Day in the life of a scientist at sea – Harriet Alexander

Hello, I am Harriet Alexander. I am one of the early career scientists participating in the training cruise. On this cruise, I am part of the higher trophic level group (HTL), which working to characterize the contribution of larger organisms (meaning larger than microbes, read: small fish and zooplankton) to carbon flux in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. In particular, I have been running a series of assays to assess how animals at depth might metabolically compensate for lower quality food (the dregs, if you will).

Here is a day in my life at sea:

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

0700 Wake up on the top bunk (childhood dream sleeping arrangement) of the state room that I share with another scientist and get ready for the day.

0715 Pop down to the CTD bay to see what is going on and check if the schedule has shifted at all. Cruise schedules are prone to change, what with equipment failure, or slow recoveries. This time, nothing has changed. Our big operation for the day, the MOCNESS, is still scheduled to be deployed at 0900. Hunt down my designated coffee mug and head to breakfast. 

0730 Breakfast! Huge selection of fruit, eggs made to order, bacon, lots of coffee. The food this cruise has exceeded my expectations. Hats off to the steward. 

0800 Back to the back deck to prep the MOCNESS (Multiple Opening Closing Nets Environmental Sampling System). The MOCNESS (or MOC for short) is basically a series of fine-meshed butterfly nets that collect and concentrate organisms at a particular depth. The MOC we are using is a series of 10 nets that are sequentially opened and closed as the MOC travels from the surface to 1000m and back, capturing and storing animals from a particular depth range. Getting it in the water requires quite a bit of careful preparation as once the MOC is in the water there is no fixing or changing it. Nets have to be cocked, cod ends (or buckets that catch the animals) securely attached, the associated computer turned on and checked, and the nets organized for deployment. Check lists are involved, and all six people from the higher trophic level group are required.

0900 The MOC is ready to be deployed! However, we are informed by the bridge that we are not in the ideal location to deploy it, and we need to steam North a bit more. A nice example of how the schedule is prone to change. HTL team crossword time! Almost finished our Sunday crossword puzzle.

0930 The bridge gives us the go ahead to deploy the MOC. The CTD gets carefully guided off the ship, each of the nets is tossed over in order to keep them from tangling, and off the MOC goes to sample the depths. It won’t be back on board for at least 6 hours.

1000 Back to Lab 1 which houses the operations console for the MOC. Here we can communicate with the bridge and the winch operators who dictate the speed of the MOCs vertical traverse and we will be able to watch its progress on computer read outs, tracking changes in depth, temperature, pressure.

1030 Quick team discussion. We have a second MOC deployment later tonight where we have different goals and we want to make sure that we agree about the speed of the net, and depths that we are targeting.

1100 Depths agreed upon, I head back to the lab to do a bit of data entry from an assay that I am running on board. It is good to have a lot of redundancy in data acquired at sea. Here, I am taking a scan of the original handwritten copy and manually transferring numbers into a spreadsheet to back up the data.

1115 Lunch time! Meals are a bit early and very regimented at sea. Meals occur at set times and if you want hot food—you eat at those times. Of course, not everyone is on a breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule—lots of people work night shifts. So, meal leftovers are abundant and kept in an easily accessible fridge. I am not starving, but head down for lunch (big salad and delicious pasta dish). Meals are a great time to catch up with other cruise participants who you might not see all the time otherwise. It is really staggering how even though we are on a small ship—you can still not see someone all day long.

1145 Back from lunch to do more data entry. Happy for my headphones and some good tunes.

1300 Naptime. One unique aspect of working at sea is how common it is for people to be napping or sleeping at random times. I know that we are going to have some late night / early morning operations going on later, so it is important that I try to catch a bit of sleep while the MOC is in the water and things are calm. Operations on a ship are 24-hours so scheduling sleep is very important.

1515 Alarm goes off. It is time to get ready for the MOC’s return. I head to the galley to grab some coffee and head back to Lab 1 to see where the MOC is.

1530 The MOC is getting near to the surface. I chug my coffee and prep for the MOC retrieval—turning on a machine I will need for running samples and making sure all of my sampling containers are labeled and I have printed off a log sheet.

