Author: skyrien

aka: Skyrien.
scientist, engineer, pursuer of knowledge, maker of things

Volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium

In this age of digital distractions and social media time-sinks (or black holes, in my case) one of the tragic effects seems to be that volunteering is on the decline. Thinking about this as a community challenge, there lies responsibility in both the citizen to take interest and on organizations to embrace and encourage a vibrant volunteer community as a meaningful part of their operations. We should be more aware of these trends and do better to create volunteer opportunities that have impact and pays back with involvement that goes beyond providing free labor, but also deeper engagement with the community and appreciation for the subject matter.

Graphic by Nikelle Snader//Data from Bureau of Labor Statistics

Aside from the slight uptick during the Great Recession, it seems that the trend of declining volunteerism continues for the American population. It’s sad that the current rate is so low, that barely one in four people regularly participate in a volunteer activity. Part of this is our wealth-focused culture that perceives it as “unpaid labor”, or as tedious tasks not worthy of pay, or to be done in retirement looking for ‘something to do’. I got a few of these speaking with well-to-do friends living pseudo-competitive lives.

Volunteering is more than just free labor, it’s crucially valuable working philosophy that must be a part of any civic society, and is certainly fulfilling in its involvement with people and subject. When you are working for a cause dear to you and that cause doesn’t involve a paycheck, some other intrinsic motivation must be involved. For me, it’s usually an intellectual or experiential pursuit, one of passion and ‘purpose’ — the kind of thing one would do even without being paid for it. Along the way, you meet people who likewise are more genuinely aligned in those values, and you work together by participating and to furthering your community, by freely giving yourself to cause you believe in. I consider this a good use of my human capital, and a far better way to help further a cause than throwing in a few dollars.

Behavioral economist and Duke researcher Dan Arely spoke about some interesting findings from his studies into human behavior; in that there is more than one market for labor participation, particularly around the effect of money on motivation. In his study, he found that there exists a ‘monetary market’, and a ‘social market’ — the latter being the things we invest into because they’re personally important to us, rather than using a paid compensation as a proxy for our personal value. The findings were that even a tiny amount of compensation changes the nature of that worker-work relationship. The takeaway from this is that volunteer programs must understand this dynamic of motivation and work to meet the individuals’ and community’s intrinsic motivations to maintain an vibrant volunteer community.

In these polarized times, anything to build more civic cohesion is a win to me and volunteerism can be a great piece of that.

Volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium (2014-2015)

One of my favorite spots to start my volunteering day!

I recently had the opportunity to be an interpretive volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium. The aquarium had a well-established volunteer program provide the majority of working hands during any given business day. I don’t know exact figures, but I recall hearing numbers of around 75% (of people? physical labor hours?) involved in operations were some sort of volunteer. My involvement was about 200 hours between 2014-2015, or 4 hours a week on Saturday afternoons.

In absolute numbers, the community was huge, with over a thousand active volunteers at any given year, with a highly educated/science-capable staff that provided much of the structure for a mix of learning and service work to provide ‘interpretive services’ to the aquarium’s visitors. It’s pretty impressive how much operational responsibility rested on volunteers at any given time, particularly those interacting with the public. This is a non-trivial contribution of value on part of a generally educated and scientifically capable lay-community, “representing a donated value of over $2.3 million toward our mission: Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment” (Seattle Aquarium: Volunteer).

A typical Saturday afternoon at the tidepools. The most hands on part of the aquarium, half was encouraging the kids to explore, while the other half was ensuring they don’t do something insane. *Rarely* were these the same children. Parents take note–raise your kids right!

The volunteers themselves were a fairly diverse group — a wide range of ages and academic backgrounds were represented, though the group skewed somewhat female and usually with some academic or professional orientation toward biological sciences. Generally, the average adult volunteer struck me as smart, conservation-minded, proactive learners, who loved the sciences and wanted to be involved in the community. There also was a high school volunteer program active during the summers–I would have loved to be involved in such a program in high school, though the typical cohort included some more of the “mom signed me up” variety.

The aquarium staff had developed an effective learning curriculum that allowed anyone, from a total novice to a amateur marine biologist, to still learn so much more about the local ecosystem and to share in the ongoing events and research. I met a lot of really awesome people through my two years there and always felt that near direct access to research and researchers was available (at least, to the clever aspirant).

Behind the scenes look at volunteer enrichment, a pre-day session reviewing happenings in marine science, stuff going on at the aquarium, and sharing ideas on how to better reach out to the public.

I loved the work on two fronts — the ability to personally involve myself on a subject of interest with staff and research, and to share it with others via peers (other volunteers) and via outreach the external community at-large. There’s such much to the incredible marine ecosystem that is Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, our little corner linked to the Pacific Ocean; from the salmon runs from the rivers to the 100+ resident orcas whales of Puget Sound, to be able to participate even remotely in the community was incredibly fulfilling.

To then be able to share with the greater public was a particularly unique experience, as I don’t often work and interact directly with people in that capacity (at least not in large numbers, hundreds / day). Paid or not, aquarium patrons certainly looked to volunteers as responsible individuals who could help them in their overall experience, and that’s what were were there for, though sometimes, it also included managing some unruly behavior, from both kids and their parents.

Not the preferred way of experiencing the tide pools…

Given that the Aquarium is right on the Seattle Waterfront, during the summer, it attracts huge crowds, sometimes entire school-fulls on field trips (learning mayhem?) and can become a challenge for staff and volunteers to manage, but in it all, the most fulfilling aspect for me of interpretive work was encouraging others in their curiosity and pushing them along in their willingness to learn.

Introducing… Cupcake! Our Giant Pacific Octopus!


Octopus feeding — always a busy time!

Captain Barnacles of the Octonauts, dropping in at the aquarium.

A photo posted by Alexander (@skyrien) on

Spotted lagoon jellies, some of the coolest jellyfish in the Pacific!

A video posted by Alexander (@skyrien) on

Volunteering at the aquarium never really felt like work; (though maybe because I was only putting in 4 hours / week); for the most part, my time there felt much more like play; as in, not a unpaid shift at a job, but a free backstage access pass to a place that I enjoy! Some of the work did become tedious; but I came to love particular aspects of my shifts at the aquarium; personally, playing with feeding kelp to sea urchins and exploring plankton tow findings under a microscope filled many fun hours for me. That I got to share it with my volunteer peers, staff, and the public others was a side bonus!

I lived in Seattle for seven years, it’s a shame I didn’t start investing my time into the awesome volunteering opportunities until the last two. And it doesn’t have to be at the aquarium; even for me, at the one year mark, I was debating moving onto Life Sciences volunteering or to another domain entirely. For me, the point though, is to develop that pillar of civic life; of freely contributing to my community with what services I can best provide.

On top of that, Puget Sound is one of the most spectacular marine environments available to us in the United States; having already loved Seattle, my experience at the aquarium taught me so many things about the region’s ecosystems; from the importance of water management, to salmon run protection (to get a sense of people that were present there, one girl I met was already an expert at salmon fishery management… and she was only 19!), and I got to actually meet people like me, with similar interests to build on.

So yes, totally fulfilling, both for one’s own experience of being able to freely give one’s time and abilities and also as as contribution to engage my community and participate in this act of civic citizenship. I highly encourage everyone to pursue volunteering as one of the pillars of involvement in civic society.

One of my favorite spots; at the rotating exhibit, with the microscope (for examining plankton tow findings)


Another super cute creature, this one would remind me of a rabbit as it hopped around on its fins


The glorious hooded nudibranch! I would have never have known these supercool creatures existed if I hadn’t volunteered here


Another one of my favorite aquarium spots, the “Dome”. Apparently there are still fish there from when it was built (the sturgeon probably). It’s certainly was a nice cozy place to chill (or search for eels, as I often did). No cell phone reception though.


We also got access to the behind-the-scenes workings of an aquarium, and had the opportunity to learn about the systems for maintaining the exhibits. I hadn’t really thought of the massive infrastructure needed for an aquarium, but it’s certainly far more than a few swimming pools


The Twelfth Man and Santa himself also are fans of the Aquarium


Feeding octopus is hard work… but rewarding! They’re freakishly intelligent animals!


My hair grew a lot during my time here…


Election 2016 Aftermath

It’s been little over a month since the election; yet the world pre-election day world seems so far away. “Shocked” and “stunned” echoed on all through the week, even from folks in the president-elect’s camp.


A photo posted by Alexander (@skyrien) on

The populism-derived movement of the president-elect certainly is a disruption of the status quo. I frequently think of how the present will be written in history, and this administration certainly will have an interesting chapter.

With President Obama’s first post-election press conference, I’m reminded of how stark of a contrast these administrations will be; as much as he tries to reassure that the federal government is “like an ocean liner” in that it’s not very nimble; I suspect that rule only applies to those that understand and respect the institutions’ history. That said, I’m all for moving the country forward in the right direction, with so much yet unknown, we’ll just have to see how things go.

This election is one that prompts some introspection, about what my role in this democracy is, but also what kind of America we’re living, and sometimes fighting for.

As one that’s only lived in reliably blue states of Illinois, Washington, and California, and even at that, mostly close to (sub-)urban metropolitan areas of Chicago, Seattle, and the Bay Area, it’s been all too easy to fall into a bubble mindset about to what extent progressive values are shared.

