Images from Leg 2- Hilo, HI to Papeete, Tahiti – Part 2

GP15 blog posts written by Alex Fox unless otherwise stated.

Follow GEOTRACES GP15 on WordPress.com

GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

 

Images from Leg 2 – Hilo, HI to Papeete, Tahiti – Part 1

GP15 blog posts written by Alex Fox unless otherwise stated.

Follow GEOTRACES GP15 on WordPress.com

GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Women in oceanography: Q & A with two early career female GEOTRACES researchers

(Recommended background: Q & A with the first female Co-chief Scientists in U.S. GEOTRACES history)

Colette Kelly and Jennifer Kenyon are PhD students who collected samples for their research on GP15. Their perspectives offer insights into the lived experience of two female oceanographers at the start of their careers.

Kelly is a second year PhD student under GP15 Co-chief Scientist Karen Casciotti at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. Kenyon is a third year PhD student in Ken Buesseler‘s lab in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s joint program in Applied Oceanography and Engineering.

Kelly and Kenyon each specialize in chemical oceanography. Kelly spent GP15 researching the marine nitrogen cycle and working as a “super technician”—a position that required her to collect and manage samples for researchers back on land. Kenyon investigated marine radiation, using radioactive elements as tools to study the ocean’s physical and chemical properties.

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Kenyon (left) and Kelly (right) in their respective labs, working under ventilated hoods to safely handle chemicals at sea. Image: Alex Fox

Aboard GP15, Kelly and Kenyon also gave a presentation to the expedition’s science party based on a 2018 report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences on sexual harassment in the sciences.

Alex Fox sat down with them to ask about their paths to oceanography, the challenges they’ve each faced along the way and the changes they hope to see in the culture and composition of oceanography.

How did you first get interested in science and what drew you to oceanography?

Colette Kelly: I grew up around nature and spent a lot of time outside as a kid in Vermont. It sparked an interest in nature and the environment and in college I became interested in science and research. I became interested in oceanography in particular after spending a semester at sea during college.

Jennifer Kenyon: I love science. I’ve always known I wanted to be a scientist. As a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist and I didn’t wind up too far off. I also did SEA Semester during college along with Colette. The experience of living on the ocean is a huge part of why I got into oceanography. A career spent outside, trying to learn more about how the world works seemed pretty ideal to me.

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Kelly prepares samples in the R/V Roger Revelle’s main lab at sea. Image: Alex Fox

Were you ever made to feel like it was abnormal that you were both female and interested in science?

CK: I played on the boys’ baseball team as a little kid through my first year of high school. I always approached that with an attitude of, “I’m the only girl, but I can do this.” But as the only girl on the team I felt increasingly isolated.

I was lucky enough to be surrounded by other female scientists as an undergraduate at a women’s college. But whenever I’m in an environment that is dominated by men, I get that same feeling of, “I’m one of a few women but I’m going to do it even though I may never feel like part of the club.”

JK: I have no early memories of feeling like I couldn’t do science because I was a woman. I went to an all-girl high school, but in college I majored in geology and that was really isolating. My classes were overwhelmingly male—maybe a fifth of the department’s faculty and students were female. We had some great female scientists, but trying to succeed in an environment without much female representation was challenging at times, to say the least.

Were there particular role models or people who encouraged you early in your life who made a big impact on you?

JK: My parents. My dad taught me to prioritize what I want the most and go get it. My mom didn’t get to go to college because she came to the U.S. from Vietnam as a teenager during the Vietnam War. It was really important to her that I pursue my academic goals in science. The sacrifices she made to raise me motivate me to keep pushing.

CK: Because I found my interest in science much later than Jen, the people who really encouraged me to pursue that were mostly male advisors at Barnard College who really, really believed in me and encouraged me to keep pursuing research and seek out opportunities.

Now, Karen Casciotti is my PhD advisor, and she is an incredible role model. Not just being a female scientist, but also being a mom. Watching her doing it has totally inverted my sense of what I thought was possible—especially at a high powered institution like Stanford.

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Kenyon mounts pieces of filters used to collect particles from seawater onto plastic discs for beta-radiation detection. Image: Alex Fox

What gender dynamics have you observed since entering the field?

JK: My impression is that the older generation of chemical oceanographers is almost entirely male, but that Karen and Phoebe’s generation of scientists has more female representation.

CK: It’s another example of the leaky pipeline. As you move up the hierarchy in science you find fewer and fewer women. There are lots of women in PhD programs, but not as many post docs, even fewer female assistant professors and the list goes on.

One thing that surprised me was that the majority of lead researchers on this expedition are male. GEOTRACES has 27 funded research projects and many of them are led by men. Expeditions I’ve been on that were more focused on biological oceanography had more gender parity.

Is oceanography less male dominated now than it used to be?

CK: I think there is a generational dynamic but it’s hard to separate that out from the loss of women as you advance through the hierarchy in academia.

JK: I think it may be too soon to tell.

CK: Which is indicative of something—it’s 2018 and it’s still too soon to tell.

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Kelly collects samples from the CTD rosette as Co-chief Scientist Karen Casciotti, also Kelly’s PhD advisor at Stanford, manages the operation. Image: Alex Fox

What challenges have you faced as women in the field and how have you overcome or dealt with them?

JK: As an undergraduate, I worked in a research group that was almost entirely male. I often felt like I had to work harder to get the same amount of attention or recognition as the male students in my department.

CK: I skipped a lot of that being at a women’s college, and now working in Karen’s group, which is all female. A challenge I’ve faced is the inability of other women to recognize their own and thus my experiences of harassment as such.

I once approached a more senior female scientist because I felt I’d been harassed and she just said, “Honey, I’ve been through things that would make your hair curl.” It was hard to share an experience of harassment and then essentially be told I should suck it up.

JK: I’ve had people make demeaning, sexist jokes to me, take tools out of my hands, make condescending comments to me or make me feel “less than.” Those experiences can be made worse by feeling like, as a woman, I have to put on a brave face to avoid being seen as emotional, which translates to being seen as a less productive worker or scientist. It’s a horrible loop to find yourself in.

What are some of the day to day realities of navigating academia as a woman?

JK: I feel like as women in science we have to be a lot more tactful than our male colleagues—especially if we have an issue or a problem. We have to figure out how to express ourselves without being stereotyped.

CK: I have avoided meeting with or having conversations with certain people in my field who would be beneficial for me to network with because I’ve heard from other women that they’re not someone to be alone in a room with. That’s a pretty concrete trade-off.

JK: Yeah. You could be a co-author on more papers or make more connections but you just cut that off.

CK: On the flip side, I know women who haven’t avoided those men and suffered the consequences for the sake of the boost it gave to their careers.

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Kenyon runs through her checklist processing samples in the WHOI lab van, nicknamed Café Thorium. Image: Alex Fox

What was it like having two female Co-chief Scientists?

JK: It made me more comfortable going to the chief scientists with problems. I knew I’d get the help I needed without judgement for having a problem while also being a young, female student.

CK: Having two female chief scientists as role models makes a tangible difference. Seeing women in positions of authority helps me envision myself there. I’ve also learned a lot about how to gracefully handle difficult situations from watching Karen and Phoebe.

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Kelly and Casciotti share a laugh working together in the main lab of the R/V Roger Revelle. Image: Alex Fox

Do you aspire to become an oceanography professor, chief scientist or principal investigator?

