Lab philosophy and message for prospective students

Why the ZERO-C Lab? One surprisingly time-consuming task in science is developing acronyms. You will find tons of acronyms or sometimes loose combinations of words and letters throughout science, so it’s hard to keep track of them all! Zooplankton Ecological Responses to Ocean Conditions (ZERO-C) roughly encapsulates what we study, but there is a deeper meaning to the ZERO-C Lab name that serves to both motivate and inspire.

Gilbert Arenas, a famous sharp-shooting professional basketball player, was often asked why he chose to wear the number 0. When he made this decision, had recently arrived at the University of Arizona, which is a perennial top-tier college basketball program. Although he was offered a full scholarship to Arizona, many people discouraged him from enrolling because he was not a top recruit and would likely not get a chance to play. They said he would play “0 minutes” as a freshman at Arizona. Gilbert chose to wear the number 0 to remind himself that people did not expect much from him, and he was going to achieve in spite of those detractors. He continued to wear the number 0 throughout his professional career and actually made the number quite popular among the next generation of players.

I believe that sports often contain messages or themes that are applicable to everyday life. In the story of Gilbert Arenas, the message is clear. When we are faced with negativity or adversity in our lives, we have a choice to let those circumstances define and defeat us or, alternatively, we can use them to motivate ourselves to achieve beyond expectations. Gilbert chose the latter. He did not let the expectations of others dictate his future, and with the right attitude, we can do the same. In fact, grit and perseverance are important predictors of success in graduate school (and probably all sorts of careers). For a different perspective, see this nice critique of the emphasis on grit.

While the concept of ZERO can be used for motivation, it also serves as a reminder of how little we actually know about many of the ocean ecosystems we study. In some cases, entire components of the food web (e.g., gelatinous zooplankton) have been neglected or undersampled (due to their fragility), despite making up a substantial portion of plankton biomass. Seemingly well-established dogmas can be based on weak evidence, often due to the available instrumentation at that time. Sometimes a fresh look at old problems with new technology can lead to critical new insights. In the life sciences, more broadly, we can know every detail about an animal’s biology and physiology, but if we do not understand how it interacts with its environment (and, conversely, how the environment is influenced by the organism), then we have little understanding of the processes that will cause populations to change. This is the thinking behind the “new ecology” pioneered by Eugene Odum and colleagues at the University of Georgia.

In the ZERO-C Lab, we apply principles of ecology and oceanography to understand the physical, chemical, and biological factors influencing the population dynamics of planktonic organisms. In these ever-changing marine environments, there are countless questions about plankton ecology (and broader ecosystem functioning) that remain unanswered. Because of the out-sized influence of these tiny but mighty organisms on climate, human health, and the economy (e.g., fishing), plankton ecology is an exciting field with truly global implications! Thank you for visiting the website, and please reach out if you are interested in working with the ZERO-C Lab team and studying marine sciences at the University of Georgia.