Dim the light in the main lab, and draw the black curtain! This is the time for the daily after-dinner excitement! Except that the only thing that really gets excited during those evening sessions is the chlorophyll that my two teammates and I are getting ready to measure! We, on the other hand, are not too thrilled when facing the 204 tubes that need processing. Considering that our day started with the 2 am cast, and that so will the
next day, even with a short afternoon nap, we want the night show to be as short as possible.
Reading all these chlorophyll tubes represents the last step in our experimental work. Each morning we bring in the bottles containing the seawater that we incubated for 24 hours, and we take water samples from each bottle. We then draw...
Gayantonia making a face at the tubes to be processed.
...out the phytoplankton and collect it onto a filter (We do the same with the
water before it goes into the bottles). The filter is inserted into a test tube containing ethanol, a reagent that will extract the chlorophyll from the phytoplankton cells during the next 12 hours. The change in chlorophyll during the incubation provides estimates of the rates at which the cells grow and/or are being eaten by other plankton.
So, reading the chlorophyll is an essential conclusion to the experiments, yet it is a tedious task: Insert a tube into the machine, wait for the instrument to settle on a number, write it down, add 2 drops of acid into the tube, read it again. Repeat. Two hundred and four times! This has to be done under low light, as light can quickly degrade chlorophyll. To isolate the reading station from the light from the lab, we had to be creative, and so we fashioned a makeshift cubicle out a black cloth suspended from the ceiling like a curtain around part of a bench.
Before we can proceed to the reading, we have to remove the filters from the tubes, which can add up to the time spent on the chore. Only one person at a time can
read the instrument, but we quickly figured out that we could save a lot of time if the two others removed the filters while the third person started to measure. So the three of us huddle together inside the booth. Stepping inside the cubicle inevitably starts a childish giggling brought about both by the comical situation and the need for sleep. All of a sudden, our behind- the-curtain togetherness and the jokes and stories we share inside our black curtain hideaway transforms chlorophyll reading from tedious to fun... well, at least for a while.
5 April 2018
Catie Graver, SSSG Technician
“Wow, what an exciting life you lead” is a seemingly cliché response I get when the topic of what I do for a living comes up in casual conversation with strangers. I know for a fact (from having to clarify enough times, as I’m sure everyone aboard has also) that those people envision a cruise departing from Puerto Rico to entail some sort of warm, tropical, Steve Zissou-esque adventure, a life of freedom upon the open ocean, studying the dolphins that happen to swim by, sipping cocktails after work, visiting exotic countries, basically anything just short of playing shuffleboard up on the lido deck, because, you know, it is a job after all. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve already gotten a hearty sense that those kind of Instagrammable moments, drinking coffee and watching the sunrise, is punctuated by the other 23 hours and 55 minutes a day of exhausting, dedicated work to the science mission.
The other morning I found myself chatting in the lab with Ben and Kay, wondering what to write about. A prompt of “what do you do all day?” led to explaining there is really one goal I am setting myself out to achieve on any given day, week, or cruise. And I’m still waiting, nearly 10 years later, to really achieve it. The one goal I thought I almost had within my grasp on a few occasions, but the sea and the universe undoubtedly found a way to thwart in some way or another. Boredom. What? Who has that goal? Who wants to have a boring job? What’s wrong with this girl, is she crazy? But to me, it means nothing is broken that I have to figure out a way to fix in the middle of the ocean. It means a full night’s sleep with no unexpected wake up calls. It means I don’t have to hang on for dear life to avoid getting tossed out of the shower in the morning. It means I know what I am going to work on that day and have no reason it won’t be done by the end of the day. In the last week alone, I’ve woken up each morning thinking I’m in for just another day with my favorite NAAMES crew.
AND while recovering the optics instruments I end up wetter than when I stepped out of the shower a few hours before. And then there’s been a shift so we decide to drop what we’re
doing and take off for the next station. And then a false alarm goes off in the fire system. And then there’s a major equipment failure that leaves us drumming up every ounce of creativity on how we are going to accomplish the rest of the scientific mission. And then 50 knot winds kick up, throwing everything on the ship, literally and figuratively, for a loop. Are you beginning to see where I’m coming from when I say I could really stand to have a boring day once in a while? (It’s my 1⁄2 birthday today, maybe today will be my lucky day? Hi Mom! Hi Dad! Happy Anniversary! I digress...).