JK: I think so, but I’m not totally sold on it yet. Colette mentioned that she is really inspired by watching Karen be a scientist and a mother, but that sounds like an overwhelming task to me right now. Maybe my opinion will change, but I can’t imagine having a family and being a research scientist at the same time.

CK: Yes, I aspire to be a research scientist, and I would find it incredibly gratifying to one day be a chief scientist on an expedition like this one. But, like Jen, I have some trepidation about also trying to have a home life.

JK: I will definitely stay in science but I’m not sure if I’ll go for tenure track. I’m not saying I won’t but I don’t know.

CK: It does help to know what exactly this dragon is that you have to slay in order to be an academic with a family. Karen has almost zero if not negative free time, but I see her doing it. Having that concrete example makes it at least into something I can envision even if it sounds really hard.

The other reason I have a little trepidation isn’t just babies, it’s continuing to have to deal with sexism and harassment. Itʼs easy coming from a place where you don’t ever get harassed to think you can handle that, but experiencing more of it makes the whole thing seems less tenable.

Were there particular role models during your undergrad or grad training who influenced your ability to see yourself becoming a career academic?

JK: My undergraduate mineralogy professor, Barbara Dutrow, was an excellent mentor. I didnʼt work in her lab, but she was always willing to sit down with me and discuss what I wanted to accomplish in my career. I didnʼt know how to go about becoming a scientist even though I wanted to be one. She helped me start my career by helping me set goals and telling me about how she got where she was. She also believed in me, which I think was the most important factor of all.

Also, Cara Santelli who was my mentor during my summer internship at the Smithsonian Institution. She had faith in my ability to do science, think creatively and work hard. She inspired me to pursue chemical oceanography at WHOI. Sheʼs someone who worked very hard but somehow maintained a work life balance, and having that example was super valuable for me. Having strong, female mentors really inspired me to follow my dreams and my career in science.

CK: I already spoke about how inspirational I find Karen, but Bess Ward also made a huge impact on me. She was the chief scientist on my first oceanographic expedition in grad school. In Karenʼs lab we study nitrogen, and Bess is the queen of nitrogen. She was Karenʼs PhD advisor, and she’s a force of nature.

Watching her operate I remember thinking, “Wow, this is what I aspire to be.” Watching her execute experiments, interact with people and command respect was awe inspiring.

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Kenyon works on deck with the pump team to deploy their array of devices for collecting and filtering seawater for study. Image: Alex Fox

What motivates and inspires you? Is there a certain mentality you adopt when things get hard?

JK: I feel passionate about my science and my research. Collecting data and taking measurements is really powerful to me. Iʼm making my own small contribution to this huge enterprise of science. I also love being at sea because you form these deep bonds with people you’re going to know for the rest of your career. When youʼve had a long day and nothing worked, it means the world to be able to talk to friends who are literally and figuratively in the same boat.

CK: I love my research. It feels relevant and important to me. Even when the usual backstops of enjoying it and getting paid for it seem paltry, I have the additional backstop of thinking that itʼs important for the world.

There is also something really enlivening about being at sea. Youʼre going out on the back deck carrying heavy bottles of water with waves hitting you and rain coming down sideways in the middle of the night, and the experience is so visceral that it becomes addictive. Itʼs really hard work, but there are moments that are so rewarding.

JK: At sea there are moments of overwhelming beauty. Just going outside to watch a sunset or staring out at the endless horizon can keep me going.

I saw a rainbow at 3:30 a.m. the other night. The moon was so bright. I turned around and there was a rainbow. I couldnʼt believe it. I was jumping up and down. Moments like that remind me why I wanted to study our planet in the first place.

What hopes do you have for the future in terms of the culture in science and oceanography?

JK: I hope that being feminine or doing things that are stereotyped that way donʼt make people somehow think less of you. I hope women feel more empowered to express that part of themselves and not fear judgement. It would be cool to imagine wearing a pink dress to a conference and not be worried about some kind of judgment.

CK: Iʼm excited for not just more women in science and oceanography, but also for more women of color and more queer women.

Do you have any advice to budding oceanographers who have trouble seeing themselves in the field?

JK: Having a network of people who support you is really important. At WHOI they do a great job of making that available. There are organizations you can join—women in STEM organizations and things like that. Finding support groups with like-minded people is not just going to help you achieve what you want to achieve but may also to help you feel more sane.

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Kelly (left) and Kenyon (right) take in a sunset at sea. Image: Alex Fox

CK: Jen is part of my support network. Sheʼs a year ahead of me academically. I didn’t know about the GRFP [NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program] until I watched her apply for it. I’ve always been following in her footsteps and it makes a big difference. There are so many tiny things that you wouldn’t know how to do without a support system. Even things as basic as knowing that you have to reach out to a potential grad school advisor before applying to grad school.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to question experiences that make you feel badly about yourself. Don’t assume that it’s your fault if you’re made to feel incompetent or unworthy of respect—chances are, it’s not your fault.

GP15 blog posts written by Alex Fox unless otherwise stated.

Follow GEOTRACES GP15 on WordPress.com

GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Women in oceanography: Q & A with the first female Co-chief Scientists in U.S. GEOTRACES history

Karen Casciotti of Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA and Phoebe Lam of the University of California, Santa Cruz head the management team of GP15 along with Greg Cutter of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.

Casciotti and Lam are the first female Co-chief Scientists in the history of the U.S. GEOTRACES program.

Alex Fox sat down with each of them to ask about their paths to leadership, the challenges they’ve faced along the way and what changes they’ve seen in the culture and composition of oceanography.

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Karen Casciotti of Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA and Phoebe Lam of the University of California, Santa Cruz head the management team of GP15 along with Greg Cutter of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, CT.  Casciotti and Lam are the first female Co-chief Scientists in the history of the U.S. GEOTRACES program. Images: Alex Fox

How did you first get interested in science?

Karen Casciotti: I’ve been interested in science as long as I can remember. It reaches all the way back to elementary school. I’ve been lucky to have some great teachers.

Phoebe Lam: My father is a scientist and he would always explain things to me about how the world worked when we played and tossed the ball or whatever. He also used to take me to science museums and they made a big impression on me. They made science like playing. That’s always what science has been for me—fun.

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Casciotti takes a sample from the CTD rosette in the R/V Roger Revelle’s hangar. Image: Alex Fox

What drew you to oceanography?

KC: When I started college I wanted a major that helped me bring together my interests in all these different fields—chemistry, biology, physics and math. I went to school for environmental engineering and discovered oceanography along the way. Going to sea was what really got me hooked. I really enjoy the field work.

PL: It was a process of elimination. I didn’t grow up with the ocean. I went to MIT and I took all the basic science courses and liked it all. I was always a generalist. I liked lots of different things and I could never choose just one. Oceanography let me do everything at once. It requires physics and biology and chemistry and even some engineering to do it.  If you want to understand the ocean you need to be able to switch between thinking about it through the lenses of all these different disciplines.

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Lam gazes out to sea at the end of a day’s work in the field. Image: Alex Fox

Were you ever made to feel like it was abnormal that you were both female and interested in science?

KC: No. I was always encouraged to pursue science, I was pretty lucky that way.

PL: Not at all. It wasn’t until grad school that I felt like being a woman in science might be something non-standard.

But, broadly speaking, science and academia are still male social environments. Science is supposed to be logical, and you have to contend with this stereotype of the emotional woman and the logical man. The stereotype creates a bias against the idea of women doing this logical thing that is science. I don’t think that serves scientific advancement, and I feel strongly that women have a huge amount to bring to the table.

