August 9, 2019
Where biology meets technology:
A summer intern story
Gabriel Marcelo Santos Elizondo is a biologist by training from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, but this summer as an MBARI intern he has switched gears to work on a project dealing entirely with engineering methods. What would be thought of as troublesome and inconvenient to some, was a welcome challenge for Santos Elizondo as he dove headfirst into learning the details for how MBARI Engineers designed and built the original White Shark Café camera to ultimately write up a document with these instructions that would be freely available to the public.
This vision of creating a platform for researchers to learn engineering basics dates back to 2018, when MBARI engineers finished a project to design and build a camera tag to help scientist Sal Jorgensen of the Monterey Bay Aquarium understand what sharks do at the famed “White Shark Café.” MBARI Engineers Thom Maughan and Larry Bird have been working to publish the mechanical, electrical, and software documentation of the “Shark Café Cam” as an open-source project.
When Santos Elizondo joined the team, his minimal formal training in electrical and software engineering made him a perfect candidate for going through the trials and tribulations of translating complex camera schematics. He would be sure the document would be free of jargon and more readily understandable by the students and scientists of the ocean research community.
To test how effective and feasible creating an open-source document will be for others interested in learning skills in electrical and software engineering, Santos Elizondo, with support from Maughan, created an in-house suite of weekly hands-on workshops known as Tech Fest. These workshops were designed to provide participants with resources, information and space to create their own tech-focused project. Each meeting centered on a new topic and participants used Santos Elizondo’s open-source document to guide their own learning.
The key to Tech Fest gaining momentum at MBARI is rooted in Maughan and Santos Elizondo’s philosophy: “Each one, teach one.” This motto has guided the creation and continuation of Tech Fest, held each Thursday at lunch, when some MBARI staff gather in a casual environment to challenge themselves with learning something new. This loosely structured lesson plan lends itself well to new participants joining meetings when they can, while also giving the space for more advanced participants to continue to work at their own pace. These casual lessons helped validate the open-source plan and gather feedback on the foundational knowledge required to understand the electronics and software for the low-cost camera tag before the official rollout of the online do-it-yourself guide.
Looking forward, Santos Elizondo is preparing to open-source the procedures, as well as the mechanical, electronic, and software designs for creating a low-cost, behavior-triggered camera tag based on the design developed for use at the White Shark Café. Ultimately, Santos Elizondo’s intern project aims to empower students and scientists in the ocean research community who have had no formal training in engineering to utilize methods from an engineering perspective to answer biological questions.
The animal tag GitHub will be released soon, but for the novice engineer, head over to www.github.com/practicaltech/techfest to learn how to work with electronics and software.
Article by Madison Heard
For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett