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John Moisan Studies the Ocean Through the ‘Eyes’ of AI

A white man with curly gray hair and glasses smiles slightly in front of a backdrop of green sea grasses and blue sky. He wears a white shirt and necklace.
“I do evolutionary programming,” said NASA Goddard oceanographer Dr. John Moisan. “I see a lot of possibility in using evolutionary programming to solve many large problems we are trying to solve. How did life start and evolve? Can these processes be used to evolve intelligence or sentience?”
Courtesy of John Moisan

Name: John Moisan

Formal Job Classification: Research oceanographer

Organization: Ocean Ecology Laboratory, Hydrosphere, Biosphere, Geophysics (HBG), Earth Science Directorate (Code 616) – duty station at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I develop ecosystem models and satellite algorithms to understand how the ocean’s ecology works. My work has evolved over time from when I coded ocean ecosystem models to the present where I now use artificial intelligence to evolve the ocean ecosystem models.

How did you become an oceanographer?

As a child, I watched a TV series called “Sea Hunt,” which involved looking for treasure in the ocean. It inspired me to want to spend my life scuba diving.

I got a Bachelor of Science in marine biology from the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, and later got a Ph.D. from the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Initially, I just wanted to do marine biology which to me meant doing lots of scuba diving, maybe living on a sailboat. Later, when I was starting my graduate schoolwork, I found a book about mathematical biology and a great professor who helped open my eyes to the world of numerical modeling. I found out that instead of scuba diving, I needed instead to spend my days behind a computer, learning how to craft ideas into equations and then code these into a computer to run simulations on ocean ecosystems.

I put myself through my initial education. I went to school fulltime, but I lived at home and hitchhiked to college on a daily basis. When I started my graduate school, I worked to support myself. I was in school during the normal work week, but from Friday evening through Sunday night, I worked 40 hours at a medical center cleaning and sterilizing the operating room instrument carts. This was during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

What was most exciting about your two field trips to the Antarctic?

In 1987, I joined a six-week research expedition to an Antarctic research station to explore how the ozone hole was impacting phytoplankton. These are single-celled algae that are responsible for making half the oxygen we breathe. Traveling to Antarctica is like visiting another planet. There are more types of blue than I’ve ever seen. It is an amazingly beautiful place to visit, with wild landscapes, glaciers, mountains, sea ice, and a wide range of wildlife. After my first trip I returned home and went back in a few months later as a biologist on a joint Polish–U.S. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) expedition to carry out a biological survey and measure how much fast the phytoplankton was growing in different areas of the Southern Ocean. We used nets to measure the amounts of fish and shrimp and took water samples to measure salinity, the amount of algae and their growth rates. We ate well, for example the Polish cook made up a large batch of smoked ice fish.

What other field work have you done?

While a graduate student, I helped do some benthic work in the Gulf of Maine. This study was focused on understanding the rates of respiration in the muds on the bottom of the ocean and on understanding how much biomass was in the muds. The project lowered a benthic grab device to the bottom where it would push a box core device into the sediments to return it to the surface. This process is sort of like doing a biopsy of the ocean bottom.

What is your goal as a research oceanographer at Goddard?

Ocean scientists measure the amount and variability of chlorophyll a, a pigment in algae, in the ocean because it is an analogue to the amount of algae or phytoplankton in the ocean. Chlorophyll a is used to capture solar energy to make sugars, which the algae use for growth. Generally, areas of the ocean that have more chlorophyll are also areas where growth or primary production is higher. So, by estimating how much chlorophyll is in the ocean we can study how these processes are changing with an aim in understanding why. NASA uses the color of the ocean using satellites to estimate chlorophyll a because chlorophyll absorbs sunlight and changes the color of the ocean. Algae have other kinds of pigments, each of which absorbs light at different wavelengths. Because different groups of algae have different levels of pigments, they are like fingerprints that can reveal the type of algae in the water. Some of my research aims at trying to use artificial intelligence and mathematical techniques to create new ways to measure these pigments from space to understand how ocean ecosystems change.

