Jordan Watson measures total alkalinity as part of his work on ocean acidification.

Jordan Watson, a master’s degree student in chemical oceanography at UD, recalls a time during his summer 2021 internship through Project WiCCED when, looking out from Lewes Beach, he saw dolphins crossing in front of the sunset and knew this was finally the right fit for him.

Project WiCCED is a multi-institution project in partnership with the National Science Foundation and the State of Delaware aimed at assessing major threats to Delaware’s water quality and developing viable solutions to meet those challenges.

During the internship, Watson studied the biogeochemistry of tidal mixing in Delaware Bay and helped collect field samples and analyze them in the lab. His advisor was Wei-Jun Cai, Mary A. S. Lighthipe Chair of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

Watson parlayed the internship into a research assistantship funded through Project WiCCED that covers his graduate school tuition and provides a stipend for living expenses, with Cai as his advisor.

Project WiCCED summer interns participate in professional development activities to help them get ready for the next phase of their career. The internship built Watson’s independence, self-motivation, and time management skills.

The road to this master’s program was winding. Watson graduated with a bachelor of arts in environmental studies, a minor in geology, and a certificate in GIS analysis from East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania in 2017. But before that, there was a lot of change. “I went through a lot of stages to get where I am,” he said.

Watson started college as a physics major—he wanted to be an aerospace engineer and work on airplanes—and also played football. It was difficult to balance them both. He switched majors to mammalogy, then biology, then environmental science.

Along the way, he had to choose between football and academics. “My entire life, I always thought I was a football player,” he said. “But I knew there was a higher ceiling with academics, so I stayed with that.”

“The fact that I’ve finally found my path and what I want to do, other than just football, is just very calming to me,” Watson said.

For his master’s research he’ll use advanced sensors to measure pH, temperature, salinity, and oxygen in the water near Delaware Inlet. These water quality measures are important for shell formation in crustaceans, and they’re changing in response to ocean acidification.

Watson hopes that his research will help contribute to global knowledge about climate change. Ocean acidification is driven by the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide that is also causing climate change.

“If we don’t understand this,” he said, “and we don’t understand the ocean—the way that the ocean is acidifying––then indirectly the entire world will be affected.” Lower pH in the oceans will affect the availability of fish and seafood, for both people and other animals. About 10 percent of the world’s population relies on fishing for their livelihood.

Watson grew up the youngest of four children in Rockland County, New York, north of New York City.

His brother, Anderson, who is a senior scientist at pharmaceutical company Pfizer, has been an important role model in learning not to let setbacks stop him. “His determination is constant,” Jordan said. He helped teach Jordan time management. “He told me grad school is a marathon, not a sprint.”

His mom, a special education teacher, is also an important influence on him. She is his unfailing cheerleader, calms him down, and lifts him up.

In football, Watson recognized that he was overly hard on himself when he made a mistake. It affected his performance for the rest of the game. “I had to realize that it was myself that was holding me back,” he said. “I was always worried about what other people thought of me, what I was doing wrong.”

He learned to overcome this challenge through meditation, which he started after he quit football. “I felt for a long time like there was a vacant spot in my heart,” he said. Working out didn’t fill it, but “meditating just stopped all the static in my head and let me calm down.” Now he wakes up every day at 5 a.m. and meditates for 30–40 minutes. “It helps me find peace with myself,” he said.

It has also improved his ability to adjust to new challenges. “When I’m thrown into the fire, I can definitely adapt to any scenario I’m in,” Watson said. “So even though grad school is very stressful, I’m able to cope with it and just keep going.” He continued, “Many people don’t like the ocean because they can’t see the bottom and they fear the unknown. I don’t fear the unknown. I’m okay with learning something new. It just takes time. I have to just give myself time.”

After grad school, Watson is leaning toward a career in hydrogeology, hydrology, or water quality. “I want to be somewhere that there’s a high ceiling for me to keep going,” he said.

He played the cello as a boy, and has a great fondness for music—all genres. Music helped him learn to meditate and “definitely helped me become who I am today,” he said.

by: Joy Drohan – EcoWrite

Photo Credit: NOAA Ocean Acidification Program