About Professor Sean

Professor Sean and his cat Cecil, as a cartoon.About Professor Sean

I wrote this short biography for my students. I want them to know something of how I got to be their science professor at Fullerton College. And I hope that some will find inspiration for their own careers as they go out into the world. Maybe one or two of them will even become scientists.

In the Beginning…

I was born in February 1956 in West Palm Beach, Florida, a sleepy town full of tourists and retirees, but with enough snakes and gators to keep a young boy occupied. My mom loved the beach so we spent a lot of time swimming, snorkeling, or collecting shells and sea beans along the shore. My dad worked three jobs to keep us two boys and two girls fed and clothed so he preferred watching sports on TV when my mom would let him. We didn’t live a fancy life but it was a good life, all things considered.

The 1960s were a wild time to grow up–the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, assassinations, and Woodstock (of course). But it was also a time of great progress in science. Our town sat along the flight path of rockets from Cape Canaveral so we got to see quite a few moon launches during the Apollo Space Program. And ocean exploration really picked up, too, with the development of scuba diving, deep-diving submersibles, and underwater habitats.

Three Heroes

All this science shaped my early life and established my boyhood heroes: John Glenn, an astronaut and the first man to orbit the Earth; Jacques Cousteau, an ocean explorer and underwater filmmaker, who inspired generations of people to learn more about the undersea world; and later, as I learned to play cello, Pablo Casals, a cellist and humanitarian. I was ten years old when I told my parents I wanted to be an astronaut, but they weren’t happy about the prospect of their son blowing up on a launch pad. So with some gentle persuasion on their part I decided to go to college and become an oceanographer instead.

First Jobs

College would take money so I worked mornings before school as a paperboy (a person who delivers printed newspapers to people’s front doors) and worked holidays in a Christmas tree lot. At age 12 I started my own lawn mowing business, which kept me busy after school and on weekends. (Some days I wish I’d stuck with lawn mowing, an occupation where the results of your work are immediately apparent.)

High School

In high school, I became President of the Science Club (Forest Hill High School,1971-1974). That should pretty much tell you everything you need to know about my high school years. During the summer between my junior and senior years , I attended a six-week summer science program at Chaminade College (now Chaminade University) in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was the first time I had been away from home for any length of time, but Professor Ron Iwamoto helped guide me that summer. More than anything, I fell in love with Hawaii, their people, and their respect for the ocean. As a senior, I worked my first “professional” job as a lab assistant for a private laboratory, Bio-Viro-D, where I cleaned glassware and fed catfish, among other duties. I also attended Palm Beach Junior College (then nicknamed Peanut-Butter-and-Jelly College but now Palm Beach State College) where I took courses in oceanography and marine biology. I had no idea at the time that I would spend most of my career teaching at a community college.

The College Years

Following high school, my choice of college was an easy one: I wanted to earn a degree in oceanography and only a few colleges around the country offered such a degree. In Fall 1974, I attended my first classes at the University of Washington (1974-1979). My first oceanography class was from the legendary Richard Fleming. (At the time I had no idea who he was.)  My coursework led me to some truly amazing and accomplished scientists and professors: marine algologist Robert Waaland; marine ecologist, Robert Paine; physical oceanographer Barbara Hickey, one of the first female oceanographers at a US University; biological oceanographers Carl Lorenzen, Mary Jane Perry, Bruce Frost, and Karl Banse, who famously told me “oceanography is a dirty thankless job but somebody has to do it.”

My time at UW also included several work-study jobs that contributed to my development as a scientist. My freshman year I washed glassware in Jon Gallant’s genetics lab (whose bio lists him as a native of the Planet Uranus) and all I remember is that there were fruit flies everywhere. More aligned with my interests, I moved to the Fisheries Department (now School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences) for my sophomore and junior years, where under the tutelage of then-graduate-student, Ron Thom, I identified and weighed seaweeds collected from various intertidal and subtidal locations around Puget Sound. In 1977, as a senior and 5th year student, I began working in the School of Oceanography at UW identifying and counting phytoplankton from the Gulf of Alaska (mostly, Station P, site of one of the longest ocean time series to date), working under Mary Jane Perry. My experience as a work-study student  galvanized my love for ocean science and introduced me to the one pursuit that sets oceanography apart from other sciences: ocean-going research. For people that don’t get sea sick, there’s probably nothing more gratifying experience than a research expedition beyond the sight of land. I think I learned more oceanography on a ship than in a classroom (but, of course, both are important). Five years later, I earned my BA in Oceanography (1979).

