Catherine Fuller: From Microplankton to Megafauna, July 13, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 29 – July 18, 2019

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 13, 2019

Science and Technology Log:

Through the Microscope

Gwenn with microscope
Gwenn using one of the microscopes to look at phytoplankton.
Gwenn and labels
The Lady of a Thousand Labels, hard at work.

Dr. Gwenn Hennon will be starting as an Assistant Professor with the University of Alaska in the fall.  Her interest is in the types of microbes, especially phytoplankton, that are in the water and what they are doing. She is studying what limits them, whether it is nutrients, light or other factors.  She finds it interesting to try to find interactions between phytoplankton and other organisms, such as ciliates that are filled with chloroplasts that they steal, termed “kleptoplasts.”  She investigates what microbes they stole them from, how the ciliate steals the plastid and how they maintain it. While a lot of algae have photosynthetic genes and controls in the nucleus, ciliates wouldn’t be expected to have those controls, but they must have some in order to keep plastids alive, and these need to have specific genes in order to control specific plastids.  There is a trade-off between specificity of genes for certain plastids and being able to keep the plastids alive for a long time.  Ciliates can also live by just eating other organisms, so another field of investigation would be to look at which genetics are used when organisms are switching between strategies. One goal of this research would be that, when looking at samples from various stations, someone would be able to say what the ciliates are doing without having to do experiments. 

The NGA is a very complex ecosystem, and this cruise has shown me that any scientific investigation needs to have a very specific focus rather than a shotgun approach, in order to have productive results. There is so much to be studied that the potential amount of data that can be gathered is staggering.  

Because the LTER has been funded for many years, there are great sets of time series to look at for some studies, but molecular data is fairly new and adds a lot to the picture.  Gwenn’s work, and the work of others at the molecular level are just the beginning of an understanding of life at the microscopic end of the scale. 

observation deck
Dan and Gwenn on the observation deck. Dan’s always on the lookout!

Through the Binoculars:

Fin whale
Fin whales come fairly close to us out in the deeper Gulf waters.

Dan Cushing is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife seabird and mammal specialist and is here to investigate organisms at the large end of the size spectrum, compared to everyone else on board. His workstation is primarily the bridge of the ship, where he is on the lookout for birds and mammals. He records the species and number spotted, and the time and the GPS location of each sighting. He also logs environmental conditions such as fog and wave height that can affect visibility.

Dan comes from a small fishing town with a population of 3000. He wasn’t necessarily interested in birds specifically when he was young, but developed a gradual interest in them. He likes that working with seabirds combines aspects of being a wildlife biologist with aspects of being a marine biologist. Dan has done both land-based projects at seabird breeding sites and ocean-based surveys on small boats and large research ships. One project that he worked on included attaching sensors to diving birds to record water temperature, depth, and location. This provided information about water conditions as well as about the behaviors of the birds and their feeding patterns in those conditions.

The variation in distribution and feeding strategies of bird species make them a good indicator of what is happening to the environment at different levels in the ecosystem. For example, Dan used small-boat surveys to look at changes in marine bird populations in Prince William Sound. He found that, over a period of two decades, declines had occurred in almost half of the species he looked at. In general, species that occurred farther from shore and fed on zooplankton and fish had greater declines than those that fed on prey along the shoreline and the nearby seafloor.

Studying the changes in a bird population leads to investigations that connect down the food chain through fish species to plankton (which, of course, is the focus of this cruise) and finally to climate change. Dan sees changes in the availability of fish species having a direct effect on the economic health of Alaskan communities that depend on fishing to survive. Coming from a fishing community, this hits home for him. As smaller species respond to climate change, a ripple effect works its way up the food web and so human populations must also alter their survival strategies as well.

coming in for a landing
One of Dan’s feathered friends coming in for a landing off the working deck.
An albatross follows along behind us.
Gulls watch the working deck with interest in hopes of food (not going to happen).

Personal Log:

The longer I’m on board, the more the pieces of the puzzle seem to come together.  On thing that really strikes me about the teams on board is the intensity of their research and the drive they have.  Each person here is making the most of their opportunity for data gathering. Gwenn, for instance, I have nicknamed “the lady of a thousand labels” because her work ethic and preparedness are so impeccable.  She is just one example of the discipline and passion I see on board. 

