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Where biology meets technology: A summer intern story

Where biology meets technology: A summer intern story

Santos Elizondo working on electronics.
Gabriel M. Santos Elizondo in his natural habitat: code on his computer screens, electrical engineering components strewn everywhere, scrapbook for diligent note-taking, and complete focus. Photo: Madison Heard © 2019 MBARI.

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.

Model of a shark fin.
Shark Café Camera tag schematics hang behind a model white shark fin, with the inner components of the camera in the foreground. Photo: Madison Heard © 2019 MBARI.

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 is now available at GitHub, also for the novice engineer, head over to to learn how to work with electronics and software.

Maughan and Santos Elizondo with shark fin model.
MBARI Mechanical Engineer Thom Maughan (left) and Summer Intern Gabriel M. Santos Elizondo with their shark fin model used in the creation of the shark camera. Photo: Madison Heard © 2019 MBARI.

Article by Madison Heard

For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett