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 Day 2016 Choices!

The day is finally here, this ridiculous election season of the 2016 presidential cycle is finally coming to a climactic close.

For the sake of discussion, I’ll outline my decisions below, which cover my ballot decisions here in Santa Clara County, California at least as of this morning, barring any last minute change. These experiences are exclusively my own based on the information available to me. While I admit no expertise in any of these fields, democracy tasks every citizen with the responsibility to weigh in.

In the past, I’ve identified with the (unwritten) ideals of the Democratic party and the individualistic economic principles of the Republican party, so would still like to respect some centrist members of the past — but the direction during and since the Bush years has been one of a tragic coalition of much that is wrong with America.

The grievance-oriented economic politics, which actively promotes ignorance about possibilities of the energy sector rather than investing into communities to transition into the future. Worse, the quiet embrace of nativist anger and normalization of fear-oriented immigration rhetoric. You see these ideologies crossing borders in the dark alignment of the players in global right-wing nationalists that had historically separated Europe from the United States. But in the internet age, it’s all to easy to find a rabbit hole to dive into.)

In the public sphere, getting out of this mess will require getting toward civil dialog where critical thinking and discussion can take place and while the anti-establishments and revolutionist-wannabes have had their day this election season, let’s get real America, stable patient incrementalism has been what has led to great strides of progress. We’re mature enough for that, right?


With that in mind philosophically, he here we go–

Choices, as of Tuesday, November 8th, 2016 – 8:15 am 

Party-Nominated Offices

President and Vice President

CHOICE: The Great HRC (Hillary Clinton) – Tim Kaine

After the past year and half of campaign season, I think enough has been said not to need to expound upon this too much more. But let’s finally say that after all the mud-slinging, can we proudly sit with President Clinton?

I’d like to think so, and once the national healing process has begun, and a post-mortem finding departmental IT policies woefully inadequate (no shit?), things will get better. That’s called learning, not burning the house down. Hell yeah, I can live will that.

There is much outreach and healing that I would like to see however; this is not the time for elitist gloating. At least one side is showing that it is inclined to try to be the government for all Americans.

On a more serious note, democracy itself requires stable ongoing investment, and too many Americans already take it for granted and seem to want to torch the very institutions that protect our way of life. I’ve come to realize that there will always been a segment of resentment fueling our politics; but as the GOP seems to be learning this year; that’s playing with fire.

But let’s get real; a lot of important politics is happening at the state and local levels, and it’s clear that the principles of the GOP can resonate there. It’s time for a return to Centrist politics and practical progressivism.

One candidate. Not the other. And no, not even remotely interested in these third-party options.

United States Senator

CHOICE: Kamala D. Harris

Sadly, I have to admit that I have not done all the critical research that I’d like at this point to strongly advocate one or the other based on record.

It is an interesting election however ; apparently, in 2010 by citizen measure, California did away with party primaries and instead went with qualifying the top two candidates by popular support, which ultimately led to two Democrats on the ballot for US Senate (the Republicans being far behind). Fair enough to me — though I am concerned about a decline in constructive dialog if there are no competitive alternate parties, but folks like Sanchez seem to show that they will still have a presence.

After a cursory analysis of character points and watching the one debate, the decision was pretty clear to me. I strongly embrace progress, but I’m practical about it and understand that institutions have a purpose.

Also, this is for US Senate; I want someone that has an understanding of America’s place in the world on a security and environmental basis. Sanchez, at least, appears to best represent the limited interests while on the surface, appearing to anti-establishment populist messaging.


United States Representative (CA-House District 19)

CHOICE: Zoe Lofgren

I know even less about this particular race but I can see that Lofgren seems to have a solid record if one favors expanded civil rights and directed federal investments into forward-looking technology.

The “other guy” is apparently a tech consultant and has raised $5,500. I can’t find much more information about him, so I don’t take him to be a serious candidate. It’s a shame that for such an important seat that there isn’t yet a competitive alternative…

California State Senator (District 15)

CHOICE: Jim Beall

He represents the local establishment of Silicon Valley and doesn’t appear to be in a particularly competitive race with Nora Campos.

ON TERM LIMITS: My general perspective is that term limits restricts those who would want to go into politics as a career and instead increase the incentives for those funded by external means. The general trend is very dark here and term limits for legislature seems like one more way to guarantee that citizens don’t get to vote on great representatives. If you don’t like a guy, don’t vote for them; why take away their right to run, or our right to decide to have them?

State Assembly (CA-District 27)

CHOICE: Madison Nguyen

I know even less about this decision. Given this is a state legislature position, I’d like someone that understands urban crises like housing and community development. From what I hear, Nguyen can represent those well, but this is based on a totally cursory analysis on election day.

Nonpartisan Offices

Community College District Governing Board Member – Trustee Area 7

CHOICE: Mayra Cruz

I don’t have a strong opinion here, but the choices are between a current board trustee and a law student. Beyond that, there isn’t much being said about the latter, and he’s been resistant to comment to press.

I love democracy in that anyone can run and the occasional dark horse candidate can win. In this environment, citizens have a responsibility to be able to understand which candidates make a serious effort to establish themselves with their voters and/or have a record of doing so already.

Moving on to the issues…

California Statewide Propositions

Like Washington state, California has a mechanism for citizens to put measures on the ballot. I love that citizens get to participate in this aspect of effectively what is legislation, but I’ve seen it succumb to populist bias and influenced by money, inside and outside. I find it critical that we as state residents take the best interests of the state and its people at heart.

There are 17 measures on the ballot this year — and reading through them has been like a season long assignment. I’ve made a best effort to decide based on my principles and available knowledge to me.

I’ve made my decsions as follows:


51N, 52N, 53N, 54N, 55Y, 56Y, 57Y, 58Y, 59N, 60N, 61N, 62N, 63Y, 64Y, 65N, 66Y, 67Y

So that’s it for now! A huge moment has passed for America, let’s move forward in one piece!