Despite this, having grown up in a largely conservative environment, I considered my now-adult views relatively balanced, While I feel I can understand the motivations behind the Trump phenomenon, upon inspection, the balance of risk-reward did not seem to measure up.

I am starting to understand though, that underneath his strategy’s blatant appeal to populism — which perhaps suggests the president-elect will be able to leverage this bias to advantage — lies a sensibility about disruption and chaos and the ability to land successfully (and even better) than others around him.

This is a mindset I share, and though I probably wouldn’t risk the world order for a chance at disruption, I am cautiously optimistic that the results will be a net positive.

Election 2016: Some Thoughts

In November, for the first time, I will cast a vote for the head of state! Exciting! I’ve voted in every election I could since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2013 and the election of this year will be the first with one for POTUS. (Non-presidential years are important as well, particularly those involved in state, county, and local governments!)

Having grown up in the United States, and being one that’s long been a fan of US History, it’s impossible to ignore the weight of history evident in the long road it’s taken for citizens to fight and win the right to vote and participate in their governments. The history leading up to the independence of the 13 colonies, to the twisting tortured road within American history itself of  the slow spreading over two centuries of the right to vote across to more and more of the living human beings of this country, all of it is powerfully in memory as I think about the upcoming decisions for November.

But what an election season…

After the past two years of ever-increasing media blitzing, election fatigue finally hit me earlier this month, and it’s clear that it’s not just me. Though to take a optimistic note, I note that democracy is messy and I think this election will teach us to treat our republic with a little more care.

We’re finally coming down to the last few weeks of this election cycle, and while I await the first the sigh of relief after election day (when normal media life, which seems so far away, may resume), this being such a significant election in the terms of my life and America’s future, I feel more like a marathoner at the end of a long race, and in a way, I think we’ll all remember it for the rest of our lives. Maybe we’ll even miss it when it’s over. Not necessarily in the nice kind of way, but more like a shell-shocked flashback to an alternate universe, where a ridiculous caricature of America almost became president. (And ridiculous is being nice!)!

I take the responsibility very seriously. Many have asked me who I intend to vote for and while the right decision seems ever so clear on every possible measure, I’m going to take in all the information I can until election day before I mail in my ballot (also while I try to decipher California’s 17 statewide measures).

But let me take a break and look back at these past eight years. I’ve had my own criticisms, but I’m going to miss Obama as president after he’s gone. While not perfect, I think he’s done a great job as anyone could as president in a challenging time. But democracies and presidents are human, and I’ve considered him authentic to critical values that represent a more inclusive America. Obama represents more than just the first black president; his upbringing and activist empathy is critical in how he accepted the responsibility and of the presidency; I feel that for the first time, we’ve had a president that was able to understand cross-racial issues in a way that shows the true power of American diversity.

This is cool too:

Can’t believe it’s (only+already) been three years! #usa🇺🇸

A photo posted by Alexander (@skyrien) on

The mid-21st century is going to be a very interesting time, and with the rise of the right in Europe, I can see that part of the world turning inward; it seems inevitable, as social media and populism combine to form coalitions on “making xyz great” again, which in code terms mean going back to nationalism and a tribal mindset about the world. This has other consequences, which I mentally associate with a devaluation of the individual and a reinforcement of in/out markers such as race, creed, color of one’s skin, or life choices.

It may not be the America that everyone wanted, or one that was going to wait until everyone was on board. But without a doubt, despite the problems, old and new, that have come up through these past eight years, as a society, as a people, as a world, we have moved forward. This is in stark contrast to the darker elements of society that have risen during this time; starkly evident in the coarsening political discourse in America and across the world.

It almost seems inevitable that diversity (in Europe) will take blow in this shift to the right, as the center of gravity in Europe certainly seems to tend toward less diversity, even in the 21st century after decades of European Union:

Americans more likely to say growing diversity makes their country a better place to live
Rather than be depressed by this, I consider it an even stronger mandate for those of us in the New World to reject these Old World notions of racial nationalism and fight for a more inclusive society. We say today that to become American is to accept a set of values (and of course, meet plenty of legal criteria). Of those values, many of which were taught, generally include a validation of intrinsic value of the individual; enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and reinforced through the American story over the past two centuries. I love great stories and the America that I’m proud of, the America that I feel compelled to help move forward is the one of freedoms and citizenship to one’s community and fellow neighbor, a respect for the strength of our diversity, and the innovative drive that I still see all over the country.

We have many challenges that we’ll need to overcome in the next eight years and we need a president, party, and political platform that has a rational eye toward the real world and what can be accomplished via the limited levers of the presidency; one that believes in the strength of the individuals and welcome all to better the American spirit.