Who were your role models or people who made big impacts on you?

KC: Bess Ward was my Ph.D advisor, and she inspired me every step of the way. She was always asking amazing questions. She wasn’t a professor who just sat in her office. She was always in the lab doing research. She stayed current and always had her own experiments going. Her work ethic really stuck with me. She taught me to be more organized. Bess’ ethic of getting things done ahead of time is something I try to emulate.

Mary Lidstrom is also a big role model of mine. She is a microbiologist and was my undergraduate advisor at Cal Tech. I met with her often for academic advice and I still keep in touch with her. She was one of the rare female professors of her generation who also had kids.

PL: Penny Chisholm was my mentor as an undergraduate at MIT. She’s the reason I’m an oceanographer. She said, “Phoebe, you’re going to be a great generalist one day.” She encouraged me to synthesize all my diverse interests. She identified that as a strength.

One of my primary mentors during my time at UC Berkeley was Inez Fung. She also happens to be a Chinese woman. I don’t think a person has to look like you to set an example, but for me it was hugely important and powerful to see myself reflected in someone of her position. She demonstrated what being a smart, strong female scientist looked like.

At seminars and during discussions she always asked a lot of questions and expressed her curiosity without hesitation. It’s something I try to do now. You learn a lot more and it creates a different atmosphere—one that focuses on learning. Creating an atmosphere where people aren’t afraid to speak up is a huge part of what makes a place welcoming to women.

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Casciotti prepares samples in one of the ship’s laboratories. Image: Alex Fox

Are there more women in oceanography now than when you first entered the field?

KC: I’ve noticed that the number of women in the room at ocean sciences meetings has increased dramatically since I first started going.

Biological oceanography seems to have more women. Chemical oceanography tends to be more male dominated, but lately that’s where I’ve noticed the biggest changes. Women are fairly well represented at the grad level in trace element biogeochemistry, and that is starting to trickle up to the faculty level. There have been a lot of amazing women chemical oceanographers coming up through the GEOTRACES program. These women are early career professors now and they came up as grad students doing expeditions like this one.

PL: When I applied to grad school in the 1990’s I applied to chemical and biological oceanography programs. Biological oceanography was more female both in terms of grad students and faculty than chemical oceanography. By the time I was on my first tenure track position at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 30 percent of the scientists in marine chemistry were women, which is pretty good. Most were pre-tenure when I was there, but many have tenure now.

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Lam manages her team and the pumps sampling system on deck. Image: Alex Fox

What about women in leadership positions like the one you’re in on this expedition? Has the increased female participation in oceanography translated to more female principal investigator’s and chief scientists?

KC: I think we’re getting there. I think that my generation is on the leading edge of having better female representation. For example, Phoebe and I are the first female chief scientists on a U.S. GEOTRACES cruise.

Last year, I was the sixth female chair in the 50-year history of the Gordon Research Conference in Chemical Oceanography—a major conference in our field. I went to a meeting of all the past chairs and there was one other woman in the room. But now that I’ve chaired that conference, I have a voice in the room. I find myself in that position a lot—one of very few women in a room. But those are opportunities to change things.

PL: It’s slowly changing, especially now that the female oceanographers of my generation are advancing in their careers and taking on leadership positions.

What boundaries do you think exist between women with an interest in science or oceanography and becoming leaders or occupying positions of power within their fields?

KC: Research programs with long expeditions are difficult for scientists trying to start or maintain families. That’s something that impacts all genders. To make a name for yourself early in your career you have to show up and if you have a young family it’s hard to be away. I haven’t traveled as much as other people in my position. I hadn’t been on a cruise in ten years before GP15, and I only go to one or two meetings a year. That’s how I’ve decided to manage it, but it’s definitely a hurdle.

PL: The bottleneck where women are lost comes after grad school. It’s going from post-doc, to academic position and then to getting tenure.

That bottleneck coincides with child bearing age. The best time to be making babies biologically is the time when you need to ramp up your career and do nothing but work. It’s also the time of the most uncertainty in academia. Until you get a tenure track job you’re in a constant state of insecurity. That’s a tough place for anyone, but if you’re trying to have a kid it can seem impossible.

But it can also be a matter of culture, and that varies department by department. Some places have bad reputations among the female academics I know. Friends of mine have turned down job offers because of that. It’s hard to be the first or the second female in a department. I’ve been lucky enough to be in places after that’s happened. If you’re trailblazing and changing the culture and trying to find job security at the same time, that’s hard.

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The GEOTRACES GP15 management team eyes a live data feed in the ship’s computer lab. The decision of which depths to sample was one Casciotti, Lam and Cutter needed to make at each station of our expedition. Image: Alex Fox

What keeps you going when things get hard?

KC: I take pride in finishing things and making progress. I don’t have a lot of ego about what I do. I just love to talk science and brainstorm and ask questions—coming up with ideas and problem solving keeps me going. I take on more things than I should sometimes, but I like helping other people. It sounds weird but I thrive on working hard. I like being busy and having a purpose.

PL: The moments of eureka keep me going. There are a lot of long slogs in between those moments of eureka, but they are pretty awesome. I wanted a career that would give me the space and the time to continue to have them. I like this job. You have to work really hard and you never get any time off, but it lets me do what I love. What else would I do that would give me the chance to do all of these things? It’s a blessed career for me.

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Casciotti maintains a positive attitude even during long work days at sea. Image: Alex Fox

What’s your style as a mentor?

KC: I try to motivate people with positive reinforcement, I find it’s usually more effective. I always start from a position of respect for people I’m interacting with and being open to their ideas and thoughts on things. I do that whether I’m co-managing an expedition like GP15 or advising a student. I try to look for the positives in situations and try to do what I can to bring out the best in people.

PL: I try to encourage students to ask questions and develop their curiosity. My mentor Inez always had us practice our talks and then would rip them apart, but it wasn’t personal it was in the service of improving. So, I want my students to feel like they’re in an environment where criticism can be received with an open mind. It’s not about you or I being right or wrong—criticism is an opportunity for growth.

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Lam and her UCSC graduate students Vinicius Amaral and Yang Xiang on the stern of the R/V Roger Revelle. Image: Alex Fox

What hopes do you have for the future in terms of the culture in science and oceanography?

KC: I hope that diversity in ocean science, and chemical oceanography in particular, continues to grow. I think we have a long way to go in terms of achieving more equal representation with gender and racial or ethnic diversity.

PL: I believe in the power of diversity. There isn’t just one way to do things. By having a greater diversity of people you tap into different ways of thinking that could allow us to make new connections or think about data differently.

Do you have any advice to budding oceanographers who have trouble seeing themselves in the field?

KC: Keep at it. There is room for everyone in science. Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to talk to the leaders in your field and reach out to them at a conference or a talk. They’re people too and they were once in your position.

If you’re thinking of becoming a research scientist and starting a family, I would say there is never a bad time but there’s also never a good time. There will always be struggles balancing family and work, especially in oceanography. Don’t bank on the next stage being easier, because it probably won’t be.

I didn’t have many examples of other women in oceanography who had children. But I wanted to have a family and I wasn’t going to let my job interfere with that. I didn’t know for sure if I could do it, but it was important to me, so I went for it.

