Author and scientist Wallace J. Nichols argues that those who experience “blue mind” — an at-homeness in the ocean — should share their experiences for the good of humankind and the planet. At URI, we get blue mind. The ocean is our workplace, our playground, and our sacred space. Our love of the sea is a net gain for science, engineering, literature, art, and the environment. Maybe even humanity itself.

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Blue Minds: Brennan Phillips

I never really get away from my work. That’s how I operate — by being completely immersed. We’re trying to push the limits of the technology out there now.


Assistant Professor of Ocean Engineering Brennan Phillips ’04, Ph.D. ’16 is in the midst of packing up much of his deep-sea robotics lab—URI’s Undersea Robotics and Imaging Laboratory—for a trip.

There is much to see and wonder at—hardware, electronics, 3D printers, and computers everywhere. Phillips and his group create complex machines—Phillips calls them “systems”—for oceanographic and deep-sea exploration. To the untrained eye, these systems look like little robots. With their low-light imaging systems, manipulators, and lightweight, low-cost technology, these units are affordable and well-suited for capturing images of remote, unexplored undersea environments. “We’re trying to push the limits of the technology out there now, much of which is big, heavy, and clunky. We’re trying to make it smaller and lighter,” Phillips says.

Until recently, there has been little development in instruments that can be used to identify and safely collect fragile undersea species. Phillips has made significant advancements in the field of soft robotic grippers that can be used to gently grasp these obscure creatures.

‘Completely immersed’

An all-season surfer, Phillips braids empirical, theoretical, and practical knowledge in his work. “I like to be in nature. If you pay attention, there are days all year-round when there are waves. I aspire to get out once a week.” He learned to surf as a URI undergraduate. To hear him talk about it, surfing seems more another aspect of his education than simple recreation.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. I had no idea how hard it was going to be. But I like to be challenged. The first day, I borrowed a board.” The next day, Phillips went to a local surf shop, bought a 9-foot board, and brought it home to Peck Hall.

“My junior and senior years, I got serious. It was like joining the mob,” Phillips jokes. “This is my sport. I run, ski, and bike, but surfing is my number-one favorite thing to do in the whole world.”

Whether in or out of the water, Phillips thinks about how human beings might access the ocean without disruption. How might one of his small, lighted, bulldozer-like machines, for instance, take scientifically accurate photographs of the ocean floor when its very presence causes marine life to scatter?

Like many of his fellow URI surfers, 
Phillips’ work and play intertwine. He talks of the day when all that goes into making underwater robots could be applied to tailoring fins or wetsuits. Already, there is an Australian robotics lab focused on surfboard design, he notes.

“I never really get away from my work,” Phillips notes. “That’s how I operate—by being completely immersed.”


Find more media at the Undersea Robotics and Imaging Laboratory.

Blue Minds: Anya Hanson

When I’m in the water, my breathing, whether I’m free diving or scuba diving, is so apparent to me, and my mind is absolutely connected to it. You are in that present moment.

Anya Hanson

She’s drifted in the wake of dolphins, swum with sea lions, tagged sharks, and caught fish threading through her hair.

Anya Hanson’s ocean is a world of wonders.

Hanson, the University of Rhode Island’s diving safety officer, has been supervising diving operations since 2012. The Diving Safety and Research Program at URI is divided into two components: academic and research. The academic side of things includes entry-level recreational instruction as well as research diving instruction. The research component involves not only instruction but also support for research at the university. Hanson focuses on the research aspect.

Hanson began diving at 14. Her brother had gotten certified, and her parents wanted to try it. Hanson was game, too. Already a swimmer, springboard diver, and sailor, Hanson said she was panting and out of air within five minutes of her first dive. But she persisted. Once in college, Hanson fully committed—studying marine biology and “getting into the meat of scientific diving and research.”

For a year after college, Hanson traveled the world as an Our World-Underwater Scholarship fellow. Sponsored by the Rolex corporation, Hanson studied marine biology in London and then Egypt, diving in the Red Sea and learning the art of underwater photography and film while participating in a number of research projects. Hanson earned a master’s in oceanography and worked in research diving at the Smithsonian. URI’s lure, she said, was the chance the position offered to merge her interests: diving, instruction, and research. 

