Professor turns into coral polyp for Comic-Con

Northeastern professor Mark Patterson never imagined he’d one day attend Comic-Con, much less in costume. But there he was Thursday afternoon dressed as a coral polyp, walking around Exhibit Hall amid the thousands of visitors worldwide who flock to the annual pop-culture convention in San Diego.

Patterson, an expert in marine robotics who holds joint appointments in the College of Science and the College of Engineering, will participate in a panel discussion Friday focused on Aquaman; he and other experts will discuss their experiences living underwater and how science is leading to new breakthroughs that are bringing humans closer than ever to becoming aquatic beings. For his part, Patterson has visited and lived in the underwater research lab Aquarius numerous times and last summer participated in Mission 31, a 31-day expedition off Florida’s coast.

But a day earlier, Patterson used his Comic-Con 2015 experience to raise awareness about the dangers of marine creatures ingesting microplastics in the ocean. Ethan Edson, S’15, an undergraduate in his lab at the Marine Science Center, has developed a low-cost prototype, called the MantaRay, that is equipped with a sensor to measure microplastic concentrations in bodies of water. Edson presented the research and received an award at RISE:2015 in April.

“I’ve never been to Comic-Con, and this will be an interesting way to raise awareness about urban coastal sustainability,” Patterson said by phone on Thursday afternoon, moments before heading over to Comic-Con by trolley, decked out in full costume.

He added, “I never imagined going, even though I love movies with action heroes and ones that have underwater themes, like The Abyss, which I’ve seen over and over and over.

“I’m hoping a lot of people stop me and say, ‘What the heck is this all about?’”

The costume
At Comic-Con, Patterson walked the room alongside others dressed as Storm Troopers, superheroes, and other pop-culture icons. His coral polyp costume includes a 3XL-size salmon-colored men’s jersey and a ring around his neck sprouting homemade tentacles; polyps use tentacles to catch microscopic animal life. The costume’s gut area also features a cut-away of a coral polyp’s digestive system to show where the marine creature has ingested microplastics.

He also carried a scale model of the MantaRay to explain to interested onlookers how it works.

“I’m hoping a lot of people stop me and say, ‘What the heck is this all about?’” he said.

The back of professor Mark Patterson's costume features a picture of the MantaRay prototype developed in his lab. Photo courtesy of Mark Patterson

The back of professor Mark Patterson’s costume features a picture of the MantaRay prototype developed in his lab. Photo courtesy of Mark Patterson

The dangers of microplastics
Not only was Patterson thrilled to be attending Comic-Con, but he also saw is as a great outreach opportunity. Microplastics, he explained, are particles that are five millimeters in size and are becoming pervasive in the world’s oceans due to pollution. Ingesting these small particles, he said, can cause marine organisms to develop a host of ingestion problems and can also cause harmful pollutants and bacteria to be transported around the world.

Patterson said there is a critical need for improving how microplastics are tracked and monitored. Now, this process takes place by dragging a small net behind a research vessel and counting the particles present in that given volume of water. MantaRay, he said, addresses the need for a cheaper, more reliable autonomous sensor to perform this task and collect data on plastic dispersion.