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Casciotti and her graduate student, Colette Kelly, at sunrise after collecting samples of seawater for their research on nitrogen in the ocean. Image: Alex Fox

PL: If you don’t see yourself in the field it likely means you’d have to be a trailblazer, and that can be hard. But it also means you have something special to contribute and that you’d be forging a path for everyone who came after you.

GP15 blog posts written by Alex Fox unless otherwise stated.

Follow GEOTRACES GP15 on WordPress.com

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GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Teamwork makes the dream work: the Scripps technicians of GP15

By Melissa Miller, Chemistry Technician (Scripps Institution of Oceanography – Oceanographic Data Facility)

At 4am I watched the meters of wire count down on a computer display as our ship’s scientific instruments neared the surface. The lab aboard the Research Vessel Roger Revelle bustled in anticipation of the sensors and water samples returning from the ocean depths. I hauled bottles, flasks and tubes into the sampling bay to analyze my share of the arriving seawater. For my group, this is just the beginning of the process—we have a chemistry lab set up onboard and analyze GP15’s samples 24 hours a day.

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Scripps ODF chemist Erin Hunt samples from the CTD rosette in the wee hours of the morning. Image: Alex Fox

At sea, the scientists and crew members of GP15 work around the clock to learn as much as we can about Pacific Ocean chemistry at each station. Most of the scientists onboard are collecting samples for their own research projects, but I’m part of a team of professional chemists and technicians from the Oceanographic Data Facility (ODF) at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who help collect and analyze water samples. Instead of working on a specific project like professors and graduate students do, we supply data to different groups on every cruise.

I’m one of two chemistry technicians but we also have two Resident Technicians (ResTechs), an Electronics Technician, a Data Analyst, and a Computer Technician. As a Chemistry Technician, I am responsible for measuring marine nutrients, salinity and oxygen in the water.

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This oxygen is how we sample oxygen. We add chemicals to the seawater to form what’s called the precipitate, seen settled at the bottom of this flask. In the ship’s lab, acid is added to dissolve the precipitate and an analysis determines the concentration of oxygen in each seawater sample. Image: Alex Fox

Our measurements provide a backdrop for the smorgasbord of other scientific measurements being collected on this GEOTRACES expedition. Nutrients are elements like nitrogen and phosphorus that tiny ocean plants need to grow and photosynthesize. Aquatic plants and animals need oxygen to “breathe” and survive. Usually, the surface of the ocean is loaded with oxygen absorbed from the atmosphere, but if oxygen is low that can tell a story about what kinds of biological activity might be occurring beneath the waves.

I started out in oceanography nearly a decade ago as a volunteer, and I quickly realized I wanted to make a career out of being a sea-going technician. At sea, the days are long and the comforts of home are nowhere to be found, but when I return I can only seem to remember traveling to new parts of the world and making lifelong friends.

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Chemists Erin Hunt and Melissa Miller work opposite each other, sampling and analyzing nutrients and dissolved oxygen. They also share a birthday, and celebrated during this expedition. Image: Melissa Miller

I love being out at sea, and the sight of ocean stretching to every horizon. GP15 is so long that its 67 days are split into two legs, with Hilo, Hawaii serving as a halfway point. The other ODF chemist onboard, Erin Hunt, is staying for both legs—more than two months at sea. The rest of the team traded out in Hilo.

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The Leg 1 Scripps technicians: John Calderwood (electronics), Joseph Gum (data), Melissa Miller (chemistry), Erin Hunt (chemistry), Brendon Mendenhall (restech), Keith Shadle (restech), and Kenny Olsen (computer). Image: Alex Fox

As for the other members of the ODF team, ResTechs ensure everything goes smoothly and safely on deck. They bridge the gap between the scientists and the Roger Revelle’s crew who operate the heavy equipment, like winches, needed to lower scientific instruments into the ocean.

The Electronics Tech keeps the CTD rosette, along with its bottles and sensors, in good working order. The Data Specialist transforms all the measurements taken on this GEOTRACES expedition into an organized database—no small task with 27 scientific projects onboard. All that data needs somewhere to go, and the Computer Technician keeps the ship’s data servers humming. Innumerable other systems on a modern research vessel, from sonar to GPS to satellite internet, run through computers and without the Computer Technician their inevitable hiccups could cause serious trouble.

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Leg 1 Restechs Brendon Mendenhall and Keith Shadle manage the deployment of the ODF CTD rosette, which collects seawater and sensor data in the water column. Image: Melissa Miller

One major difference between the Scripps team and the other scientists onboard is that most of GP15’s scientists can’t get consistent sleep—they wake up when their group’s samples are hauled up from the deep and then spend long hours on analysis. The Scripps team is responsible for a large chunk of GP15’s scientific output, but we are some of the lucky few with predictable sleep schedules.

Our team structure allows us to work in shifts—either noon to midnight or midnight to noon. Our crew is ready 24 hours a day, but we each get 12 hours off in a row—something many scientists on board can only dream of.

As the cruise is nearing its end, the leg 2 group is looking forward to vacation in Tahiti, while the leg 1 crew has been home for weeks. The data will be finalized before R/V Roger Revelle makes port, then we’ll regroup in San Diego and prepare for our next expedition at sea.

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GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Super Station, Super Techs – Part 2

Arrival: November 8

(Suggested background: A GEOTRACES Glossary, Super Station, Super Techs – Part 1)

5:00am – Wakeup

My alarm goes off and I claw my way out of sleep. In the windowless bunks below decks 5am is identical to high noon or 5pm. My circadian rhythms, thumping a cadence that might charitably be described as avant-garde, urge me to go back to sleep whether I’ve slept 2 hours or 12.

I stagger to the bow of the R/V Roger Revelle along with everyone else to watch the sunrise and commemorate GP15 crossing the equator—a significant nautical milestone. GTC Super Techs Laramie Jensen of Texas A&M University and Brent Summers of the University of South Florida look as though they’re uncertain the ceremony is worth the lost sleep.

equator bow
The GP15 team assembles on the bow of the R/V Roger Revelle at sunrise as the ship crosses the equator. Image: Alex Fox

A gang of clouds skulk across a band of creamsicle orange sky in the east. It’s not the finest sunrise any of us has seen on this trip, but the unfettered, 360 degree horizon is celestial—a spinning planet, orbiting a star in the midst of revealing itself one more time.

I am one of very few people on this ship who have not been to sea before. I wouldn’t have even known to put it that way. “Is this your first time going to sea?” Or, “Have you been to sea before?” I have been on boats, but that is not going to sea.

Going to sea means that for some period of weeks or months, your life takes place on the surface of the ocean. It sounds like a pilgrimage or a communion that must be taken, but it feels more like a pleasant illness or a vivid dream. Going to sea is being taken over, redrawing the boundaries of your life and submitting the traditional shape of your days for review before the great body of water you float upon, your shipmates and the task at hand.

B L Van
Laramie Jensen (left) and Brent Summers (right) are GTC Super Techs on this 67-day GEOTRACES GP15 expedition from Alaska to Tahiti. Image: Alex Fox

When the ceremony is through I follow Jensen and Summers aft to the GTC van—a clean lab built inside of a shipping container and bolted to the back deck of the Revelle. To prepare for our fast approaching 7am cast we need to load the GTC’s 24 GoFlo branded bottles in a ring around its white, powder coated frame.

I flutter the door to the van open and closed as Jensen and Summers alternate handing out the GoFlo bottles to GTC technician Kyle McQuiggan who loads them onto the rosette. Closing the door between each trip keeps commingling of the “dirty” outdoor air and the filtered “clean” air inside the van to a minimum.