Anya Hanson on a dive
Diving Safety Officer Anya Hanson runs the University’s Diving Safety Program, which provides training and support for research and exploration of our underwater world.

Photo by Richard Vevers

“Initially, diving was just a way to access the underwater environment and to be excited about the beauty around me. It’s very foreign when you think about it,” Hanson said. “I went from enjoying the beauty of the marine life to experiencing an emotional feeling where my breathing matched exactly where my focus was with my mind. I was able to find a true sense of peace and calm.

“And then as I progressed in my career and got involved in instruction, it evolved,” Hanson continued. “I became inspired by the excitement of the divers I was teaching as they saw the underwater world for the first time.

‘Pure peace’

“Some of my happiest moments have been underwater, some of my most inspiring moments, as well. In general, it’s a feeling that overcomes my body,” Hanson said. “It’s a feeling of pure peace—something we don’t get in this day and age where we’re constantly bombarded with texts and social media and email. Being in the water puts all of that aside and makes you come into that present moment.

“I want to give students similar experiences,” Hanson said.

Of course, that sense of excitement and peace is moderated for both Hanson and her students in seeing the effects of pollution and habitat destruction. “I was diving along a coral reef in Indonesia, and it was very clear that someone had done dynamite fishing, and it had destroyed a whole patch of reef,” Hanson said. “I’ve also seen sharks that were finned and then just left in the water to drown.”

Hanson believes education is one of the most important ways to prevent further harm to marine life. She and Richard Vevers, CEO of The Ocean Agency, a nonprofit whose mission is to spearhead ocean conservation through underwater filmmaking and photography, are in discussions to create programs that will educate the public about the marine life in their own backyard.

“Now that I’ve been diving for 22 years, I’ve seen climate change happen underwater. I’ve seen increased pollution and the effects of over-fishing such as dynamite fishing where it takes out an entire habitat. We have a responsibility to include that in our education,” Hanson said. “My goal is to be able to provide more underwater science communication through projects and efforts going on at the University. 

“Understanding the ocean environment is crucial,” she continued. “Seventy-two percent of the earth is made up of oceans, and there’s so much about our lives that is directly dependent on what happens in the oceans—from the oxygen we breathe to the resources our culture and the human population uses.

“Our lives depend on it.”

Blue Minds: Brian Caccioppoli

The ocean is an almost magnetic thing to people who are drawn to it.

Brian Caccioppoli exits the water with his surfboard

Brian Caccioppoli ’11 came to URI to study marine biology as an undergraduate, but fell in love with coastal geology. As a marine research specialist at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, Caccioppoli studies climate change, erosion, and other factors affecting coastal geography. He works with other marine research specialists and lab techs mapping shorelines and seafloor depth, and surveying the marine life there. Plainly put, Caccioppoli’s work monitoring and documenting change provides answers to such questions as why and how beaches are altered by single events (like storms) and over time—which, in certain cases, places Rhode Island in a better position to seek federal funding. “What I do is pragmatic science,” Caccioppoli says.

Pragmatic science can be disheartening. For instance, beach replenishment—adding sand to an eroding shoreline to reduce storm damage and coastal flooding—can feel futile because, says Caccioppoli, “It’s not unheard of for a beach to lose a third of its replenished sand within just two years.” But Caccioppoli presses on. His stake in this work extends beyond the bounds of professionalism. “I want to know what’s going on and how it will affect what I love to do,” he says. “It’s all intertwined for me.”

Brian Caccioppoli surfing
“The first time you get your feet on the board and catch a wave, it feels like you’re flying.”

Brian Caccioppoli
Photo by Brandon Fuller

What Caccioppoli loves to do is surf. He’s been at it for 14 years. Growing up 
on Long Island, he and his family were at the beach three to five days a week in the summer. Surfing was an instant addiction. “The first wave I caught, I knew I was 
in trouble. I knew it was going to change decisions I made on a daily basis,” he 
says. “The first time you get your feet on the board and catch a wave, it feels like you’re flying.

‘Your burdens are gone’

“When you go out into the water, your brain clears. You stop focusing on anything other than the pure experience of being on the ocean,” Caccioppoli continues. “Your burdens are gone. You come out and the tasks you have to do don’t seem so huge. It’s such a mood elevator, such a stress reliever.”

