vehicles, figuring out how to accommodate seasonal (and hour-to-hour!) shifts in energy demand, and incorporating renewable energy (from residential rooftop solar panels to goliath wind turbines floating offshore) into the electrical grid.

On the other hand, the experience has been a relatable one for me. As someone who moved across the country for grad school, moving somewhere new to start a job doing something I’ve never done before was familiar to me.

Side by side photos of a group standing outside at the Port of Oakland.
A field trip to the Port of Oakland, organized by the Assembly Energy and Utilities Committee to learn more about the role of hydrogen in reducing port emissions. Featuring 2023 Fellows Sam Mahanes and Dirk Spencer with alumni Christine Casey ’15, Laura Shybut ’17, and Grayson Doucette ’20.

One of the unofficial mantras in CCST’s monthlong policy training program can be summarized as “You made it through graduate school, you’ve got a PhD; even if you feel overwhelmed, you can do this.” While any career change can feel like a leap of faith, this motto, together with my Fellows network, is a comforting reminder.

A year ago, I was surveying tide pools, identifying seaweed species, counting hermit crabs, and analyzing the acidity of seawater samples in a lab. How any of that could help me in a policy world full of suits, hearings, big ideas, and billion-dollar bill proposals was beyond me.

Now I can see, in my journey from algae to energy, the perspective and processes I learned as a scientist have proven invaluable long after leaving the lab.

 

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About the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship
The CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows program places PhD-level scientists, engineers, and social scientists in the California State Legislature, State Agencies, and Offices of the Governor for a year of public policy, leadership training, and public service—training scientific thinkers to be policy-savvy, while helping equip California’s decision makers with science-savvy staff. Discover how our CCST S&T Policy Fellows make a difference in California’s policy arena and learn how to apply at CCST.us/CCST-Science-Fellows-Program.

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