When the last of the GoFlo’s leaves the van, Jensen and Summers don the hard hats and life vests (called “work vests” aboard the Revelle) required to work on deck and, along with McQuiggan, make sure each bottle is cocked and ready to fire. Among McQuiggan’s jobs is to snap the GTC’s bottles closed at predetermined depths with a computer linked to the instrument through a cable nearly 5 miles long.

B L GTC Clip
Laramie Jensen checks items off her list as Brent Summers inspects the GTC before a cast. Image: Alex Fox

Jensen patrols the perimeter of the GTC with a purple clipboard, checking boxes and conferring with Summers about GoFlo bottles that have leaked or otherwise misbehaved in the past.

7:00am – Shallow (1000 meters) GTC cast

We are ready to go. Jensen and Summers rip off shower caps used to protect the open ends of each bottle from contamination while on deck. Our ResTech is Drew Cole, he is one of two Scripps Institution of Oceanography employees on board to assist with and oversee deck operations. He clears a path for the GTC into the water by opening up a section of the ships railing.

Jensen controls the A-frame, a powder white arch of metal that can be angled toward the ocean or away from it with powerful hydraulics. At its apex is a pulley that the GTC’s cable rolls through.

Chief Scientist Greg Cutter of Old Dominion University drives the winch as he has for every single cast of the GTC on GP15 so far. On our deepest casts, this job requires him to sit on deck with one hand on the winch’s joystick for 4 hours.

Summers and I each hold tag lines, ropes looped through the frame of the GTC to keep it from swinging, as Jensen hoists it over the side with the A-frame. Summers and I pay out slack while keeping light tension on our lines with deck cleats.

When Jensen has the GTC dangling over the side, Cutter lowers it into the Pacific. When Cole gives us the OK, Summers and I slip our lines from the cleats and pull the brine soaked ropes back on board.

Drew looking at it
Beneath the A-frame, ResTech Drew Cole monitors the GTC’s descent into the Pacific. Image: Alex Fox

This cast is only to 1,000 meters so it should be back on deck around 8am. We head to the bubble to distribute the empty sample bottles for this cast among a fleet of milk crates.

After finishing, we storm into the computer lab where the screen showing the GTC’s live data stream draws a crowd. Besides its rosette of GoFLo bottles, the GTC is loaded with a suite of instruments that measure things like the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll, oxygen, salinity, temperature and depth.

As the GTC descends, Co-chief Scientists Karen Casciotti of Stanford University and Phoebe Lam of University of California, Santa Cruz watch green, red, blue and yellow lines drip down the monitor. Where certain lines peak or falter they make notes to sample water from the corresponding depths to investigate. Their expertise and experience allow them to pick the most interesting or unexpected hydrographic features out of the screen’s lineup.

We snag a fresh estimate for when the GTC will resurface and march down the main hallway, known as “Route 66.” I’m trailing Summers and catch up to him outside the bubble. Jensen emerges with her water bottle and looks confused to see us. “Did you guys just follow me here without knowing where I was going?” she asks.

We scratch our heads and Summers acknowledges he hadn’t thought about why he was following along. After a month and a half of spending close to 24 hours a day within an arm’s length of each other, their relationship is symbiotic. They seamlessly defer to whoever has the clearest idea of what to do next, like hemispheres of a single brain.

7:30am – Breakfast

We finish eating at 7:45am. There were eggs and something blurry I ate without looking closely at it. It felt less like eating and more like staving off discomfort. Not dissimilar from bottle prep, the idea is to take care of it as quickly as possible.

8:00am – Shallow GTC recovery

In hard hats and work vests they approach their stations. Jensen again controls the A-frame. Summers and I wield long yellow telescoping poles, each with a carabiner slipped into a notch at the end. The carabiners are attached to the ends of the tag lines.

GTC Tag
Telescoping poles are used by the Super Techs and others assisting with the GTC recovery to attach tag lines to the instrument and steady its return. Image: Alex Fox

Summers and I stand on either side of the gap in the railing, no barrier between us and the ocean below. The outline of the GTC appears at the surface and we swoop in with our poles, hooking the carabiners to loops of rope positioned around the GTC’s perimeter. Once the GTC is hooked we ditch the poles and wrap the tag lines around nearby cleats, pulling in slack as Cutter reels in the heavy instrument with the winch.

We strap the GTC to the deck and put shower caps back on the GoFlo’s. We retreat to the van to receive the GoFlo bottles, each one now laden with 12 liters of seawater. Before entering we slip off our deck shoes and into rubber clogs worn no place else on board. Like the GTC, the van’s interior is designed with contamination in mind. Hinges, screws and fixtures are all plastic.

The air inside is filtered and cool, and when everything is dripping and sodden it feels like a cave. Jensen and Summers are the van’s only daily visitors, in part to reduce the risk of contamination.

McQuiggan and Sveinn Einarsson of Old Dominion University carry the bottles to the threshold of the clean van. As the procession of GoFlo’s arrive, a familiar dynamic plays out.

Sv goflo Brent
Sveinn Einarsson of Old Dominion University carries a GoFlo bottle to the GTC van and an increasingly impatient Brent Summers. Image: Alex Fox

As with unloading the GoFlo’s, the door is closed between trips to minimize contamination. This allows Summers to gently berate McQuiggan and Einarsson with minimal opportunity for rebuttal.

The door opens and McQuiggan presents a bottle. Summers feigns disgust. “Oh no, it’s him again.” Summers grabs the GoFlo and retreats. On McQuiggan’s next trip Summers looks past him, asking no one in particular, “Hey, can we get someone else?”

After this plays out around 22 more times in different combinations, the GoFlo’s line the walls of the van and are ready to be sampled. The process of divvying up the water typically takes around 4 hours, so we settle in.

8:10am – Processing in the van

Chief Scientist Cutter joins us in the van to take some samples of his own while Jensen and Summers work. Each GoFlo has a spigot at the bottom to release its water. Jensen and Summers each sit before a GoFlo on orange 5 gallon buckets. There is an almost religious solemnity to the reverence afforded to this water, the effort expended to ensure its purity.

Everyone is filling their bottles in a focused silence when the ship rolls and Cutter’s sampling hose breaks free of its spigot. The GoFlo’s seawater, pressurized with air to increase flow, explodes from the spigot directly across from Jensen. She recoils in shock as the cold ocean water soaks her back. Cutter shouts apologies as he scrambles to quell the geyser. Cutter apologizes profusely and Jensen sets back to work.

L splash back
GP15 Chief Scientist Greg Cutter (right), Brent Summers (middle) and Laramie Jensen (left) sampling inside the GTC van just after an errant stream of seawater doused Jensen’s back. Image: Alex Fox

We finish sampling at 11:40am—a fast turnaround I’m told.

Before heading up for lunch we perform the final inglorious step of sampling in the van: squeegeeing the floors. One might ask, “Why squeegee the floors? Is this a glass bottom van?” The squeegees are to herd the water sloshing about the van into a series of drains.

squeegee
Laramie Jensen and Brent Summers squeegee water into the drains of the GTC van. Their work is wet and the floors catch it all. Image: Alex Fox

“But, Alex,” one might say, “why doesn’t the water go down the drains on its own? Isn’t that, like, the point of drains?” The logic is sound, but again I must intercede: the drains actually sit just above the rest of the flooring. In the absence of any slope to sweeten the deal, gravitationally speaking, the water is content to slop around the van as the ship rocks from side to side. Ergo, we squeegee.

