Jake Marote

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS4.D

CCSS: Writing: 2

TEKS: Science: 3.2D, 3.9A, 4.2D, 5.2D, 6.2E; ELA: 3.13A, 4.13A, 5.13A, 6.12A

Surf's Up for Science

How Cliff Kapono combines surfing with science to study human health

Cliff Kapono thought he might be in trouble when his science professor called him into his office. Kapono was a new student at the University of California, San Diego. “I see you’ve been doing a lot of surfing,” the professor said. “I surf every day,” Kapono admitted nervously. He thought his professor would be upset.

To Kapono’s surprise, the professor replied, “That’s awesome!” The teacher suggested that Kapono come up with a science project that involved surfing. “It was the first time I realized that I didn’t have to separate these two loves,” says Kapono, a Native Hawaiian, who grew up riding the waves. 

The project Kapono settled on was right under his nose—and all over his body! He decided to study microbes. These tiny organisms are too small to see with the naked eye. But they live everywhere: the ocean, your kitchen sink, even inside your body.

Different microbes thrive in different environments. Kapono wondered if surfers had different microbes living on them than the average person. Searching for the answer would take him all over the world. 

Cliff Kapono’s science professor called him into his office. Kapono thought he might be in trouble. He was a new student at the University of California, San Diego. “I see you’ve been doing a lot of surfing,” the professor said. “I surf every day,” Kapono said nervously. He thought his professor would be upset.

The professor replied, “That’s awesome!” Kapono was surprised. The teacher told Kapono he should come up with a science project related to surfing. “It was the first time I realized that I didn’t have to separate these two loves,” says Kapono. He’s a Native Hawaiian. He grew up riding the waves.

The project Kapono picked was right under his nose. Actually, it was all over his body! He chose to study microbes. They’re tiny creatures. They’re too small to see with the naked eye. But they live everywhere. That includes the ocean, your kitchen sink, and even your body.

Different microbes thrive in different places. Kapono wondered if the microbes on surfers were different than the microbes on other people. Searching for the answer would take him all over the world. 

Courtesy Cliff Kapono

Kapono wondered how spending time in the ocean affects surfers’ microbiomes.

Home Sweet Body

It may seem worrisome to know that your body is crawling with trillions of critters. But it’s completely normal! Microbes live on every part of the human body, from inside your mouth to between your toes (see Meet the Body Bugs).

Some microbes can make people sick, but most do no harm at all. Many microbes are good for us. Bacteria in your intestines help you digest, or break down, food. Other microbes fight infections.

Everyone has a different collection of microbes in and on their body. This collection is called the microbiome. A person’s surroundings can affect his or her microbiome. For example, farmers have different stomach bacteria than city dwellers. Dog owners carry different microbes than people without dogs. What you eat also affects your microbiome.

Your microbiome is an ecosystem like a rainforest, says Kapono, “but on a much, much smaller scale.” Learning about microbiomes can help scientists understand how to keep people healthy.

There are trillions of critters on your body. That may seem worrying to know. But it’s totally normal! Microbes live on every part of the human body. That includes from inside your mouth to between your toes (see Meet the Body Bugs).

Some microbes can make people sick. But most do no harm at all. Many microbes are good for us. Bacteria in your gut help you break down food. Other microbes fight infections.

Everyone has a different set of microbes in and on their body. This collection is called the microbiome. A person’s surroundings can affect his or her microbiome. For example, farmers have different stomach bacteria than city dwellers. Dog owners carry different microbes than people without dogs. What you eat also affects your microbiome.

Your microbiome is an ecosystem like a rainforest, says Kapono. “But it’s on a much, much smaller scale.” Studying microbiomes can help scientists learn how to keep people healthy.

Surfer Samples

Kapono can spend hours surfing in the ocean every day. He wondered if surfers like him picked up microbes from ocean water that joined their microbiomes.

To find the answer, Kapono visited surfers around the globe, from Hawaii to Iceland. With their permission, he rubbed cotton swabs on their faces, feet, and other body parts to collect the microbes living there. Kapono even took small samples of surfers’ poop to study the organisms that lived in their stomachs and intestines.

“At first, the surfers were taken aback since I wanted to take a Q-tip and rub it all over their bodies,” says Kapono. But once they understood the project, they were supportive.

Kapono collected more than 500 samples from the surfers. Then he worked with a research team to study the samples in a lab. They compared the surfer samples to microbes collected from non-surfers. That would reveal whether the ocean “leaves its fingerprints on surfers,” Kapono says.

Kapono can spend hours surfing in the ocean every day. He wondered if surfers like him picked up microbes from ocean water. He also wondered if those microbes joined their microbiomes.

Kapono visited surfers around the globe to find the answer. He traveled from Hawaii to Iceland. He rubbed cotton swabs on surfers with their permission. He sampled their faces, feet, and other body parts. That allowed him to collect the microbes living there. Kapono even took small samples of surfers’ poop. He wanted to study the microbes living in their gut.

“At first, the surfers were taken aback since I wanted to take a Q-tip and rub it all over their bodies,” says Kapono. But they got onboard once they understood the project.

Kapono gathered more than 500 samples from the surfers. Then he worked with a research team. They studied the samples in a lab. They compared the surfer samples with microbes from non-surfers. That would reveal whether the ocean “leaves its fingerprints on surfers,” Kapono says.

VISSLA

Kapono compared the microbes from surfers to those from non-surfers.

Ocean Traces

It turns out that even though surfers leave the ocean, the ocean doesn’t leave surfers. Kapono found large numbers of ocean microbes living on and inside the surfers he studied—including himself!

The amount of time a person spent in the water was also a factor. Surfers who stayed in the ocean for longer periods of time had more types of ocean bacteria living in their microbiomes.

Kapono hopes his research helps people understand that they are connected to the planet in many ways. “If we know that nature gives us bacteria that keep us healthy, hopefully we can take better care of it,” he says.

Surfers may leave the ocean. But it turns out that the ocean doesn’t leave them. Kapono found large numbers of ocean microbes living on and inside the surfers he studied. That includes himself!

The amount of time a person spent in the water was also a factor. Some surfers stay in the ocean for longer periods of time. They had more types of ocean bacteria living in their microbiomes.

People are connected to the planet in many ways. Kapono hopes his research helps people understand that. “If we know that nature gives us bacteria that keep us healthy, hopefully we can take better care of it,” he says.