The mid-morning silence is suddenly shattered by the splash of a dark, finned creature as biological sciences senior Cate Webster rises slowly from the murky, green water. She is clad in thick, black neoprene, decorated with a metal cylinder on her back, a glass mask over her eyes and a wide smile resting just above her shivering chin. The scientific diver climbs onto the pier, having just finished a set of underwater tests — part of being a researcher for the Cal Poly Center for Coastal Marine Sciences.
Cate’s a self-proclaimed ocean enthusiast. She spends at least five days a week either in the water or in the lab, focusing most of her attention on finding the ideal non-toxic coating for ship hulls and pier pilings — one that won’t leech toxins into the ocean, will be durable and will be easily washed of bio-fouling, or the accumulation of invertebrate animals such as algae on the hulls and pilings over time.
Back at the pier, Cate collects some sea water for the lab, and heads to campus to start the real work — feeding her bio-fouling of choice: barnacles.
Yes, Cate’s a barnacle scientist.
“It is one of the most rare things you can do, and people are usually pretty surprised by it,” she said. “But they’re also really curious about it. You don’t meet a barnacle scientist everyday.”
Her tiny creatures — generally smaller than 5 centimeters tall and wide — look like little volcano-shaped pimples growing anywhere there is seawater. But Cate takes her time studying them, photographing them, understanding them and feeding them.
“Working with them after so long, they become a little less foreign,” Cate said. “You become familiar with them and the way they like to feed, and you get a soft spot for them over time. It’s cute the way that they feed, that’s probably the best part. Their foot — the cirri — is kind of like this net that comes out — it’s from their operculum — like a little claw, and it waves it through the water trying to get the artemia — that’s what we feed them.”
Cate can easily name every invertebrate body part with perfect scientific dictation, and she spends most of her research time in the lab — she lives there, she says — when she’s not diving, of course.
Despite being a hub for federal naval research, the building itself goes easily unnoticed, tucked neatly away between the construction sites, faculty offices and grand concrete buildings on the north end of Cal Poly’s campus. But just up the thin, metal stairs, past the rows of green and brown glass bottles caked in seafloor debris and displayed like long-lost treasures, lies what Cate calls “the hidden gem within Cal Poly,” and the home of her barnacles.
Posters and pictures of sea slugs, nudibranchs, tropical fish and topographic maps bring color to the small four-room lab. Pipettes sit in glass jars scattered on shelves around the main room, and binders filled with data sit on the clean, black tables.
Cate kneels on a chair, the only one in the lab. Her long, dirty blonde hair is thrown into a messy bun while she works, exposing her three-time pierced ears and “Central Coast Scuba Club” sweatshirt. The water tank system drones loudly from the other side of the wall, but she’s too intently focused on the image inside the massive microscope resting on the table to notice.
She presses a button, photographing the barnacle under the lens, then picks up her pencil and scratches a series of numbers and notes in her graph paper notebook.
“You see,” she explains, “if these organisms are growing on a boat, it’s going to create more drag and you’re going to spend millions of dollars more on your boats on gas because of the amount of drag from all these little organisms accumulating.”
For years, boats used copper paint coatings — a paint so toxic that no bio-fouling could grow on it, eliminating the problem of drag. But the copper paint leeched, killing aquatic life in harbors and estuaries such as Morro Bay. Today, copper coatings are banned — but the problem of bio-fouling still needs to be solved.
That’s why Cate spends a majority of her time in a lab, hidden behind microscopes with little company other than the barnacles in petri dishes.
“We’re trying to work toward sustaining and keeping the oceans clean of all of these toxins,” she said, “and every little barnacle we raise is a step toward finding a better solution to the problem of bio-fouling.”
It’s a tedious topic of research, but Cate works with an unfettered, bubbly enthusiasm that comes from a true passion for the ocean.
“Cate’s found her stride working in and around the ocean,” said Grant Waltz, a research associate at the lab. “She can take intense boring-ness and make it fun, while still being professional. She’s been around the lab for a long time because people like being around her.”
Waltz said Cate views her work and her world in a unique way proven by her ability to find enjoyment in the lab and in the field — even in some not-ideal situations.
“My first day, we went out to Morro Bay, and worked for five hours in the estuary,” Cate said. “I was covered in Morro Bay sludge and my clothes were dirty, but I don’t know why, I really enjoyed it. It’s really interesting research. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s more interesting than waiting tables with grumpy customers. I like it, I like working with my hands, I like the animal identification that goes with it. Sometimes it is really nitty-gritty … and it’s not always the most glamorous job. But I like getting my hands dirty.”
Paul Carvalho, a biological sciences senior and fellow lab scientist, described Cate as a light-hearted but devoted person.
“She’s outgoing, never shy,” he said. “Not like a lab scientist. She’s funny, she’s always making people laugh. But she’s also always looking out for people. She cares about doing a good job.”
Cate laughs often: when describing her work, when talking to friends and has a gregarious, carefree demeanor about her. But her passion for her barnacles — and what’s more, the ocean — shows in the undercurrent of her nonchalant attitude.
“Having the ocean as such a big part of my life, it makes it worth it to want to conserve it,” she said. “The more I explore it, the more I am impassioned to conserve it.”
As she snaps the lids back on her barnacle petri-dishes, Cate apologizes for having to rush off, but she heard conditions were perfect, and she just has to go get a dive in before class.