11:40am – Lunch

1:30pm – Bagging samples in the bubble

We are back in the bubble, bagging and packing the morning’s samples. Jensen and Summers slip by each other and switch places periodically. They bend over the crates of samples like farmers tending to their harvest—plucking the finest produce to bring to market. Everything is double bagged to keep it free of trace metals.

bubble crates
Brent Summers (left) and Laramie Jensen (right) organize bottles inside the bubble. Image: Alex Fox

They have an easy, constant banter. I am sometimes the target of good natured ridicule. When I appeared at 1:30pm, the time we had agreed to meet back at the bubble, they were already working. “Early is the new on time, Fox,” quipped Jensen.

3:30pm – Deep (4,347 meters) GTC cast

We play through the same routine that started our day. Despite the repetition, Jensen and Summers retain a keen eye for detail. They inspect mechanisms that must now be burned into their collective mind and scrutinize their functioning. If a GoFlo bottle fails to fire when McQuiggan triggers it, the loss totals around $10,000 when all the funding required to send it beneath the waves is taken into account.

3:30pm – Pigments, radium and thorium (PigRaTh) CTD rosette recovery

I am forced to break away from Jensen and Summers to do a little sampling of my own. When I signed on as the Outreach Ambassador for GP15 I was informed I would also have a small scientific assignment, if I was up for it. I agreed, and have been sampling the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll along the length of our journey through the Pacific.

I fill six plastic two liter bottles from the non-trace metal clean CTD rosette and pump their contents through six filters designed to catch the chlorophyll. This measurement helps quantify biological productivity and makes me feel like part of the team. After the water finishes pumping I seal each filter inside a labelled plastic tube and send them into the minus 80oC freezer for storage.

5:30pm – Dinner

6:45pm – Deep GTC Recovery

We retrieve the GTC in the island of light created by the ship’s deck lights. A yawning darkness surrounds the Revelle in all directions. Today’s schedule is pretty tame. Jensen says we’ll be in bed before midnight.

7:00pm – Processing in the van

Jensen and Summers fill bottles large and small, each labelled with a numbered GEOTRACES sticker that encodes the sample’s provenance—GPS coordinates, time, depth, bottle number and corresponding hydrological features.

Summers casts a sideways eye at some of the plastic bag lined milk crates in the van. He’s worried they were left outside for too long. After shuffling thousands of liters of seawater from the ocean, to GoFlo bottles, to smaller bottles and, finally, into crates or freezers, Jensen and Summers remain exacting.

I ask if they find it hard to drink enough water, spending so much of the day in constant motion. Jensen says she makes a point to consume at least two liters a day. She worries aloud Summers might not drink enough water.

“I’ve always been an intermittent chugger,” bristles Summers. “I drink enough water,”

Between the silences, the jokes and the work, they look out for each other.

van buds
Super Techs Brent Summers (left) and Laramie Jensen (right) sampling inside the GTC van. Image: Alex Fox

Jensen grew up in landlocked Vermont, while Summers spent his boyhood by the beach fishing and diving in Florida. Each of them took a similar path to chemical oceanography, thinking they would be off to medical school after their undergraduate educations concluded. But they were seduced by field work at sea and the application of chemistry, a subject they each found fascinating, to the ocean’s depths.

On her first oceanographic expedition, Jensen got violently seasick. After five days in the lake-flat Chesapeake Bay, the vessel headed out to the North Atlantic. Jensen was feeling invigorated doing chemistry at sea, but as the waves got bigger things took a turn. Not sure what to expect she ate some ice cream and settled in for a movie.

She spent the following 27 hours evacuating the contents of her stomach on deck. The crew outfitted her with a harness to ensure she couldn’t bounce overboard and colleagues brought her saltines and some headphones.

“I was miserable,” recalls Jensen. “I didn’t do any more science on that trip, and I had to really think about whether this was still what I wanted to do.” But, in a testament to her grit and capability, Jensen wasn’t dissuaded and applied a shotgun approach to seasickness prevention on her next expedition.

She had everything from Dramamine to Scopolamine to strange music claiming to recalibrate the inner ear. She even brought acupressure wristbands. With so many remedies it’s hard to know which did the trick, but she avoided a repeat episode and is now rock solid at sea.

10:30pm – Done processing in the van

10:56pm – Done bagging samples from Deep GTC cast in bubble

We reward ourselves with a snack in the ship’s mess hall.

Jensen and Summers crush huge bowls of cereal. I follow suit. Summers has one bowl of Frosted Flakes, then switches to granola for his second bowl. Jensen opts for Lucky Charms, then floats some Frosted Flakes on the leftover milk.

cereal killers
Super Techs Laramie Jensen and Brent Summers take cereal very seriously. Image: Alex Fox

In the midst of our spiritual communion with milk and processed grains, we see our colleague Vinicius Amaral of the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is part of the pump team.

The pumps push seawater through filters for four hours at a time to capture ocean particles for study. During Super Stations the pump team’s schedule is hellacious—a 50 hour marathon with just four hours of unscheduled time for sleep.

Amaral is a shell of himself. He mutters something by way of greeting us, but his gaze drifts to some far off shore of liminal consciousness. We see him put what looked like an empty plate in the microwave and then disappear into the bowels of the ship without another word.

Jensen, Summers and I start chatting and forget that we need to get to sleep. Finally, we dislodge ourselves and put back the five kinds of cereal that rescued us in our time of need.

11:38pm – In bed

My berthing is close to the front of the ship, and when we’re on station the Revelle’s bow thrusters are constantly chugging to maintain our position—keeping the cables we string down to the bottom straight.

I have a slight headache. My feet are pruned from standing in seawater in the van. Tomorrow is likely to be an even longer day and my 6am alarm will come faster than I want it to.

Another one – November 9

5:45am – Wakeup

I wake up like my home is being burglarized. The lights are on and Jensen and Summers are standing in the doorway. My roommate Sveinn Einarsson and I bolt up. The GTC cast we went to sleep thinking was scheduled for 7am is now going in at 6am.

This occurs pretty regularly. One sampling system finishes early due to unforeseen ease or efficiency, and the next item on the schedule slides up. This effect compounds if there are multiple casts between the present and your instrument’s time slot.

McQuiggan saved us this morning. He always goes the extra mile to make sure we are ready on time by waking up an hour and half before the GTC is scheduled to deploy.

We hustle above deck and throw on our safety gear. My face feels like a mask of mashed potatoes beginning to slide off.

6:10 am – First Intermediate (2,200 meters)  GTC cast

morning science
GTC technician Kyle McQuiggan prepares the GTC for a cast in the early morning light. Image: Alex Fox

McQuiggan calls out GoFlo bottle numbers to Jensen and her clipboard as he cocks each bottle. Summers and I secure our tag lines. Shower caps off. A-frame out. Splash.

The GTC disappears underwater as the sun is coming over the horizon. The sea is a little rougher than we have become accustomed to in the tropics. The same winds that drive the upwelling at the equator are pushing up waves. The Revelle occasionally pitches and rolls just enough to remind me to keep my balance.

6:15am – Bubble prep

Jensen and Summers intone the names of scientists for whom they are collecting samples as they check off bottles for each crate.

Summers: “Conway?”