As much as I kid about longing for an Office Space-like existence where my biggest worries are the TPS reports I might have to come in on Saturday to finish (I come in every Saturday, it’s not optional) and a printer that perpetually displays “PC Load Letter” (I already have one onboard that says that), being present and contributing to some of the most inspired research around is a truly humbling
experience that I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be afforded. Even more than the research that might one day make the news (I confess, it is beyond sweet to be able to point to an article and say “I was there, I did that!), it is the everyday conversations and discoveries that pique my curiosity and un-bore-ify (I make up words, it’s a hobby) my life at sea the most. The people and the instrumentation that NAAMES brings together ensures a never-ending dose of the kind of excitement that I don’t mind coming along in
an atmosphere where you can’t help but get caught up in it. In the same past week I described above, the aerosol teams detected some of the cleanest air on earth, where of all things, I’m most amused by the fact that the air is too clean to have my hot coffee produce any steam when I walk outside. During humdrum CTD cast #9 of this cruise, we profiled nearly 65 degree Fahrenheit water mixed down to a depth of 600m...in the North Atlantic...in winter. I’ve literally seen thousands of CTD casts in my life, and I’ve seriously never seen anything like that. And those 50+ knot winds we saw a couple times this week? I’m from California where any deviation from sunny and 75 degrees makes headline news, so it’s really in the lousiest of weather that I’m always the first person outside watching the show.
This -something new around every corner- is the nature of the sea-going business. No one can possibly predict what the final week of NAAMES will bring to the Atlantis, the scientists, and the crew aboard. No telling what papers might come out of the research or what new questions or projects will be spawned, or what “remember when” stories the crew will still be telling about NAAMES in the years to come, but I’m pretty sure no one will tell you coming out here to study the North Atlantic was boring.
NAAMES 04 blog – R/V Atlantis – April 8, 2018
The rhythms and routines that form at sea are dictated more by our daily tasks than by a weekly pattern, as often is the case on land. Monday, Wednesday, Saturday...these words do not have meaning while living on boat, whereas meal times, science meetings, and sunsets do. The balance between monotony and routine is delicate; a routine gives me some purpose and is the framework to build a productive day around, but too much of the same and you can lose the spark needed to push forward with the science, the brainstorming, the attention to detail.
We are all “stuck” on this boat, with nowhere to go – but to stand on deck (or on the bridge, four levels above the main deck and where the boat is driven from) and watch the power of the sea all around – it never gets old, for me. Sure, I have my reasons for wanting to be back on shore, as we all do, but to stare at the ocean and sky all around...it makes me feel small and humbled and grateful to exist on this planet. Deep, I know.
The past few weeks have brought challenges to our work in the form of weather and equipment failures, and yet people keep smiling, laughing, running new experiments, and generally embracing the situation. The work we do is real and raw and
unpredictable...and for all the prior research that has been conducted to study this part of the world ocean, we still have so much to learn. The beauty of research is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Being at sea is poignant reminder that studying the ocean and atmosphere is a blend of organized and calculated experiments with creative open- mindedness. The data collected from this expedition, and in combination with the results from the first three NAAMES cruises, will allow us to add our piece to the scientific puzzle and push the bounds of our knowledge forward by another increment.
I try to make a conscious effort to take pictures of something aside from the ocean view, which without a doubt is the most photogenic option around...but the reality is that most of our hours are spent in the labs, futzing around with instruments, filtering water, or staring at screens. For example, once a day we clean and calibrate the suite of instruments that we have installed in a “flow-through” set-up, which means that they run continuously and collect data around the clock from seawater that is continuously pumped from the surface waters beneath the boat. See the pic below for the usual daily instrument-cleaning scene.
After nearly three weeks we are fairly well adjusted to the sea-going lifestyle, so to give you a small insight into what that means, I’ll leave you with a short list of things that rarely or never occur on land but that are 100% acceptable at sea:
Sleeping on a ship...
Sleep. We all need it. But how much do we actually need? As I’ve discovered the past couple of days, half an hour just won’t cut it! I became a grumbling, tired zombie – an absolute pleasure to be around (not...). Throw in an extra 2-hour post-second-breakfast nap, however, and I found myself marginally above the lower bounds of “functional”.
