Dialogues, collaborations, and the success of 'slow science'

With funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, the new Southeast Asian Coastal Interactions Initiative takes a methodical approach to worldwide social and environmental challenges

Zahira Suhaimi with scientific instruments
Zahirah Suhaimi, an anthropology doctoral student studying with the Southeast Asian Coastal Interactions Initiative, has been collecting observations of water conditions as part of her study of interactions between Southeast Asian coastal populations and microscopic algae. Photo: Sandra Kolundžija, Ph.D. student, Nanyang Technological University
In Singapore, a UC Santa Cruz anthropology student is doing work usually performed by microbiologists. Her findings will be important in numerous areas—from sustainable food to social justice to biodiversity. The research is just one aspect of SEACoast, a new program that is fulfilling the promises of slow science.

Slow science is making fast progress at UC Santa Cruz

Established in 2019, the Southeast Asian Coastal Interactions Initiative, or SEACoast, has created a collaborative hub where social and natural scientists work together to tackle complex environmental problems.

“In this time of human-caused environmental challenges, we need to agree that human histories and nonhuman histories are part of the same set of research challenges,” says Anna Tsing, professor of anthropology, who is codirecting the center with Megan Thomas, associate professor of political science.

Since the SEACoast center was funded with a five-year $1 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, interest and participation in the center’s programming has been growing rapidly. Emphasizing “slow science,” which values deliberation, field observation, and historical inquiry over fast results, SEACoast has drawn academics from a broad spectrum of disciplines together to offer their expertise, learn from others, and synthesize new ideas for research.

One of SEACoast’s projects explores the multifaceted phenomenon of harmful algal blooms. Caused by alterations in ocean nutrients, winds, temperatures, or a combination of these factors, algal blooms create toxic conditions that threaten the survival of various species in coastal waters. Interestingly, it is an anthropologist at UC Santa Cruz, Ph.D. student Zahirah Suhaimi, who is working to solve this environmental puzzle, piecing together knowledge from the fields of microbiology, ethnography, history, and human behavior.

Many cooks in the kitchen—uncommon collaboratives

Suhaimi’s dissertation looks at the relationship between microscopic algal species and human populations. Algae are primary producers—they float around in marine environments and get eaten by zooplankton and shellfish. They are building blocks of life. But they can also destroy life if they are toxic and reproduce in large quantities. These toxins work their way up the food chain onto our plates. Also, while photosynthetic algae species overgrow during daytime in the presence of light, in the dark, they produce massive amounts of deadly carbon dioxide. They can literally smother marine life in anoxic waters or waters with very low oxygen levels.

At the onset of her fieldwork in 2018, Suhaimi was faced with the challenge of finding a scientific lab willing to integrate a social scientist into their team. On a tour of mangroves in Singapore, Suhaimi met Federico Lauro, a professor of microbiology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. They put their ideas together and kicked off collaborative research, looking at anthropological data and microbiological analysis to understand environmental phenomena over time.

It is at the intersection of social and natural science where Suhaimi gets most excited about her work. She feels she is onto something when her ethnographic data or historical data finds resonance with the scientific data that’s available.

“I feel like I’m gathering potential pieces of a big puzzle,” she says. “I’m not quite sure how they fit together, or if they even fit at all.”

For instance, water currents shape microalgal species populations and distributions. Fishing communities use the currents when building floating fish farms. Lower current speeds are preferred for fish farms, but this also means weak dispersal of algal biomass, which increases the likelihood of harmful algal bloom.

“So, these pieces of the puzzle, they fit,” she says. “But they fit awkwardly, in the sense that what makes aquaculture successful is also what puts it at risk.”

Investment in a transdisciplinary experiment

Figuring out this tension on a global scale is crucial to food supplies and overall sustainability.

Before the pandemic, Suhaimi followed coastal fishing communities. She learned about their way of interacting with the coastal waters and studied their practices, habits, and knowledge. She discovered immense creativity in these communities, as well as established scientific practices. While Suhaimi’s colleagues in microbiology rely on their water sampling filters to document changes, coastal communities observe changes in the coloration, or they experience changes through their interactions with the water where they make a living.

For Suhaimi, a multiplicity of sciences tell the story of coastal conditions over time, and all voices are needed in the search for solutions.

In the long run, when she is able to narrow down decisive factors, Suhaimi’s findings can inform policymaking in terms of managing human activities in coastal waters. Her research can determine the kind of environmental monitoring that would be necessary to keep both scientists and the public informed.

While UC Santa Cruz previously didn’t have a department focused on Southeast Asian studies, the campus is nevertheless particularly well equipped to offer unconventional contributions to the field. SEACoast is drawing on the university’s expertise and recognition in ocean science, social justice, and environmental studies, as well as its tradition of bridging departmental divides with a mindset for collaboration.

Building blocks of a new research hub

SEACoast has established its presence as an institution on campus and is quickly becoming a lively intellectual center, thriving on exactly what it set out to do: galvanize diverse academic experts interested in charting new territory. Reaching beyond institutional structures provides an opportunity for creatively thinking about human-caused environmental challenges.

SEACoast’s slow seminar on harmful algal blooms, led by Marilou Sison-Mangus, assistant professor of ocean sciences, ultimately led to the funding of a collaboration grant for Suhaimi.

For Tsing, one of the most exciting developments of SEACoast’s inaugural year has been facilitating the
hiring of a new faculty member in UC Santa Cruz’s History Department. Kathleen Gutierrez is a
scholar of Southeast Asian environmental history, and her research focuses on botanical
collecting in the Philippines across colonial and post-colonial eras.

Tsing is thrilled with the positive reception at UC Santa Cruz and the rapid growth of the intellectual hub in producing promising international dialogues and collaborations. She has many plans for the center. She’s fundraising for scholarships and is in negotiations with Indonesian government agencies to include UC Santa Cruz among universities authorized to enroll Indonesian students in environmental sciences.

SEACoast continues to break open departmental discourse into collaborative discourse. Their research promises to improve the livelihood of Southeast Asian coastal communities by helping them preserve and rebuild diverse and vibrant ecological zones and manage sustainable food systems.

“If we are able to make even some small dents in how natural scientists, social scientists, humanists, and artists can work together, that would be extraordinary,“ Tsing says.