Jensen: “Conway.”

Summers: “Shiller?”

Jensen: “Shiller.”

The bubble is hot today. Beads of sweat form on Jensen and Summers’ foreheads.

We finish at 6:57am.

7:30am – Breakfast

After eating, we sit with McQuiggan in the computer lab waiting for the GTC to come up. Summers looks at his right hand. He points out a red slice in the webbing between his index finger and thumb. He shakes his head at the injury. “Almost everything I do involves salt water and this part of my hand.” And then, in faux dismay, “I shouldn’t have to live like this.”

7:45am – First Intermediate GTC retrieval

8:00am – Processing in van

The morning sun is coming in one of the small rectangular windows of the van, illuminating Summers’ right shoulder. He squirms. “It’s warm.”

Without looking up, Jensen empathizes, “I just want one day where I’m not constantly physically uncomfortable—not dripping in sweat inside the bubble or something.”

I notice something strange about their bottle filling technique—every 10 seconds or so they intentionally miss the mouth of their respective bottles in a very controlled looking way.

I ask them about it. The practice has nothing to do with staying trace metal clean. Jensen derives some small satisfaction from eliminating condensation on the sides of her bottles, while Summers detests droplets at the rim of his bottles and hunts them down with extreme prejudice.

I marvel that they both plucked nearly the same irrational compulsion from the ether. The practice has no real consequences, they seldom run out of water for samples and when they do it’s due to leaking bottles.

GEOTRACES numbers
The GEOTRACES numbers attached to each GoFlo bottle will be stuck to each sample to let scientists know where it came from. Image: Alex Fox

They avoid touching things like the milk crates so they won’t have to change gloves. During GP15’s first leg, from Seattle to Alaska to Hawaii, they went through a package of 2,500. Now they’re running low and looking to conserve. When I’m not available to move crates for them, Summers kicks them towards the door with short chops of his feet.

The two of them are well matched. I watch Summers remove GEOTRACES stickers from the right side of the paper they’re stuck to, Jensen from the left.

There seems to be no end to their interlocking preferences: Jensen likes filling small bottles, while Summers prefers filling big ones.

When they moved into the same room they shared a moment of panic. Each of them indicated that they had strong feelings about which bunk they inhabited. Separately, they dreaded the other’s answer might deprive them of their preferred sleeping arrangement. But the truth was more harmonious than their imagination: Summers prefers the top bunk while Jensen craves the quick getaway of the bottom.

I ask each of them what their counterpart brings to their joint enterprise. After muddying the waters with jokes, Summers admits that Jensen works hard and is unfailingly kind.

“Even when we have only gotten a few hours of sleep and we have to rack GoFlo bottles or whatever—nobody cares if it’s hard,” says Summers. “Things just have to get done, and we both understand that.”

Jensen chimes in: “It must be very difficult to predict that two people will get along and work well together. We got lucky—this is a friendship.”

Summers scoots close to Jensen and stares as she tries to stop laughing and produce some of his finer qualities as a co-worker. “He’s efficient, organized and, even though it’s clichéd, he’s a hard worker.”

B L scowl
Super Techs Laramie Jensen (left) and Brent Summers (right) take a breather to enjoy the sunset. Image: Alex Fox

The two are together almost every waking moment, but have established clear and honest communication that allows them to work through the inevitable moments of friction.

“When there is tension it’s not usually personal,” says Jensen. “We’re often just tired or frustrated, and so we’ve learned to keep things in perspective.”

At this point, they’ve developed a sixth sense for issues that need to be addressed and when the best medicine is to shake it off or take time alone to reset.

They’re quick to remind me that it’s all in the service of something larger.

“All these little, basic tasks we have to deal with are important if you want solid data,” says Jensen. “We are doing our small part in this huge enterprise to learn more about the ocean.”

11:19am – Done processing

11:30am – Lunch

12:00pm – Back in the bubble

We are done at 1:33pm.

4:15pm – Nap until 5:30pm

5:30pm – Dinner

I show up a little late and the night’s main entrée, corned beef, has run out. I eat a mound of fried clam strips. I am less than satisfied.

7:10pm – Bubble prep

We finish at 7:45pm.

8:33pm – Second Intermediate (600 meters) GTC cast

night cast
Laramie Jensen (left) and Brent Summers (right) prepare for a night cast of the GTC. Image: Alex Fox

9:30pm – Second Intermediate GTC recovery

9:45pm – Processing in van

Cutter joins us in the van to sample once again. I quiz him about the Super Techs.

“The Super Techs are a huge part of the success of what we’re doing out here,” says Cutter. “Hundreds of people are counting on these guys, and there is no way we could get the quality of data we do without the Super Techs.”

I hope that I’ve solicited an effective pep talk for Jensen and Summers in the name of telling their story.

It’s 11pm and I’m hitting a bit of a wall. The clam strips have not stood me in good stead.  I am hungry and tired. Jensen and Summers seem cheerful and awake.

The home stretch – November 10

1:08am – Done processing

1:28am – Done eating cereal

1:40am – In the bubble bagging samples

Super Twins thank you
Notes of appreciation for Super Techs Laramie Jensen and Brent Summers stick to the plastic walls of the bubble. Images: Alex Fox

Soon I will say goodbye to this world of piecemeal sleep and near constant work.

Remaining just outside of most of their tasks makes the whole experience sleepier, less engaging. I imagine they are pulled along by the thought of finishing, knowing that they will finish faster if they work faster. I have trouble seeing our current task with fresh eyes any longer. I am just enduring a car ride to a place I’ve never been, not sure how long I must wait but knowing it’s not over yet.

When this station is finished, they will begin preparing for the next one, not a Super Station but more densely packed. Their break will be measured in hours, not days.

I ask them if there are parts of this process they’ve repeated so many times that they find satisfying.

“Itʼs satisfying to finish a station,” says Summers without hesitation. “We get to sleep and eat cereal.”

“But then you have to get ready for the next one,” I say, concerned.

Jensen and Summers raise their eyebrows and nod gravely.

2:11am – Finished bagging samples

2:15am – “That’s a wrap,” says Jensen

2:35am – In bed

7:00am – The phone rings 

Our room gets a wakeup call for Sveinn because we are ahead of schedule again. Traumatized, I fall out of bed and answer because I sleep on the lower bunk.

10:45am – Wakeup

I wake up in earnest and thank my lucky stars I don’t have to keep following the Super Twins.

 

GP15 blog posts written by Alex Fox unless otherwise stated.

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GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Super Station, Super Techs – Part 1

The ultimate goal of GEOTRACES and GP15 is to better understand the world’s oceans. But focus only on the edifice of accumulated scientific knowledge that GP15 hopes to produce, and one risks papering over the efforts of the human beings laying the bricks of data.

hardhat heros
Jensen, Summers and other members of the GP15 team prepare to retrieve the trace metal clean CTD rosette. Telescoping poles are used to attach tag lines. Image: Alex Fox

During GP15’s nearly three-day Super Station at the equator, I followed Laramie Jensen of Texas A&M University and Brent Summers of the University of South Florida, both graduate students in chemical oceanography working as Super Technicians on GP15. “Super Techs,” as they’re called on board, collect and prepare high quality samples for scientists aboard the Roger Revelle and back on land.

Jensen and Summers are integral to the success of GP15, but public recognition of their toil is likely to be relegated to a handful of acknowledgements in the back pages of scientific journals.