During the main science transect, particularly station days, most of us
find ourselves trying to adhere to obscure sleep schedules – and it
usually doesn’t come close to the “required” 8 hours per night (or day,
if that’s how your schedule rolls). Myself? I usually sleep from 8 pm
until 2 am and rise in time for the first overboard deployments of the
CTD rosette. For many, 6 hours of sleep is realistically about all you
can hope for on a station day. But existing on 6 hours of sleep a night
is not something I could sustain for the entirety of the cruise... Instead,
I have adopted the aforementioned post-second-breakfast nap from 8:30-10:30 am. It is a luxury, for sure! I sit down to fresh pineapple and a full-cooked breakfast, then I climb straight into bed. Ah, bliss – those are my favorite hours of the day! Nothing can top the splendor of a few stolen quick winks. Not even a pod of pilot whales playing around the bow. Not even our pet brown boobie preening itself atop the balloon shed. Not even a successful balloon launch facing straight into a rising sun under beautifully calm conditions. Not even bobbing up and down at the railings of the second-floor deck ducking behind massive waves of spray as they careen over the bow. Ok, I lied. Maybe the latter could win out...
The first week or so of the trip, we were treated to warm, sunny weather and calm seas. But in the past week, the seas have taken a turn for the worse (or more “interesting”, depending on your perspective). There is nothing quite like propelling yourself into the top bunk on the O3 deck to the roll of the waves. Timing is everything! We won’t even mention the various approaches for ejecting oneself from the top bunk – some of those involve broken toes (ay Jason?). One might think that we
would be gently lulled to sleep by the slop of the waves. In 5-foot seas, that may be true. But when the 20-foot seas roll in, sleep is out of the question! If you lie on your side, prepare to be promptly thrown from your bunk. If you lie on your back, be prepared to withstand the G-forces thrusting your stomach contents back up towards your throat every few seconds. One second, you are light and airy; the next, you weigh 50 tons and you need all your strength just to lift your limbs off the bed. Some might argue that lying on your stomach is the most stable option (think starfish). I would agree – that is, if you enjoy having the pressure of your body
smooshing your eyeballs into the pillow – it’s enough to give anyone a headache! Luckily, there are some work-arounds that we can adopt to make sleep more practical. For those of us on the top bunk, life jackets stuffed under the edge of the mattress help wedge us in place – no more falling out of bed and restricted rolling. Tucking your sheets in tightly around you can also be used with moderate success (but requires diligence and continued effort to employ daily). Drugs? Drugs can sometimes help, but taking a
sleeping aid and having to rise for sampling 3 hours later aren’t really cohesive options.
For those of us on the O3 deck, the rolling waves aren’t all that we have to contend with. Perhaps the most infuriating night of my life was at our northernmost station during NAAMES_2. Every 2 minutes (yes, I timed it) for literally the entire night, the fog horn (situated right outside my window) blasted an obnoxious “bruaump”. Nothing can contend with that! Nothing! The lower decks don’t come without their share of noise either. In the outer rooms, the waves crashing into the side of the boat provide the music of the night. The inner rooms are subjected to the consistent, mind-numbing thud of the bow thrusters. Noise cancelling headphones and music are key (fighting inescapable noise with more noise)!
So how do we cope? For me, exhaustion usually sets in after a few atrocious nights of sleep and I just pass out in my bunk. Otherwise, opportunistic naps. Lots and lots of opportunistic naps! Any location is fair game – the library, on the floor, during science team meetings, in the lab, the back deck...
Now, it’s not all so dire. In the calmer southern waters nearer to Puerto Rico and often when we get closer to Woods Hole, we are gently rocked to sleep by calmer seas. Our transit days usually allow for “normal” work hours, increased leisure time, and glorious, glorious sleep! So, can we head home now? I’m looking for some sleep...
50 Things I Worry About
If we are defined as humans in part by the things we choose to worry over, let the following list be a window into the psyche of a Mate on a research vessel, and a portrait of a modern sailor in the style of Picasso.
This is the second of the NAAMES cruises that I have been able to sail. The first was NAAMES #1, November, 2015, and I am lucky to be on this, the last of four cruises that were scheduled for this campaign. Having bookended these cruises, I recognize a couple of changes in both the NAAMES team and myself that have occurred over the course of the campaign.