In 2024, NASA plans to launch the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite, which will measure the color of the ocean at many different wavelengths. The data from this satellite can be used with results from my work on genetic programs and inverse modeling to estimate concentrations of different pigments and possibly concentrations of different types of algae in the ocean.

You have been at Goddard over 22 years. What is most memorable to you?

I develop ecosystem models. But ecosystems do not have laws in the same way that physics has laws. Equations need to be created so that the ecosystem models represent what is observed in the real world. Satellites have been a great source for those observations, but without a lot of other types of observations that are collected in the field, the ocean, it is difficult to develop these equations. In my time at NASA, I have only been able to develop models because of the great but often tedious work that ocean scientists around the world have been doing when they go on ocean expeditions to measure various ocean features, be it simple temperature or the more complicated measurements of algal growth rates. My experience with their willingness to collaborate and share data is especially memorable. This experience is also what I enjoyed with numerous scientists at NASA who have always been willing to support new ideas and point me in the right direction. It has made working at NASA a phenomenal experience.

a blue swat cuts diagonally across pale blue and yelllow mottled landscape indicating a deeper channel in marshland.
Infrared images like this one from a marsh area on the Maryland/Virginia Eastern Shore coastal barrier and back bay regions reveal clues to scientists about plant health, photosynthesis, and other conditions that affect vegetation and ecosystems.
John Moisan

Related Article: NASA Researcher’s AI ‘Eye’ Could Help Robotic Data-Gathering

What are the philosophical implications of your work?

The human capacity to think rapidly, to test and change our opinions based on what we learn, is slow compared to that of a computer. Computers can help us adapt more quickly. I can put 1,000 students in a room developing ecosystem model models. But I know that this process of developing ecosystem models is slow when compared what a computer can do using an artificial intelligence approach called genetic programming, it is a much faster way to generate ecosystem model solutions.

Philosophically, there is no real ecosystem model that is the best. Life and ecosystems on Earth change and adapt at rates too fast for any present-day model to resolve, especially considering climate change. The only real ecosystem model is the reality itself. No computer model can perfectly simulate ecosystems. By utilizing the fast adaptability that evolutionary computer modeling techniques provide, simulating and ultimately predicting ecosystems can be improved greatly.

How does your work have implications for scientists in general?

I do evolutionary programming. I see a lot of possibility in using evolutionary programming to solve many large problems we are trying to solve. How did life start and evolve? Can these processes be used to evolve intelligence or sentience?

The artificial intelligence (AI) work answers questions, but you need to identify the questions. This is the greater problem when it comes to working with AI. You cannot answer the question of how to create a sentient life if you do not know how to define it. If I cannot measure life, how can I model it? I do not know how to write that equation. How does life evolve? How did the evolutionary process start? These are big questions I enjoy discussing with friends. It can be as frustrating as contemplating “nothing.”

Who inspires you?

Many of the scientists that I was fortunate to work with at various research institutes, such as Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. These are groups of scientists are open to always willing to share their ideas. These are individuals who enjoy doing science. I will always be indebted to them for their kindness in sharing of ideas and data.

Do you still scuba dive?

Yes, I wish I could dive daily, it is a very calming experience. I’m trying to get my kids to join me.

What else do you do for fun?

My wife and I bike and travel. Our next big bike trip will hopefully be to Shangri-La City in China. I also enjoy sailing and trying to grow tropical plants. But, most of all, I enjoy helping raise my children to be resilient, empathic, and intelligent beings.

What are your words to live by?

Life. So much to see. So little time.

A graphic with a collection of people's portraits grouped together in front of a soft blue galaxy background. The people come from various races, ethnicities, and genders. A soft yellow star shines in the upper left corner, and the stylized text u0022Conversations with Goddardu0022 is in white on the far right.
Conversations With Goddard is a collection of question and answer profiles highlighting the breadth and depth of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s talented and diverse workforce. The Conversations have been published twice a month on average since May 2011. Read past editions on Goddard’s “Our People” webpage.

Conversations With Goddard is a collection of Q&A profiles highlighting the breadth and depth of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s talented and diverse workforce. The Conversations have been published twice a month on average since May 2011. Read past editions on Goddard’s “Our People” webpage.



Last Updated
Nov 06, 2023
Jessica Evans
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