Following my BA in Oceanography, I took a year off to consider my options. I I did a brief stint as a busboy at a French restaurant in Pioneer Square then took a job with Saga Foods aboard the Washington State Ferry System. There I gained experience as a fast-order cook (always a useful skill) but soon landed a job as a ticket seller for ferry system.  While it was a great job and paid well, I quickly realized that I missed the science life. I still longed to be an oceanographer.

Graduate School

I decided to apply to apply to graduate school but there was one problem: my GPA was only 2.95. I would have to go back to school and do better.

While completing coursework for my oceanography degree, I took a couple of writing courses from novelist and National Book Award winner, Charles Johnson, and Poet Laureate of California (2005), Al Young. These courses taught me the power of voice in writing and inspired me to go back to school, this time as an English major. Two years later I had completed coursework towards a BA in English  (1981-1983; awarded 1993) and raised my GPA to a respectable 3.8. If I can say anything about my training in writing, it’s that my English degree opened up a lot of job opportunities that might otherwise have not been possible (e.g., my stint as a technical editor for then Groundwater Technology/Fluor Daniels). And now, as a teacher and textbook author, I put my writing skills to work every day.

With an improved GPA, I applied to graduate school and was accepted to the University of Southern California (1983-1989). There I worked with Professor Dale Kiefer, one of the early bio-optical oceanographers. As part of my doctoral research, I traveled in the Barents Sea aboard Norwegian research vessels where I ate goat head, whale meat, and fish balls (fish formed into balls, not…). I spent five weeks in the Antarctic aboard an icebreaker, R/V Polar Duke, and walked on sea ice in the Weddell Sea. I also participated in the Biowatt cruises (four cruises, one each season in 1987) where I got to know dozens of super-talented oceanographers, including my future post-doc advisor. USC was an interesting place to work and live and it kept you on your toes.

But of all my research experiences as a graduate student, the highlight of my career was the opportunity to conduct research aboard my hero’s ship, Jacques Cousteau’s, R/V Calypso. Captain Cousteau was the real thing, a genuine and remarkable man who led extraordinary efforts to protect the ocean and promote peace in the world. His partner, Simone Melchior Cousteau, traveled with the ship, and stern as she sometimes seemed, she had a heart of gold. After we got off to a rocky start because of my then-green hair (which wasn’t manly, according to Ms. Cousteau), she eventually embraced my eccentric Southern California ways and proclaimed, “Every man has to ride his own bicycle.” Meeting the Cousteaus and working with their team was a boyhood dream come true.

The Post-Doc

Following award of my PhD in Biology (1989), I continued my research in natural fluorescence and phytoplankton productivity as a postdoctoral fellow at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University (1989-1991). Working with biological oceanographer John Marra, I traveled to Iceland, the Azores, and Portugal, as ports of call for the Marine Light, Mixed Layer experiments in the North Atlantic Ocean. John was a great mentor and friend and Lamont was a great place to work.  Researchers from many different Earth Science disciplines, including such legends as Lynn Sykes and Wally Broecker, knocked shoulders over beers in the library during a weekly TGIF. The summertime full moon parties down by the Hudson River–led by my good friend and seismometer wizard Bob Busby–were legendary.

The “Business” World

All good post-docs come to an end and you either get another one or you find a job somewhere. Not wanting to move to Canada for a post-doc, I opted to find a job and landed a position as a “marine biologist” with a startup oil spill response company called Ecomarine, housed in the offices of OMI Corp (a tanker company in New York City). There I worked under marketing genius Bill Doyle, who in a previous position had put together the talent behind the I♥NY campaign. Based on an Italian firm by the same name, Ecomarine aimed to deploy fleets of small oil-spill response vessels that otherwise kept busy cleaning debris and monitoring water quality in harbors and waterways. We flew around the country meeting with harbormasters, attending trade shows, and even appearing on a radio show. The company went broke after three years and I was out of a job but I sure learned a ton about business and marketing.

