EPFL is venturing out into the wide open sea. The calls of seagulls nesting on campus rooftops already gives our School a slight seaside feel. But now, Sailowtech will bring the ocean into our classrooms and curricula. The aim is to show that even though Switzerland is a landlocked country, it can’t ignore the damage being caused to marine ecosystems.
The idea initially came from a small group of students who share a love of sailing and science along with a concern about environmental issues. Around forty people are now involved in Sailowtech, from many different backgrounds and fields including mechanical engineering, environmental science and life science. Some of the work for the expedition will be done through EPFL MAKE projects (see box).
Some Sailowtech members. From left to right: Servane Lunven, Claire Payoux, Jan Jakub Frybes, Andréa Montant, Matheo Godenzi, Hugo Trombert, Jonathan Selz, Thibault Touzain, Xavier Suermondt, Chiara Freneix, Lola Pricam. ©2023 EPFL/ A.Herzog
“We want to bring issues related to the ocean right to the very heart of education and research at EPFL,” says Andréa Montant, a life-science student and founding member of Sailowtech. “Our goal is to make field research and scientific adventure once again a core part of our School’s degree programs.” Montant now manages all of the association’s communications.
Sailowtech wants to change the way we think about the vast marine ecosystems that cover two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. Gone is the idea that we can use the ocean as a large dumping ground for all our waste. Citizens are becoming increasingly aware of the important role oceans and marine biodiversity play in regulating the global climate, mitigating climate change, and protecting the health of all living beings. Sailowtech students intend to drive this awareness by adopting a low-tech approach that prioritizes environmental preservation and sustainable development.
The importance of frugality in research
The student association has three main objectives. The first is to promote frugal research through the development and maintenance of low-tech research equipment – i.e., instruments that are simple, low-cost, easy to repair, and that use as few resources as possible – for collecting data and samples at sea. Students will be able to conduct this work as part of their degree programs, such as for their semester projects, which are supervised by EPFL labs. In this way, they’ll analyze data and contribute to the collective effort to better understand ocean systems. This Sailowtech's goal is what will be done through MAKE.
The second objective is to show that low-tech approaches don’t compromise on accuracy and efficiency. The equipment that students develop at EPFL labs - Environmental Microbiology Laboratory (EML), Smart Environmental Sensing in Extreme Environnements Lab (SENSE), Central Environmental Laboratory (GR-CEL) among others - will be tested under unpredictable real-life conditions in the fall in an expedition called Atlantea. It will take place on board a 13.5-metre-long sailboat that can hold up to six people. The small crew, whose members will be switched out regularly, will cross the North Atlantic Ocean, traveling some 20,000 km from the coast of Africa to the Caribbean and then back up towards Greenland. During the year-long expedition, the crew will focus primarily on studying plankton.
Various species of plankton. ©iStock
Plankton are microscopic organisms, and the two main types – phytoplankton, which are plants, and zooplankton, which are animals – live on the surface of seas and oceans. They play a crucial, yet still poorly recognized, role in the carbon cycle and therefore in regulating the global climate, as well as in producing oxygen and preserving biodiversity.
Understanding the first step in preservation
The third objective is to raise public awareness about these issues. At each stage, students will set up information stands, hold talks, visit classes, post updates on social media, hold informative workshops, and more. In addition, all the data collected during the expedition will be made available in open-source format so other researchers can access it. “This kind of knowledge sharing is important because you can’t preserve something you don’t understand,” says Montant. Another Sailowtech philosophy is “curiosity-driven engagement,” meaning the students believe it’s important to convey the full beauty, diversity and mystery of marine environments, mainly through the use of artistic and educational materials.
The part of Atlantea expedition that involves contributing to ocean research and developing environmentally-friendly technology will be carried out through cross-disciplinary projects under EPFL’s MAKE initiative.
MAKE aims to give students the resources they need to carry out projects spanning a range of competencies, either individually or in groups. Being immersed in these hands-on, real-world projects enhances students’ learning experience, gives them greater independence, builds up their teamwork and communication skills, helps them acquire transferable skills (such as project management), and lets them apply the theory they learn in class.
These are all essential components of a university education, both for students’ academic success and for their careers later on.