By Rachel Morrison
In 2002, scientists watched in disbelief as most of the Larsen B Ice Shelf collapsed into the Weddell Sea off of the Antarctic Peninsula. Though a certain amount of ice shelf disintegration is part of the natural cycle, the rate of collapse for Larsen B has been much more rapid than predicted.
Thirteen years later, aboard the Sea Spirit, Xenia Rangaswami ’19 was abruptly awoken by the sound of the expedition leader’s voice over the intercom telling passengers to make haste to the deck. Bleary eyed, she scrambled up the vessel’s ladders where the other travelers—representatives from the energy and policy sectors, education, and activism there to learn about Antarctica’s environmental issues and devise solutions with the 2041 Eco-Educational Expedition—had assembled.
She followed the captain’s gaze off the starboard, where she saw a massive iceberg—roughly a square kilometer in size—break off the already decimated Larsen B Ice Shelf, now destined to join the trillions of gallons a year of ice melt around Antarctica.
“That was the moment when it really became clear to me: the planet is literally falling apart,” Rangaswami said.
Since that pivotal moment during her senior year in high school, Rangaswami has been committed to seeking out opportunities to understand the effects of human-caused climate change and other issues facing the environment. The summer before coming to Scripps, she trekked the Himalayas on an impact-tourism trip aimed at empowering people from village of Shingo to install and maintain solar panels (by switching to clean energy sources, she explains, villagers profit from increased tourism, among other positive outcomes). And just last December, she visited Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Tanzania, which establishes service-oriented clubs in schools and universities to work on local environmental and humanitarian issues.
“When I came to Scripps, I knew I was interested in biology and the environment—science was always my favorite class,” she reflects. “Now having been at Scripps for four years, it has affirmed that and allowed me to approach that from a new angle by being able to engage with research and see how the facts that trickle down to us are actually produced in a lab.”
Since her sophomore year, Rangaswami has worked in the lab of Associate Professor of Biology Sarah Gilman in the W.M. Keck Science Department studying barnacles’ metabolic response to temperature changes. Using data from Gilman’s project, Rangaswami’s senior thesis project looks at the relationship between barnacles’ lactic acid production and respiration at high temperatures. “We have found that the barnacles are not able to produce as much energy at high temperatures,” she explains. “And this may be a problem because they are so important within intertidal ecosystems. They create habitat for other species—up to 90 species live within a barnacle bed, and they are also a pivotal part of the food web.”
But research isn’t all Rangaswami has been up to while at Scripps. In addition to serving as captain of the field hockey team for two years, she has been a teaching assistant and tutor for introductory biology at Keck. She has also volunteered as a science teaching assistant at a local elementary school, and through an environmental education class at Pitzer, she was able to fuse her love of science and education by creating and implementing lessons about the local environment.
“Right now, we are on the edge of a cliff—the tipping point if we don’t change things. We are emitting CO2, and it’s reaching a critical point at which temperature rise will cause irreversible damage to our ecosystem,” she says. “But people and governments don’t seem to feel a sense of urgency about this, and that’s where education comes in—a way to inform the public about the facts being produced in the lab.”
In the long term, Rangaswami hopes to pursue a graduate education that combines education with marine biology. But her immediate goal is to gain more field experience. Through the Upwell organization, the mission of which is to protect endangered sea turtles by reducing threats at sea, including fisheries bycatch, ship strikes, pollution, climate change, and other detrimental human activities, she will be joining researchers for a summer internship where she will help tag sea turtles and gather data related to their nesting patterns on Costa Rica’s coast.
“Governments need to do more to protect the environment from climate change and other anthropogenic events,” Rangaswami says. “Since I enjoy science, I approach it from the science angle, rather than policy. But my hope is that the results we find in the lab will motivate agencies and governments and industries to take action.”