LSA professor launches effort to boost ocean science worldwide

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In 2015, Brian Arbic founded an annual, weeklong summer school in Ghana that aims to inspire West African scientists at all career stages to pursue ocean-related fields.

The popular program has drawn hundreds of students and scientists from Ghana and surrounding countries, as well as dozens of scientists and students from the United States and a few from Europe.

Photo of Brian Arbic
Brian Arbic

Now, Arbic, professor of earth and environmental sciences in LSA, is thinking even bigger. He recently founded the Global Ocean Corps and Conveyor, a program he hopes will foster sustained, long-term ocean science education and research collaborations among countries around the world.

The Global Ocean Corps and Conveyor would pair scientists from developed nations with scientists and students from countries with fewer resources. The goal is twofold: to improve ocean health and involve more scientists from developing nations in high-level ocean science discussions and research.

In October, the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development endorsed the Global Ocean Corps and Conveyor. The endorsement is an important stamp of approval that could make it easier for the program to get funding, Arbic said.   

Arbic said the challenges facing oceans — from piracy and pollution to overfishing and shipping management — don’t exist in a vacuum.  

“A science like oceanography really needs to have global connections,” Arbic said. “If you want to know (the amount of) sea level rise in Ghana, you have to have satellite measurements or have someone in Ghana make that measurement.

“The atom, for instance, is the same in both places. But oceanography is something that inherently needs a global workforce. We need this global network, and we don’t have it right now.” 

The Global Ocean Corps and Conveyor is loosely based on Arbic’s experience with the Peace Corps, which he joined in 1990 after completing an undergraduate degree at U-M.

Arbic taught math and physics to secondary school students in the town of Damongo in northern Ghana. One student, Joseph K. Ansong, stood out as being among the brightest in his class.

Arbic left Ghana in 1993 and went on to earn a doctorate in physical oceanography. He joined U-M as a professor in 2010. Ansong also furthered his studies, eventually earning a doctorate in applied mathematics at the University of Alberta in Canada.

The two men reconnected in 2008. Arbic was pleasantly surprised to learn Ansong was at the University of Alberta working with a professor he knows well.

Arbic invited Ansong to U-M. He arrived in 2011 to do grant-funded postdoctoral work in Arbic’s lab and then became a research scientist before returning to Ghana in 2017.

Arbic’s work with Ansong prompted him to connect with scientists in Ghana who were equally eager to begin a collaboration around ocean science, and that led to the creation of the Coastal Environment Summer School in Ghana.

Participants in the Ghana program attend lectures, go on field trips and have hands-on lessons on topics such as satellite oceanography, ocean modeling, environmental pollution, ocean temperatures, tides and data analysis. The visiting scientists bring portable instruments for the local scientists and students to use.

The number of students enrolled in, and the breadth of the curriculum at, the Coastal Environment Summer School in Ghana grew every year until 2020, when the program moved online because of COVID-19. There are plans to return in person to Ghana in 2022.

In recent years, an increasing number of participants have come from other African countries such as Liberia, Mali, Togo, Benin, Côte d’Ivorie, Nigeria and Kenya, and from countries outside of Africa — evidence that there is a wider demand for such a program.

Arbic said even though Africa has a long coastline and one-sixth of the world’s population, and often faces complex marine issues, the continent is not well-represented at international conferences or in high-level discussions about ocean science. He said he hopes the Global Ocean Corps and Conveyor, which will be modeled after the Ghana program and include other types of exchanges, changes that.

“I’d like to bring them more in the loop with high-level research and discussions, and get more viewpoints,” Arbic said.

Arbic and the members of the Global Ocean Corps and Conveyor founding committee are ironing out details about how the program will operate. One of those members is Maddie Foster-Martinez, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans. 

“We know there is a lot of enthusiasm for international collaborations, but there needs to be some framework to actually do that,” she said. “The Ocean Corps will provide those opportunities.”

Foster-Martinez said the program won’t focus just on sending U.S. scientists to other countries.

“We’re hoping to promote exchanges in every direction,” she said.

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