Professor Sean Chamberlin credits Chaminade for lifetime experience
Akin to someone cherishing a handwritten love letter for a lifetime, Sean Chamberlin, Ph.D., covets a Chaminade acceptance letter he received more than 50 years ago. He even kept the envelope it came in. Five decades ago, the Florida native had applied to then-Chaminade College’s Science Training Program (STP) for high school students. The experience would forever change his life.
As an aspiring oceanographer, Chamberlin was among 36 students from across the nation who were invited to participate in the six-week program. To this day, he can vividly recall falling in “love with Chaminade University in May 1973,” the month he received his acceptance letter from Dr. Ruth Haines, Chaminade College’s then-STP project director.
“I was 17 years old and I had never been away from home by myself,” exclaimed Chamberlin, during a phone interview. “Now I was going to Hawaii for six weeks—by myself! Chaminade made that happen. The school even paid for most of my room and board, which was about $60 per week in those days. Needless to say, I was super stoked.”
He has never forgotten the experience and the mentorship he received from Dr. Ron Iwamoto, biology professor emeritus with Chaminade. At the time, Chamberlin admitted he was carefree, staying up late at nights, coming to class barefooted, hanging with college students who were living on the top floor of the dorm and having his first pizza with pineapple at St. Louis Drive In.
“Despite my shenanigans, Dr. Iwamoto took me under his wing,” said Chamberlin, citing Iwamoto as one of the most influential people in his life. “Students in the program were required to carry out a research project as part of their studies. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Dr. Iwamoto devised a project for me that would require lots of energy, and would take me as far away as possible from the other students.”
Iwamoto’s strategy paid off.
The research project involved building an artificial reef in a bay where Iwamoto liked to fish. Like a MacGyver, Chamberlin creatively improvised by filling a few old tires with bricks and hauling them out to a channel between the reefs. Every day, he swam out to the spot and made frequent observations of the organisms that came to live there.
“I remember screaming through my snorkel when I saw the first fish inhabitants,” Chamberlin said. “The project didn’t amount to much scientifically, but it meant everything to me personally. I fell in love with field work, a passion that would propel my career as an ocean scientist for the next several decades.”
Chamberlin is careful in choosing his words to describe the courses he teaches in the Department of Earth Sciences at Fullerton College. He substitutes ocean science for the term oceanography, the scientific nomenclature more commonly used among scientists who study the properties (temperature, density, etc.) and movement (waves, currents, and tides) of seawater and the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere. He also prefers to use the term weather and climate science to describe meteorology.
“Some students get intimidated about science because they may not have been exposed to it at a younger age,” Chamberlin explained. “Personally, I was always fascinated with science and living in Florida, I was exposed to the space program at an early age. I could see rockets go over my head in my own backyard. However, my parents weren’t too keen on me becoming an astronaut, but when I was 10 years old I learned about Scott Carpenter, an astronaut who became an aquanaut, and that was OK with them.”
After attending Chaminade’s STP, Chamberlin followed his passion and attended the University of Washington, a national leader in oceanographic research and education. Four of his peers in the Chaminade summer program also decided to enroll at UW.
At UW, the aspiring scientist landed opportunities as a work-study student to carry out undergraduate research. By his junior year, he was regularly sailing aboard oceanographic vessels in the North Pacific. After graduating with bachelor’s degrees in oceanography and English, Chamberlin decided to attend graduate school at the University of Southern California.
He pursued his research aboard Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso in Tahiti, where he tested a new optical tool for measuring how fast ocean plants grow. He has also been to the Arctic where he sailed with Norwegian oceanographers in the Barents Sea. In 1988, Chamberlin spent five weeks aboard a polar research vessel in the Antarctic. He even got to walk on the sea ice in the Weddell Sea. His postdoctoral research with Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, led him to Iceland, the Azores and Portugal on research expeditions in the North Atlantic.
“All of these paths originated from Chaminade,” Chamberlin said. “My experiences on a reef in a Hawaiian bay—thanks to Dr. Iwamoto—inspired me to pursue field science. “Perhaps because of that experience, my textbooks—“Exploring the World Ocean” (Chamberlin and Dickey 2008) and “Our World Ocean” (Chamberlin, Shaw, and Rich 2023)—draw from Hawaii’s countless examples of ocean features, processes and scientific achievements.”
But this story isn’t really about Chamberlin, it’s about the thousands of young people who have benefitted from his experiences at Chaminade. Although, he is not Hawaiian, he gained a profound respect for the Hawaiian culture and its people, thanks to Chaminade.
A few years ago, Chamberlin read a post on Chaminade’s Facebook page about the Ron Iwamoto Teaching Fellowship in Biology, which brought back fond memories for him—especially of Dr. Iwamoto and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity afforded to him by Chaminade.
“I smile when I think of how Dr. Iwamoto and Chaminade shaped my life as a young man,” Chamberlin said. “My choice of colleges, my pursuit of oceangoing research, my respect for diverse people and their cultures, and my love for Hawaii are rooted in my experiences under his mentorship. As an ocean educator, writer and scientist, I can only hope that my contributions are a fraction as impactful as Dr. Iwamoto’s were on me. After all, it only takes a few bricks, a tire and a passion for life to make a beautiful reef.”