You’re in the ocean with nothing but an oxygen tank.
Apart from the bubbles jetting out of your breathing apparatus, it’s peaceful and eerie.
You can see something deep down below moving in the depths of the water, and you start to feel uneasy.
Thirty feet below, a whale shark the size of a school bus glides past you. You feel insignificant.
You remind yourself to breathe as it slowly makes its way toward you.
You move above it and climb on top as it opens its wide, gaping mouth and takes in water.
Quickly, you snap a picture.
This is not the ideal job for many, but for professor and biomechanist Erin “Misty” Paig-Tran, Ph.D., it’s not just a job, but a passion to know more and to unlock some of the mysteries that lie under the water—and it’s all for a greater purpose.
Paig-Tran has been studying large filter-feeders in places like Hawaii, Yucatán and Scotland.
A lecture she took part in eight years ago as a graduate student sparked a question in Paig-Tran’s mind: How do very big animals like manta rays, whale sharks, basking sharks and megamouth sharks sustain themselves by feeding on the smallest things in the ocean, like plankton?
She questioned the current theories about how the fish were feeding and something told her there was more to it. Dissatisfied with the answers to her questions, she began to investigate.
That question has driven her not only to a career, but through years of innovative research both in the field and in the lab. It has prompted more and more questions like how these filters can be used to benefit humans and their environment.
Paig-Tran films the inside of the mouths of these larger-than-life wild animals as well as studying dead specimens in a lab. With the use of X-rays, CT scans or by taking casts of the internal structures, she uses 3-D imaging and 3-D printing to create models of the filters, including life-sized models and larger.
The 3-D printing method allows for the tiniest pores in the filters to show and Paig-Tran uses the 3-D prototypes to experiment with the way they work in a controlled environment, which is difficult to do with a live animal.
Paig-Tran has been working on the use of the filter-feeders’ powerful filtering technology for applications in wastewater treatment, or even water faucets and vacuums.
“Because their filters are so good at doing what they do because they don’t clog, we can now make man-made applications based on it,” she said.
Wastewater plants have primary and secondary treatments which remove large waste and biological content, then pumps the effluent, or sewage, into the ocean. But Paig-Tran’s theory differs in that it uses the biomimetic manta filter to further purify the water, thus putting less harmful and dangerous sewage into the ocean.
“It’s really important, especially here in Southern California because we have what’s called the ‘Southern California bite,’ which means that all of our water recirculates. So whatever we pump out there gets recirculated back,” she said.
Wastewater has become a big concern with the widespread drought. There are fears of not being able to supply water in the future to California’s 38 million residents.
According to Paig-Tran, the manta ray filters can work with the process of desalination, the process which removes salt from seawater to produce fresh water, because it is such a slow process.
Manta rays have a cross-flow filtration system that doesn’t clog. The technology that currently exists is not as efficient.
She is confident that these natural filters are a key to solving some of California’s current water deficiency problems.
Paig-Tran has had many opportunities during her time at Cal State Fullerton to study rare specimens. Last year, she obtained a 14-foot oarfish weighing 250 pounds that died off the coast of Catalina Island to study.
“I wouldn’t come to Fullerton if I didn’t love teaching. I love teaching. I wouldn’t have come to Fullerton if they didn’t let me do research,” she said.
She has been in the middle of the ocean during monsoonal conditions while fishing boats were on fire and sailors were bested by 15-foot waves tossing her 20-foot boat around. Yet, she knows the work she is doing is important.
“If I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, that whale shark gets on top of me, I’m not getting back up to the surface. If a manta hits me hard enough, I’m going to get knocked out,” she said.
Paig-Tran sometimes questions her sanity. Her job isn’t easy and can be dangerous at times. And even though getting slapped by a manta ray is not outside the realm of an impossibility she still loves what she does.
“If I didn’t love it, I just wouldn’t do it,” Paig-Tran said.