The NAAMES team: The Chief Scientist and Principal Investigator of this mission, Mike Behrenfeld, built a team of scientists to answer questions about the North Atlantic Bloom and its atmospheric impacts. Many of the team members were unknown to each other at the start of this campaign because they came to NAAMES from disparate disciplines: biological, chemical, and physical oceanography, microbiology, virology, atmospheric chemistry, atmospheric physics, and ecosystem modeling. Annual team meetings encouraged healthy cross-talk. After four cruises and three team meetings, there is comradery built by hard work, innovation, and curiosity. There is respect for the variety of scientific approaches and expertise. This team functions smoothly on the R/V Atlantis. And, perhaps most importantly, shared purpose has gathered momentum leading to new and unexpected contributions to ecosystem science. This team embraces hard work and laughs easily in the labs, on deck, in the galley, and even during daily science briefings. Earlier hesitations have given way to relaxed dialogue and fresh ideas.
I was full of nerves during NAAMES #1. Worried about our instrumentation (i.e., would the turbo pumps survive the incessant bouncing of the ship?, Would the flow controllers function?, Would the automated valves switch properly?). I worried about getting seasick. Worried about the medication to prevent seasickness. Worried about the General Microbiology class I left midterm in the hands of a colleague. Worried about the myriad of “things that need to be done at home.” …..Fast forward….By NAAMES #4, I have developed confidence in the instrumentation (and Cleo Davie-Martin, who is the PTR-MS conductor-extraordinaire). New experiments have been added with each campaign. Turns out, seasickness medication was unnecessary. I am blissfully aware that the internet is too slow to catch up on the news. The sunrise is a priority, even while working*.
Leaving worrying behind allows for a certain kind of freedom at sea. Contemplation becomes less constrained. Time allows thoughts to forge new paths through unexplored jungles dotted with boulders to leap and bridge to new ideas. Once in a while these thought-explorations lead to a clearing where I mentally stack stones into a duck or blaze the bark of a tree so that the idea can be revisited and won’t be lost in the weeds. What a spectacular treat to let these thoughts bound along without the daily distractions that I apparently allow to seep in and prevent freedom of exploration. At sea, exploration of ideas is less encumbered by rules of engagement. Perhaps the rarest of scientists are always “at sea,” never dithering with boundaries and are instead free to meander across scales, dimensions, and disciplines, eventually emerging with unexpected and shattering ideas.
For non-sailors, to be “at sea” usually implies confusion or disorientation. As in, “She was at sea with String Theory.” On the contrary, my definition of “at sea” as of NAAMES #4 has evolved to mean freedom of exploration.
Marker Mark and Recapture
Transit was long.
I used it to design a deeply elegant experiment — elegance is the true mark of a good experiment, where a complex problem is broken down into a simply testable idea or procedure — to address one of the most profound questions in science: Where do all of the Sharpies go on a research cruise?
The approach was simple. We would do a mark-recapture experiment to: i) estimate the total black Sharpie population on board and ii) map changes in the distribution of permanent markers as we approached the end of our pre-sampling preparatory period.
A mark-recapture is a very versatile technique. I advise readers to use it for all kinds of common questions: how many socks actually live in my house? At what rate do all of my Oreos migrate towards my room mates bedroom? Which toys does my cat move around in the night?
Essentially, you capture and count a sub-population of something (markers, fish, tigers, socks, cat toys - some of these are harder to subjugate than others) and mark them in a pretty permanent way. Then, as with all the things we love, you set them free. You wait some civilized amount of time dependent on what your question and your target population, and then set out to recapture and count them again.
The idea is that the frequency with which you encounter marked items/organisms is proportionate to the size of the total (i.e., marked and unmarked) population of items or organisms of interest. The more frequently you encounter a marked item compared to unmarked ones, the smaller your population. The less frequently, the larger. You can also map the distribution of your marked items compared to the original distribution to determine how far your target populations travel, how large their home range is, etc.
So, we broke out the Sharpies. We borrowed some delightfully red nail polish from our collaborator Gaya. We painted discrete patches of nail polish on the lids of ten markers, and then we set them free. They looked quite nice, really (Figure 1). To encourage dispersal, we left the Sharpies spread all over the benches so that any passerby would assume we had far too many, and that some should come with them. I am a little embarrassed to say that a lot of thought went into all of this.
On Night One post-liberation, nothing happened. This was alarming — I had hypothesized that they all would be gone. It was so thrilling to be so wrong! For the next two days, we used the Sharpies as part of our work, but still, none left the home range of our benches.
After three days, we called it off, having made three key findings:
1)Despite their famously wandering ways, markers appear to be truly sessile. Despite their high utility (many researchers were observed using Sharpies during the study period), and being laid out in a manner designed to lure a vector to help disperse the markers, no Sharpies moved. This is an incredible level of geographic staying power completely incommensurate with the established fact that Sharpies disappear all of the time.