The tight schedule of our expedition often forces them to forgo sleep for 24 hours or more, with most of that time spent working together in tight quarters. During GP15 they sleep, eat and work on the same schedule. If I see one of them, I justifiably expect the other to be nearby.

sky bird
A seabird flies over the open expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Image: Alex Fox

The scale of GP15 and the intensity of activity during its stops to collect data can coalesce into something overwhelming. Much of the data produced by this expedition will take a year or more to analyze and interpret. To say each day’s progress is incremental is an understatement.

Contemplating the immensity of GP15’s 39 stations spread across more than 5,000 miles of ocean becomes a liability when, for Jensen and Summers, the task at hand is to split almost 300 liters of seawater into an array of plastic bottles.

What’s a Super Tech?

Each of the major systems GP15 uses to collect samples has one or two Super Techs. These individuals, usually graduate students, look after the instrument itself and help manage the distribution of the samples it produces.

GTC drip
The trace metal clean CTD rosette emerges from the ocean. Tag lines keep it steady as the winch reels it back on deck. Image: Alex Fox

Jensen and Summers are assigned to the trace metal clean CTD rosette, which, through some linguistic sleight of hand, is abbreviated to GTC by the scientists of GP15. What makes the GTC different from other CTD rosette sampling systems is that it specializes in studying trace metals.

Iron is the prototypical trace metal in the oceans. Like all trace metals, iron is scarce, but some of the world’s most prolific marine ecosystems depend on it. Studying an element present only in tiny quantities means samples can easily become contaminated—especially aboard a metal ship.

Just walking around on deck could track in sample ruining metals. With science that is so sensitive to contamination, every precaution is taken to keep samples free of wayward metals. The GTC is made of plastic, titanium, and powder coated aluminum to ensure that the trace metals in its water samples come from the ocean rather than the instrument.

Super Techs collect water on behalf of all researchers looking for samples from the GTC. Centralizing this responsibility streamlines the process of doling out water, cuts down on miscommunication and limits the number of people touching, and potentially contaminating, samples.

What’s a Super Station?

GP15 cruise-track
GP15’s cruise track. Each dot is a different station. Red dots are Super Stations, which receive the most attention from GP15’s instruments. Blue and purple dots are “full” stations, white dots are “demi” stations, the three brown dots are shallow or shelf stations and the green dots are places the Revelle will stop in port. Photo: GEOTRACES

A station is someplace the Roger Revelle stops to take measurements and collect samples of seawater. Each station splits into individual casts of the five sampling systems on board—each one devised to siphon its own breed of data from the Pacific. The transit of those instruments into the deep and back to the surface splinters further into particular depths where bottles seal in water or pumps filter out particles for study.

Super Stations are GP15’s most intensive sampling efforts. They take 52 hours or more to complete. Super Stations receive this extra attention because of some feature that piques oceanographers’ interest. Often, this means the station coincides with something like a hydrothermal vent or a deep sea trench, or that the same location was sampled by a previous expedition—affording an opportunity to compare measurements.

What this extra intrigue amounts to is spending more time at the station to collect more water and more measurements. Here at Super Station 29 the main attraction is the equator.

What’s super about the equator?

At the equator, the trade winds blowing from the east drag water on the ocean surface west. Just above and below the true equator, the rotation of the Earth produces what’s called the Coriolis Effect. This spins the easterly wind, and the surface water it’s pushing, to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere.

A simple way to think about how the Coriolis Effect works is to try to draw a straight line across a spinning piece of paper. The spinning causes a line that would otherwise be straight to curve one way or the other. The direction of the wind’s curve switches depending on the hemisphere in the same way the arc on the spinning paper would if you flipped the paper over. The difference is that the Earth is a sphere so “the other side of the paper” is geographically quite close by.

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The band of green at the equator shows the dramatic increase in chlorophyll, used by phytoplankton in photosynthesis, as a result of upwelling. Phytoplankton are the base of the ocean food chain and their presence supports innumerable other species both large and small. Image: NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, data from SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE

As the wind pulls surface water away from the equator it is replaced by deeper, nutrient-rich water. This infusion of deep water nutrients is called upwelling and often occurs on the coast. Those nutrients fuel phytoplankton growth which then attracts the whole gamut of ocean life.

This upwelling and the marine life it supports is what makes the equator special for GEOTRACES. “Many of the trace metals and isotopes we are studying on GP15 are tightly coupled with biology,” said Chief Scientist Greg Cutter of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. “We are studying the linkage between biology and chemistry in the ocean.”

Prep: November 7

2:30pm

Most of GP15’s science party is catching up on sleep as the Roger Revelle motors south towards the equator. I am on deck with Jensen and Summers preparing for the coming Super Station.

Under the equatorial sun I feel like an ant smoldering beneath a magnifying glass. We make several trips to stow 12 plastic crates in pallet boxes scattered about the ship. Each crate is full of labelled bottles containing the previous station’s seawater samples.

Crates
Laramie Jensen (left) and Brent Summers (right) shuffle crates full of seawater samples on deck in preparation for the equatorial Super Station. Image: Alex Fox

This preparation is not optional. If Jensen and Summers kicked back in between stations, the relentless schedule would bury them like an avalanche upon the Revelle’s arrival. If they fall behind it could delay the entire ship’s scientific operations—and with the ship’s operating costs totaling around $60,000 per day, every second is valuable.

We move inside the ship, clanking shut heavy, metal doors behind us. Jensen and Summers remove their shoes and we pile into an improvised clean room we call the bubble—plastic sheeting covers every surface to keep contamination at bay. The room is small and claustrophobic with three people inside.

shoes
Summers’ sneakers and Jensen’s clogs just outside the bubble. Image: Alex Fox

Jensen and Summers’ anti-contamination practices make them easy to find, I just look for their abandoned shoes. Summers, 23, has short brown hair and wears black athletic shorts and a turquoise t-shirt covered in pineapples. He is wiry and alert. He laughs easily but carries some kind of tension with him everywhere—perpetually coiled and ready to spring into action. His sense of humor is dry and acerbic, but beneath the stream of baseless insults that keep Jensen and others entertained he is genuine and conscientious.

Jensen, 24, wears black synthetic pants and a black cotton t-shirt. Her brown hair—lighter than Summers’—hangs just past her shoulders. Outwardly, Jensen seems the more relaxed of the pair—sometimes bursting into disconcertingly accurate renditions of bygone pop hits—but she is meticulous. She wears a blue plastic watch on her right wrist that is always timing something—today it has been 17.5 hours since the GTC was last in the water.

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Jensen and Summers organize for the coming equatorial Super Station in the bubble. Each of them have one “clean” gloved hand and one “dirty” bare hand as they organize containers that will hold trace metal samples. Image: Alex Fox

They both stand around 5’5 and have oceanic blue eyes—Jensen’s lighter and tropical and Summers’ the darker blue of the North Pacific waters we passed through in late September. It’s not hard to see why they’re sometimes called “the twins.”

The plastic coated bubble appears to contain an unadulterated mess of plastic bags with little open floor space, but the Super Techs flit about easily, stepping in the cracks between crates in their socks.

We finish for the day around 6pm. I tie up some loose ends on the computer and I’m in bed by 11pm. We start work just after 6am tomorrow and from then on we’ll be working or catching our breath for more than 48 hours.

Stay tuned for part 2!

GP15 blog posts written by Alex Fox unless otherwise stated.

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GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.