Q&A: A Marine biologist who studies sea vomit

Name: Sarah Cohen
Age: 57
Hometown: San Francisco
Position: S.F. State professor of biology

You’re working at one of the most gorgeous waterfront sites in the San Francisco Bay Area. What exactly is this place and what goes on here?

Sarah Cohen: It is a spectacular location! It used to be a Navy site, and before that, a coaling station. Now it is the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies, the only academic center for coastal and marine research and teaching on the San Francisco Bay. San Francisco State’s marine laboratory is one of several agencies here; we train students to do continuing research in the marine sciences at universities, agencies, nonprofits and businesses.

Sarah Cohen

What’s the most exciting thing that visitors can see?

This spot is the closest deepwater access to the Golden Gate. In January, when the herring run into the bay to spawn, they swim right by here in thick droves, and many people come to fish nearby. The herring are followed by the sea birds, then the marine mammals come in, then the fishing boats, and it is a scene to behold. It’s the only commercial fishery still in the bay.

What else is going on in the bay now that interests you?

I study an invasive invertebrate species called tunicates that attach to hard surfaces like rocks and pilings where fish spawn; if a tunicate is there first, herring and other fish might not lay their eggs. We’ve had a species in the bay that is spreading in rockier areas. This species can cover acres once it gets started. In Alaska, they call it sea vomit.

How did you become interested in sea vomit?

While doing my postdoctoral research at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, I worked with a professor of stem cell biology, Irving Weissman, and this was one of his interests. The popular name for tunicates is sea squirts: they are basically bags of water. But genetically they are among our closest invertebrate relatives. They are studied at Stanford Medical School and here at RTC in regards to basic immune responses. We also study them from the invasive species angle as well as our work in characterizing biodiversity — we genotype the tunicates.

What was your path to this level of specialization?

Both of my parents were marine biologists at the Smithsonian in D.C. I remember running around in tidepools with them as a child and seeing stuff behind the scenes in museums. When I went to college, though, I rebelled and said I was going to study political science and history. I wanted nothing to do with marine biology. But as it turns out, it’s really fun.

What brought you back?

With three and a half years of college under my belt, I left Swarthmore. I worked on a vegetable farm and for the Forest Service, and studied Spanish in Mexico, where I met students working with a group called Science for the People. They were heading to Nicaragua to help with agricultural development after the Sandinista revolution and I went with them. Their work was inspiring and made me want to finish school, which I did. Ultimately I realized I liked marine science best. That’s the eternal struggle around career: to find something useful that you feel you could be good at.

And now you’re training new young biologists?

I teach and also supervise about 10 graduate students at a time. I love having a diverse lab. That’s one of the privileges of being in the Bay Area. It’s important that environmental biology not be biased: Look at the diverse communities impacted by what goes on in the bay and on the coast. The workforce needs to be diverse, too, which takes training the students and getting them out into the field.

In your free time, do you spend time by the water?

I do, and it drives my family nuts; we’ll be out at a restaurant in San Francisco and I’ll say, “While we’re here, let’s go look under the dock …” But they’re used to me. We have a son, Tariku, 7, and a daughter, Mai Ly, 16, and they’re really good at finding marine animals. It’s nice to have a job where you can involve your kids. Anybody who does field work … if it’s at all amenable … is going to be dragging their kids along. As my parents did.

What do you take from your Jewish heritage?

My sense of humor, art that I like and also the powerful and complicated story of the Holocaust. My children, who we adopted, have their own stories about who they are, but I think that there’s a rich tradition in Judaism that could be great for them, apart from their association with me. I’d like them to learn more about that.

Do you have a burning professional aspiration that you still want to achieve?

Climate change really changes the whole terrain of what you think is important. I have a lot of academic interests, and the most useful thing right now — hands down — is to do something about climate change. We are in deep trouble and it is easy to not realize that here in the Bay Area, because our climate is so moderate and variable. The community is focused on planning for an 18-inch sea level rise. But we may actually have a 3-foot sea level rise within 50 years. It’s essential that people realize this, and predictions are harder to make now as the role of the U.S. becomes less certain. So any chance I have, I talk about it. And I hope my students do, too.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected]

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.