Yet surfing sometimes grants Caccioppoli an up-close-and-personal view of the tension that is climate change. One way climate change manifests itself, for instance, is in more frequent and powerful storms. Storms produce better surf. “But climate change could also result in the disappearance of some of our current surf breaks,” says Caccioppoli. “Quite a few local surf spots break best at lower tides—Matunuck, for example. We know sea level has risen over the past century here in Rhode Island. That trend will result in higher sea levels, which will inevitably result in changing surf breaks, possibly rendering some nonviable.”

In talking of his fellow New England surfers, Caccioppoli characterizes them as “fully committed” to the sport. In observing him talking about his research and his chosen sport, the phrase fits him, too.

Caccioppoli smiles at the suggestion.

“The ocean is an almost magnetic thing to people who are drawn to it,” he says.

Rick Rhodes with his surfboard looking out over the ocean.

Courtesy Rick Rhodes

Blue Minds: Rick Rhodes

Change starts with having a personal environmental ethic, and that ethic is to do no harm. Take care of what you have.

Rick Rhodes with his surfboard looking out over the ocean.

Richard C. “Rick” Rhodes III figures he’s been surfing for 50 years, three to four days a week. “As frequently as there are waves,” he says.

The former associate dean, Research, of URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, Rhodes is now executive director of the Northeastern Regional Association of State Agricultural Experiment Station Directors. Talking to him, you get the impression that to surf Rhode Island waters you have to be the gritty, hardscrabble type, stoked as much by a winter storm’s swells in the 40-degree range as you would by high summer’s sun and 70-degree surf.

How much does Rhodes love the ocean? Sit a spell. And fair warning: Surfing stories are like fish stories. With each telling they grow more epic.

Rhodes had just returned from a work trip to Morocco, where he’d surfed intense waves. “I returned to winter in Rhode Island and these puny, little waves about head-high in Matunuck,” Rhodes recalls. “A wave caught me right in the back and I started falling down. The wind caught my board and it hit my head.”

Rhodes blacked out. When he came to, he saw a trail of black in the water. Blood. Other surfers were yelling, asking if he was OK. Rhodes assured them he was fine and began paddling in. When he got into the car and caught a look at himself in the mirror, he was stunned. “I looked like I’d been in an axe fight.”

Rhodes called his wife, telling her he was headed to the hospital. He’d likely need a stitch or two—or so he thought. “In the ER, two nurses and the PA on duty were surfers. They said, ‘Wow, that’s so gnarly. How’d you do that?’”

He laughs, still amused that they were impressed. Rhodes’ injury was significant: a gash that ran from the bridge of his nose to the middle of his forehead, arching over his left eyebrow. It required seven stitches.

“But when I tell the story, seven stitches grows to 70,” Rhodes quips. “The worst day of surfing is better than the best of a whole lot of other things. Even if you get skunked, you’re still in the water.”

While he is quick to point out that he came to URI for his career—“The really strong attraction was the job”—Rhodes considers the Atlantic to be quite the job perk.

“What I enjoy is being able to tap that source and utilize the power of the ocean for pure, unadulterated fun. It’s unlike anything else. That thing that you’re riding is moving, and you’re moving in a different dimension, and that is the coolest feeling in the world,” Rhodes says. “The power of the ocean just surges under your feet.”

‘We all have a stake’

The up-close-and-personal relationship Rhodes has with the ocean has made him an advocate of scientific literacy; essentially he wants people to understand scientific concepts and processes so they can make informed and ethical decisions in their personal and professional lives, as well as at the polls. In his current job, Rhodes examines the way we raise food—and how much food we raise. Climate change, saltwater inundation in soil, nutrient-deficient land: These are just some of the issues we face in the near future, he says. And then there’s pollution. Every year, approximately 9 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean, according to a May 2019 National Geographic article, “Little Pieces, Big Problems.”

How to change things?

“Change starts with having a personal environmental ethic, and that ethic is to do no harm. Take care of what you have,” Rhodes says. “We were taught as graduate students to be unimpassioned observers of science. But your job—as a scientist, as an educator—is to provide a context for data. You are also responsible for providing environmental literacy.

“We are all caretakers in this, and we all have a stake in this.”