Ragupathy Kannan: Starting with Plankton, August 18, 2019


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Ragupathy Kannan

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

August 15-30, 2019


Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 18, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 38.2494289
Longitude: -75.0853552
Water temperature: 26.3°C
Wind Speed: 4.92 knots
Wind Direction: 122 degrees
Air temperature: 27.1°C
Atmospheric pressure: 1015 millibars
Sky: Partly cloudy


Science and Technology Log

In my previous blog posting, I explained the importance of plankton as base of the ecological pyramid upon which much of marine life in this ecosystem depends.  The past few days, I have witnessed and experienced in-person how scientists aboard this sophisticated research vessel collect and analyze sea water samples for plankton. 

Yesterday I spent some time with Kyle Turner, a guest researcher from the University of Rhode Island doing his M.S. in Oceanography.  He operates a highly sophisticated device called the Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB).  I was fascinated to learn how it works.  It is basically a microscope and camera hooked up to the ship’s water intake system.  As the waters pass through the system, laser beams capture images of tiny particles, mostly phytoplankton (tiny photosynthetic drifters).  As particles do, they scatter the light or even fluoresce (meaning, they emit their own light).  Based on this, the computer “zooms in” on the plankton automatically and activates the camera into taking photographs of each of them!  I was amazed at the precision and quality of the images, taken continuously as it pipes in the water from below.  Kyle says this helps them monitor quality and quantity of plankton on a continual basis. 

Kyle Turner and IFCB
Kyle Turner with the Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB)
Kannan and IFCB
Here I am examining a filamentous (hair-like) phytoplankton in the IFCB monitor.
IFCB computer screen
The various kinds of phytoplankton are neatly displayed on the IFCB’s computer screen. See my previous blog for a photo of the dazzling and colorful array of plankton out there! Plankton may lack the popularity of the more charismatic sea animals like whales, but much of life in the ocean hinges on their welfare.


Career Corner

Hello, students (especially bio majors).  In this corner of my blogs, I will interview some key research personnel on the ship to highlight careers.  Please learn and be inspired from these folks.

Here is my interview with Kyle Turner.

Q. Tell us something about your graduate program.

A. My research focuses on phytoplankton using bio-optical methods. Basically, how changes in light can tell us about phytoplankton in the water.

Q. How does this IFCB device help you?

A. It gives me real time information on the different types of phytoplankton in the location where we are.  We can monitor changes in their composition, like the dominant species, etc.

Q. Why are phytoplankton so important?

A. They are like trees on land. They produce about half the oxygen in the atmosphere, so they’re super important to all life on earth. They are also the base of the marine food web.  The larger zooplankton eat them, and they in turn are eaten by fish, and so on all the way to the big whales.  They all rely on each other in this big ocean ecosystem.

Q. How are phytoplankton changing?

A. The oceans are warming, so we’re observing shifts in their composition.

Q. What brought you into marine science?

A. I grew up on the coast.  I’ve always liked the ocean. I love science.  So I combined my passions.

Q. What is your advice to my students exploring a career in marine science?

A. Looking for outside research opportunities is important.  There are so many opportunities from organizations like NASA, NSF, and NOAA.  I did two summer research internships as an undergrad.  First was with NASA when I was a junior.  I applied through their website.  That was a big stepping stone for me. A couple of years later, I did another summer project with a researcher who is now my advisor in graduate school.  That’s how I met her.

Q. What are your future plans?

A. I’d love to get into satellite oceanography to observe plankton and work for NASA or NOAA.


Personal Log

I am pleasantly surprised by how comfortable this ship is.  I was expecting something more Spartan.  I have my own spacious room with ample work and storage space, a comfortable bed, TV (which I don’t have time for!), and even a small fridge and my own sink. Being gently rocked to sleep by the ship is an added perk! 

My own cozy stateroom
My own cozy stateroom
Sunrise view
A room with a view—sunrise from my window

The food is awesome.  We have two expert cooks on board, Margaret and Bronley. 

lunch
My first lunch on board
mess
The ship’s mess is a nice place to eat and interact with people. There’s always food available 24/7, even outside of meal hours.


Did You Know?

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter played a big role in recovery operations following Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

Barograph
This photo is displayed in the galley. Note the sharp decline in atmospheric pressure as Katrina thundered through.


Some interesting animals seen so far

  • Flying fish (they get spooked by the ship, take off and fly several yards low across the water!)
  • Cow-nosed Rays (see photo and caption below)
  • Leather-backed Sea-turtle (I’m used to seeing them on the beach in Trinidad—see my previous blog.  It was a treat to see one swimming close by.  I was even able to see the pink translucent spot on the head).
  • Bottle-nosed Dolphins
  • Seabirds (lots of them…. four lifers already—more on this later!)
school of cow-nose rays
We saw large schools of Cow-nosed Rays closer to the coast. These animals feed on bivalve mollusks like clams and oysters with their robust jaws adapted for such hard food. They are classified as Near Threatened due to their reliance on oyster beds which are themselves threatened by pollution and over exploitation.

3 responses to “Ragupathy Kannan: Starting with Plankton, August 18, 2019

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