See life as a fractal.

What? See below.

Sonoma State University's School of Science and Technology on Tuesday, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Green Music Center, is to hold its first science symposium to showcase high-level student research projects and the brains behind them.

At some point, SSU junior Mallory Rice, 21, is to take the stage to present her research proposal, which seeks to understand how ocean acidification causes the growth and calcification of a seaweed.

"It's such a different world than what we're used to seeing," Rice, a Santa Rosa native, said of her field, marine science.

Later on, big thinker Ransom Stephens, a science writer, a former high tech-physicist and professor, and a novelist, is to deliver the keynote speech: "Your pursuit of greatness in a technical world."

One can't know in advance, but Stephens, 51, a Petaluma resident, may move quickly to the microphone because, in an interview, that's how he spoke, swiftly delivering ideas such as "a fractal structure of challenge."

Which returns us to fractals. Stephens defines them, in the simplest terms, as something that appears the same no matter what its scale.

And by the "fractal challenge" he means: "The idea is that the structure of life is sort of a grand set of challenges but every challenge within has the same essential features.

"It helps people understand and anticipate what sorts of struggles they're going to go through and what is likely to please and disrupt them as they go out trying to do something that's really difficult," he said.

The challenges that SSU students took on included senior Travis Pappa's — exploring methods for collecting water vapor to provide clean drinking water to the estimated 780 million people without it.

"Unfortunately, there's nothing that we can take right now and send to someone in need of clean drinking water," said the 22-year-old Gilroy native "But we've made some progress in the area. Hopefully, future students will pick up the research."

It's a tough, time-consuming task that Pappa started. Stephens would would like that. He thinks that's how life should be.

"Any demand, any request that's asked of us, boils down to the very personal decision of what we will do with our time. If we're lucky, we get several decades of awareness and the only question is what we do with them," he said.

"So I'm recommending that we do something really hard that will give us the sense of satisfaction we want," Stephens said.

Pappa wants to teach high school science and, later, work as a missionary in a developing nation. Rice, the first in her family to go to college, wants to earn a Ph.D and teach at a research university.

"I'm 125 percent committed to science, she said.

Stephens said: "I think that a strong background in the sciences and especially the mathematical sciences enables to you to do anything you want.

"Mostly, though, I think it's important not to get stuck doing any one thing, and if you study science a lot of doors open."

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