Going Back to My roots to Study our Mother Earth

Written by: Kanchanak Khat, CAICE 2022 SURP Fellow

Across the vast Pacific Ocean, at a distance of about 8746 miles from the United States of America lies Cambodia, my home country where I was born and raised; there I completed my primary education all the way up to high school. Now, here I am as a SURP intern at CAICE doing research on Sea Spray Aerosol on the eastern shores of this wonderful ocean called the Pacific Ocean; one vast ocean that we had to cross in order to immigrate to America. This fact blows my mind and makes me wonder about where I am in life and where I am headed. How did I come to this point?

Growing up as a kid, I would have never thought that one day I would find myself halfway around the world trekking an academic journey trying to make a personal connection with science and Mother Nature. 

I remember growing up as a child, the environment around us was very degraded due to industrial waste and pollution. Getting drinking water and water for everyday household chores was a monumental task. Every time we could meet our water needs, it was something that my family and I valued dearly, because getting ahold of clean water on a regular basis was never guaranteed.

A common factory releasing pollution in a developing country. Credit: publication ‘Contemporary breath’ by Sereyrath Mech

Once a month, a big tanker truck would truck in what they called ‘good water’ and would sell it to customers around the neighborhood by the liter. After food and other major expenses, I remember my parents would have to budget just to have our roof top water tank filled.

This was both an expensive inconvenience and a blessing, because at the end of the day, one can live without food for a week, but one cannot live without water for more than a couple days.

I have these very fond memories of my childhood, memories of the flood waters that would come yearly with the rainy season. Everything would flood, the streets would flood, the bottom level of where we lived would flood and stay uninhabitable through the rainy season. Factories, businesses and processing facilities would discharge their industrial waste into this pond next to our house; it was more or less an open sewer.

During the rainy season, all this toxic wastewater would mix with flood waters, raw sewage from overflowing sewer lines and septic tanks and it would all end up on the streets and in everyone’s houses. This was a yearly mini natural disaster by definition, but I remember these days fondly, and with nostalgia because all the neighborhood kids, including myself, would love to play, frolic and swim in this very polluted water. We knew not to drink it, yet we played and swam in it because we knew no better and because it was a lot of fun.

Even as a kid, I always thought it was ironic that there was so much water, and yet we had no good drinking water. Fixing this was one of my dreams, so I would often daydream that I was a grown up and worked with scientists and engineers to build and install big metal pipes that would take clean potable drinking water to every house in the neighborhood.

I would daydream that this was my superpower, and I would bring clean running water for everyone in this disadvantaged neighborhood.
Here I am, taking water samples from SOARS channel.
Photo credit: Julia Niehoff

I knew that this water system was possible. This is what got me interested in science and engineering from an early age, because I knew it was at the crossroads of science and engineering that such a water delivery system could be built.

After high school, because of a number of factors, influences and guidance, ‘or’ the lack thereof, I decided to go into computer science. I started taking those courses at community college, and because of time constraints and our living situation, I did not go as deep into the concepts as I wish I would have; I simply passed my CS classes and transferred to University. Into my 3rd year I had my doubts about the major, but my advisor encouraged me to complete my BS in CS. While I looked for work, I decided to take General Chemistry at San Jose City College (SJCC).

My Chemistry professor, Dr Jose Cabrera, was so inspiring with his teaching style and guidance, that I suddenly began to develop a keen interest in chemistry.

When I related the natural sciences, my childhood, the place where I grew up and how polluted it was, this was when I came to realize that I would love to further explore the natural sciences. I wanted to study this field of knowledge with the sole mission and purpose of understanding Mother Nature a bit more.

I want to contribute my efforts towards understanding, caring, protecting and conserving our one and only Living Mother earth. 

At CAICE, I am part of the bio team monitoring SOARS water. The main tasks that I perform routinely consist of taking water samples from the SOARS channel, processing them in the lab and analyzing them using a Flow Cytometer. My experience so far with CAICE has been amazing as everyone that I have met has been supportive, interactive and very knowledgeable.

At the beginning when I joined CAICE, I was struggling to understand the tasks that we had to do because I had only finished one general Chemistry class and I had little to no knowledge of Biology. The steep learning curve made me feel anxious and concerned about how I could make a positive contribution to the team, but as soon as I started to get involved more with my mentor and my co-workers, I started to get the hang of it.

Kanchanak observing the ocean at Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier. Photo credit: Julia Niehoff

Before my experience with this internship, due to my lack of knowledge of the natural sciences, I would have never considered the relation between the role of the marine microorganisms and our Earth’s atmosphere. It has changed my perspective in how I view the biogeochemistry of the Earth.

Being aware of this complex relation, I can only scream with excitement inside my head and say “Wow!! I must really pursue this field of knowledge further; it gives meaning and purpose to my life, and the child in me says “it’s a dream come true””.

The encouragement and advice that I have received from everyone has made me feel comfortable with the environment that I work at, and the tasks that I have to do. By asking people around me who are always willing to share their knowledge and are enthusiastic to explain things to me, the tension and that anxious feeling that I had at the beginning has lessened considerably. Overall, my advice is to always reach out to your mentor and the people that you are working with whenever you have any questions. They are there to assist you to reach your project’s goal and make your learning experience a memorable one.

My favorite philosophy of life: “When you have a will, you have a way.”