Soon after that job ended I made it back to Southern California where I took a job with another startup company, Harvey Universal. This venture aimed to make environmentally safe cleaning products for consumer and industrial customers. Suffice it to say this company fizzled faster than the first. I then worked for a year as a technical editor for Groundwater Technology, an environmental remediation company, but this work wasn’t very satisfactory either.

Fullerton College

I thank my lucky stars that I always landed on my feet. I had quit my editing job to work for a company specializing in the paperless office, but a few months in, I saw a job posting for an oceanography instructor in the classified section of the LA Times. It sounds so old school to find a job in a newspaper but it worked. I submitted my application and two interviews later (the second so they could make sure I knew how to operate an overhead projector), I was hired full-time by Fullerton College. I’ve worked there since August 1996.

A few highlights of my time at FC:

  • Taught the first online course at FC in summer 1996.
  • Served as a NASA Solar System Ambassador (1999-2000); made public presentations about NASA space exploration.
  • Served as campus online coordinator (1999-2002);  wrote the first Strategic Plan for Distance Education at FC; trained more than 100 instructors in online pedagogy and instructional design.
  • Collaborated on Project CORIOLIS (Collaboratory for Oceanographic Research Instrumentation as On-line Laboratory Instruction Sources; 2001-2004).
  • Participated in Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching II (FIRST II; 2003-2004).
  • Created active-learning web content for 26-episode documentary, The Endless Voyage (2004); wrote one episode (Survivors).
  • Participated in EarthEd (2005), organized by William Prothero, UCSB.
  • Co-authored Exploring the World Ocean with Tommy Dickey, McGraw-Hill (2007).
  • Organized Global Warming Awareness Day (January 31, 2008), a Focus the Nation teach in to raise awareness of climate change.
  • Served as FC Accreditation Self-Study Co-Chair (2011).
  • Awarded $10,000 grant from Metropolitan Water District to support student research in water conservation (2012-2014).
  • Participated in Reading Apprenticeship professional development program to improve student literacy (2014-2015).
  • Served as Earth Sciences Departmental Chair (2013-2017).
  • Presenter, Males Achieving Success, Fullerton College (2015).
  • Presenter, Plastics Unwrapped, Fullerton Museum (2016).
  • Spearheaded five new Earth Science courses and a new Earth Science AS degree program (2016).
  • Awarded three District Innovation Grants to transform non-major science teaching (2014-2017).
  • Awarded $59,000 in equity funding (2015-2017) to increase success and retention of underrepresented students in science.
  • Hosted Natural Sciences Seminar Series (2016-2018).
  • Served as faculty mentor for student club, Students for a Greener Planet.
  • Founded Earth Sciences Undergraduate Research Institute (2016-2019) with 3-yr, $109,612 grant from FC Budget Development Committee.
  • Awarded 4-yr, $66,000 USDA grant (in collaboration with CSUF; 2016-2020) to support students in sustainability-related research.
  • Organized various departmental outreach activities, including Smart Start Saturday, Kindercaminata, Club Rush, WorldFest, Family & High School Senior Night.
  • Created more than 200 YouTube video presentations for students worldwide that have garnered more than 500,000 views.
  • Participant-Supporter, Youth Climate Strike Orange County (2019).
  • Monthly contributor: FC Food Bank, Fullerton Foundation Climate Science Scholarship Fund.

Every day brings a new opportunity to inspire someone, to teach them something, and to love and serve others with a generous heart. It’s also a new chance to meet someone inspiring, to learn something new, and to improve one’s self. We can’t protect what we don’t understand and this applies to the ocean as well as our lives.

Hopefully, through my teaching, I can help to make the world a more sustainable and just place to live while raising awareness of the ocean and its importance to life on Earth.

Life Outside College

I love to write and am currently working on a new multi-part book, Our World Ocean: Understanding the Most Important Ecosystem on Earth, with an outstanding group of woman artists, editors, and designers. The first of five “voyages” will be published in January 2023. When I’m not teaching or writing, I care for four cats (RIP, Bebe, 3/27/2022) and spend much-treasured time with the love of my life, Shae, my partner since February 1, 2001.