Jacob Derick Cooper Main Image

Ocean undergrad gets outside of the classroom to do real-world oceanography

Q&A with Jacob Derick Cooper, UW Oceanography undergraduate student.

1. Can you tell us a bit about your current status at the University of Washington (UW)? 

Sure, I’m a student veteran and an undergraduate. Still busting off the salt deposits from my time in the Navy and finding my way at UW with one year to go. I’m enjoying every minute of being a UW undergrad. UW has such a welcoming environment that I can really feel comfortable being myself: a science nerd. The UW environment is inspirational, and it motivates me to stretch my thinking and perform at levels beyond what I ever believed I was capable of. If I had to describe my status at UW in one word, then I think the word would be: empowered. If I had to describe my status in a social media post, it would be: “OMG, I get to do my thesis in Bermuda!! My school is connected globally. I’m humbled by the opportunity and challenges ahead.” Then, a little crying emoji thingy.

2. So you said you are in Bermuda now, what are you doing there, and how does it fit into your degree program?

I’m currently measuring water clarity on and around the coral reefs of Bermuda. I deploy a device called a Profiling Reflectance Radiometer (PRR). The PRR is capable of measuring downwelling irradiance which is the amount of light entering a point in time and space. I use the light level data to calculate Kd. This is the attenuation coefficient of downwelling irradiance or more simply how much downward-directed light is lost as it travels down through the water column. This translates to “water clarity”. 

Clarity of the water on coral reefs fits into my degree program because it directly deals with physical oceanography and also coral reef ecology. This is highly related to my degree program which is a major in Oceanography. Light is a physical characteristic in the ocean and coral reef ecologists want to understand how water clarity varies. 

3. What first piqued your interest in the field of oceanography? 

My interest in science developed as far back as I can remember. Much of my time and experience as a child was spent at the beach in front of my grandmother’s house and on trips with my great-grandfather in his recreational vehicle. At my grandma’s, I would find sticks that were shaped like guns and defend the massive driftwood logs from my older brother. Somewhere in my thought process, the beach was worth defending. I also spent a lot of time at Dash Point State Park in Federal Way, WA where my great-grandfather took my brother and I. So, the ocean has been a place where I play and as it turns out, there are careers where I play! I guess that when it comes down to it, my genetics play a role as well. 

My great-grandfather was a merchant mariner and did his part during World War II as a seafarer. His son, my grandfather, was a diver. And, his son, who is my uncle, has informed me that “Your grandpa was diving before Cousteau!!” and “He has scuba tanks that are stamped 1957!” This, of course makes no sense because Cousteau invented scuba 14 years earlier than 1957. Despite the nonsense, I feel connected to the ocean through my life experiences and a family that has a wealth of ocean experience.

4. Why did you choose the UW Oceanography program? 

I chose UW Oceanography because I wanted to move back to Washington. It was home for my first 20 years and it also happens to be a unique and beautiful place. Seriously, Washington is awesome. The communities in Washington are outstanding and people back home generally have great ethics. Puget Sound is also the place where many of my ocean life experiences took place so naturally it is great to be at UW and be connected with colleagues who know what is going on in the sound. Additionally, UW’s program is globally known and so the opportunity to learn is the best around.

5. What have your shipboard experiences been like? 

My first experience on a boat that I can remember was with my grandfather, the diver. We boated out of Westport in what was likely a 16’ boat or less to go fishing. The waves seemed taller than the boat was long… We both got terribly sea sick. I only remember the headache being nightmarish and my grandfather losing his stomach contents over the side. We never even dropped a line in the water and returned back to the shore. In hindsight this was hilarious, but also a learning point for being at sea.

Other than that, I got plenty of experience on ships in the Navy where I maintain that the experience with my grandfather made it so that I would never get seasick again. Still haven’t. 

My favorite shipboard experience was on the R/V Revelle which I could not have done without the support of staff at UW. It brought me back to the best of times at sea that I had in the Navy. Times where my shipmates and I were telling stories and laughing, playing card games, embracing our favorite shipboard meals or bashing our least favorites, and the alone time which for me was about reading seafaring novels. The small things I had to learn to appreciate. Above all, doing science on the R/V Revellebrought about the greatest distinction: Being at war did not always entail these “best of times.” But, being on a science mission with my vacuum pump being too slow seems like a great problem to have. 

6. What has been your fondest memory so far as a UW student? 

Definitely being a new student at UW and feeling the newbie fears, but also rising to the occasion and performing at a level that made me stand out. It was the acceptance from peers with similar experience and staff that made me feel triumphant. Being amongst legendary oceanographers is both rewarding and a burden. When I accomplished something new and got out of my intoxicating comfort zone is when I felt the most fond of my experiences. It was always also a time of great challenge which helped me grow. And so, the growth of myself has been the most rewarding and thus I am most grateful and fond of these memories. 

7. What are your plans after you graduate? 

I plan to apply for graduate school and pursue a PhD in physical oceanography. 

8. Do you have any advice for potential UW Oceanography students? 

Apply yourself in every aspect at UW. Read through the numerous emails that want people for field work and apply. There is so much opportunity outside of the classroom to get involved in real-world oceanography through UW. Even volunteer your time for oceanography that you might not necessarily want to do, but that can help you out of your comfort zone. Also, find a group of fellow nerds and study together. I mean really get into it and discuss your learning. It would also behoove you to use the mentorship program. It helps so much if you’re like I was and need help narrowing down which discipline of oceanography interests you.