2)The distribution and population density of Sharpies is heterogeneous. On our benches, the population appears to be minimal (all markers had been captured) while marker populations in other labs and even on adjacent benches is seemingly infinite (no marked markers were found). I don’t know how many markers are on this ship, but it must be huge — essentially infinite — and especially so away from where we work.
3)We really fundamentally misunderstood the dynamics of markers on a research cruise.
Taken together, we found no evidence that Sharpies migrate during research cruises, at least during pre-sampling periods. It seems likely that the loss of markers is a seasonal process: while we observed no loss during pre-sampling, perhaps their loss processes accelerate during other phases of the cruise. Repeating the experiment during our sampling period and on our transit home is almost certain to yield very different results, and reconcile the lack of loss here with the established pattern of Sharpie loss.
Finally, while it is clear that any loss of markers from our bench during the rest of the cruise would be detrimental because our own Sharpie supply is seemingly minimal, us taking markers from almost any other bench would not induce any noticeable harm on other researchers, infinitely inundated with markers as they are. Very useful indeed.
As a viral ecologist, I found this experiment to be quite enlightening. We don’t think that viruses can actively move, just like permanent markers. We think that markers need humans and that viruses need hosts to move around. However, in this experiment we couldn’t get even markers — something that people want to engage with — to move. How are viruses, those most precious of creatures, ever meant to stand a chance in a world where hosts are actively seeking to avoid them? I just don’t think that we have a good idea of what is going on here.
I came into this experiment full of the confidence of logic: ‘markers disappear, so I will design an experiment to elucidate how’. But I was wrong in some way I still don’t fully understand. The confidence of logic does that to you. It whispers answers in your ear so confidently that you don’ take the time to read or understand the whole question. It reminds me of the Bob Dylan line from the song Desolation Row ‘they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words’.
I’ve been turning these thoughts over in my head for days, seeking an answer for how I got so wrong. Maybe Sharpie loss processes occur on a different time scale than the days I had studied? Maybe they occur on some cruises but not others (if so, why?)? Maybe there are areas of massive marker loss and areas of complete stasis? If so, what characterizes these neighbourhoods (perhaps the pace of Sharpie usage in these areas)? How many people picked up markers and then put them back? Imagine if the marked Sharpie were lethal viruses instead, and everyone who picked one up died — how would the viruses ever get around?
I never thought that I would end up drawn this deeply into marker dynamics, but honestly, this stuff is cool!! I love to be wrong. It means that there is a lot further to travel before understanding dawns. I am so glad I did this experiment.
In 30 days I’ll be a salty veteran. I’m going out to sea for 3 1/2 weeks with a group of scientists I’ve never met, a fellow lab mate, and a professor from Rutgers. We’re traveling to the North Atlantic to cleverly observe the largest assemblage of phytoplankton on our planet. I’ve heard these research expeditions are grueling - not much sleep every night, waking at impossible hours (11pm), and intense sampling work every day for weeks on end. However, as I become accustomed to the ship and the crew of scientists, engineers, and deckhands as we set up our mobilized laboratory, I can feel the sense of community and warmness, not of stress and hardship. My lab mate hugs every scientist he knows as he sees them for the first time since the last expedition, and I meet scientists from around the USA. Exuberant scientists from different labs are explaining how their instruments work to others, just for the sake of learning.
Each scientists knows their duty - to propel their minds past the limits of what they know about their surroundings, and report back. However, even amongst the high level of expertise and knowledge of professors and NASA employees, I don’t feel a sense of competition.
Today, docked in San Juan, we prepare for deployment, and diverse groups of scientists bond over beer after work. Some set up planes which fly by our ship when it will venture into the Atlantic, and collect cloud samples. Some are constructing scaffolds which collect the mist pushing off of the sea surface. Our lab collects samples of seawater at various depths. Each lab has sent out experts in their field, taking as many samples as they can. When it’s over, it’s up to each lab group to coordinate with other scientists and piece together a picture of what’s happening. Can phytoplankton influence cloud formation? Is it possible that this mass of phytoplankton contributes to what we call seasons? How do different particles or plastics found in seawater influence the interaction between phytoplankton and the atmosphere? We don’t know how the pieces will come together just yet, but we all love the process.