1600 The MOC is back and we guide it on board. Once back on deck it is mad dash to carefully put each of the numbered cod ends into buckets and move the back to the lab. Again, this is quite the operation requiring all six of the HTL team members and lots of focus.

1630 Now the fun begins. Someone turns on the dance tunes and we are off beginning the slow process of carefully and quantitatively splitting each of the discrete samples caught in the cod ends to be processed differently to answer different questions: Who is there? How much do they weigh? How much carbon do they have? How hard are they working to live?

1730 Dinner time! Dinner waits for no wo(man) and happens on a fixed schedule. However, team HTL is arms deep in zooplankton and fish and not even half way done processing the MOC. So, we begin a tag team operation to make sure everyone is able to get some food to keep them going. I tag out with Aspen and go to grab a quick bite.

1800 Come back from dinner and processing is still in full swing. My main job is grinding up zooplankton to look for an enzyme that helps them acquire nutrients they need. Coming from a microbiology background, working with zooplankton is a new territory for me… I think I am still getting used to it.

1830 Still processing. Our group keeps up the energy with occasional dance breaks, speed chess competitions, and an endless stream of “would you rather…” questions. 

1950 We have finally finished processing the first MOC of the day and it is time to start my enzyme assay. Tom and I start pipetting furiously and watching the data roll in.

2100 Cleanup time. While the assay is running we tidy a bit and get ready for the next round of samples.. and get more coffee.

2230 Time for MOC #2. We now repeat what we did in the daylight—prepping the second MOC to go down. Nets need to be cocked, cod ends attached, etc. This is our fourth cast so we have a developed a pretty good system.

2300 Hurry up and wait (round 2). There were delays throughout the day—and everything has shifted back a bit. Again, we spend some time in the CTD bay waiting for the go ahead to deploy. 

2345 The second MOC is in the water and headed to 1000m. We will see this one back on deck in about 3 hours as we are trying to sample something that degrades very quickly…

0010 The second MOC is in but I am still processing the first MOC. Back to the assays I go, pipetting away.

0100 Finally done with the assays I check back in with the HTL team in Lab 1 to watch the progress of the MOC. All of us are crammed in there watching numbers slowly tick by on the screen. We have another rousing round of “would you rather” to keep us awake while the MOC follows her slow traverse. Example question, for you: Would you rather have teeth like a beaver that never stop growing, or teeth like a shark that are continuously replacing? I am team beaver.

0145 Someone breaks out a crossword to help pass the time while we watch the MOC. 

0200 We reach 1000m and it is time to head back up! Aspen communicates with the winch and bridge and we fire our first net. This net will cruise between 1000 and 700m gathering all the organisms that are too slow to swim away in it.

0315 The MOC is nearing the surface so it is time to head back to the lab to prepare for her landing. On this cast we are attempting to sample for RNA which can be contaminated easily. Every piece of equipment that will come in contact with a sample gets thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. 

0345 The MOC is back! There is organized chaos as we grab the MOC and bring it back on deck under the light of the moon. Samples are quickly placed on ice and moved back into the lab for processing.

0350 Someone turns on some dance tunes and we are off, splitting and size fractionating the MOC tow as quickly as we can. The organisms caught in our nets from 1000m (big red shrimp) are so different those caught in the surface (small copepods and jellies).

0430 One hour later and all the samples are processed and frozen. We can now start cleaning up and I can start in on my enzyme assays.

0500 Group selfie time! We made it through another MOC!

0530 Sunrise spotted through the porthole. It is shaping up to be another beautiful day.

0600 I keep sampling the enzyme assay. This type of assay requires many time points after the initial sampling to determine the rate of a particular reaction—meaning I need to be up for quite a while longer.

0645 Almost done with my enzyme assay—but still have probably another hour to go. I am starving after being up all night and wish that breakfast was 30 minutes earlier.

0715 Taking a break between time points for breakfast. I am starving and load up on French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, fruit, and coffee. It all tastes amazing.

0730 Last time point! I write down the numbers, cleanup, and prep for the next APA assay.

0800 Back in my room, take a quick shower, and hop into my bunk. Time for some well-earned sleep.