There is enough potential data to be gathered here to provide for years of research.  Each of these researchers is not only singularly focused on their specialty but also well aware of the underlying premise of their research, i.e. that what they’re studying will serve to document climate change.  Already, this year has brought anomalous weather to the Gulf, which, in a sense, makes conclusions about how and why changes occur a bit difficult.  Another thing that is noteworthy on this cruise is that, because there are PIs (Principal Investigators) on board, there is a lot of discussion of ideas and plans for collaboration.  Already, Gwenn, Suzanne, Hana and Clay have been talking about a potential project where their ideas intersect.  The amount of time we’re out allows for more interaction between people and more room for ideas to develop. 

Finally, as I ask each person what they want kids or the public to know from their research, the answers I am getting all focus on the same thing: change is happening and every organism on the planet is affected by it.

map of the shelf
An image of the shelf; the data station lines cross over this to get a complete range of samples from shallow to deep in order to understand the complexity of the ecosystem and the changes happening within it.

What do you want kids to know about your research?

Gwenn: All things are related to each other.  All species on earth developed from the same ancestral single-celled organisms.

Dan: If you don’t pay attention to what’s around you, you won’t see how it changes.

Betsy Petrick: All Aboard! Days 1 and 2, June 25, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Betsy Petrick

Aboard R/V Point Sur

June 24 – July 3, 2019

Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico

Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico

Date: June 24-25, 2019

Science Log

On Monday I was introduced to the R/V Point Sur in Gulfport, Mississippi.  Every nook and cranny of this vessel is packed, and it took the science crew most of the day to pack it even fuller with all the equipment they need.  The largest single item is the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Odysseus which makes a large footprint on the back deck.   Over it hangs an enormous pulley that will be used to lift Odysseus in and out of the water.

R/V Point Sur in port
R/V Point Sur in port
This the ROV Odysseus waiting to be deployed on a shipwreck. It’s as eager as I am to see it operate. It looks like it is ready to jump in!

When I arrived at the port, I met Dr. Leila Hamdan, the Chief Scientist, and some of the crew.  We have two Rachels on board and they are both graduate students studying microbial biomes. Over time a layer of microbes form a “biofilm” on different kinds of wood and metal. This organic layer forms on the surface of a shipwrecks, and this is what the scientists are studying. They want to know how this layer speeds up or slows down the corrosion of shipwrecks and how other organisms use this habitat.

I was able to join in and help put together microbial recruitment experiment towers, or MREs for short. Each tower is a PVC pipe fitted with samples of wood, both oak and pine, and some metal samples.  Each of these pipes fits loosely inside a second pipe, and then each set is roped together and attached to a float. Each tower is rigged in such a way that it will sink to the sea floor vertically, and then the outer pipe will rise to expose the inner tower and the sample plugs.  After four months, the MREs will be retrieved, and the scientists will be studying what kinds of microbes grew on the samples. Their experiments add to our understanding of how shipwrecks act as a habitat for corals and other organisms

Microbial Recruitment Experimental tower
Here we are putting together one of the MREs which will be sent to the ocean floor near one of the shipwrecks.

Finally, at the end of the day we had to quickly load the last of the gear on the ship before a huge container ship of bananas arrived to dock in our space. We set up a “fire line” to hand the last of the gear into the ship as fast as possible. We could see the huge Chiquita banana ship heading our way. The port was already stacked four high with Chiquita banana shipping containers and more bananas were coming! Who is eating so many bananas?!

As the newbie member of the crew, I was allowed to stay on board as the crew moved the ship from the large loading dock to the smaller pier on the other side of the port.  This meant I got a taste of the ocean breezes that are going to help keep us cool once we leave land. I saw pelicans glide low over the water as I stood on the deck and imagined all the new and amazing things I am about to see and do.

Day 2

If you’ve never been to Mississippi in the summer, I can tell you it is HOT and HUMID.  It’s hard to imagine until you try to actually do something in it. If you were an egg, you would definitely fry on the sidewalk.  Despite the heat, all over the ship crew and scientists are working, bolting things together, greasing mechanical parts, putting last minute touches on their experimental equipment, organizing the lab and working at laptops. To mitigate the heat and humidity outside, the air-conditioning runs on high inside the ship. This helps to keep the humidity from damaging the equipment, as well as to keep the crew happy.   So it is actually COLD in here! 

In addition to all this activity, a group of high school students visited the ship. They are participating in The Ocean Science and Technology Camp to learn about marine science careers and they will be tracking our progress from shore. Each of our many talented scientists shared a bit about their research and their roles in the ship. I will share more about that in another blog. We are scheduled to leave tonight at 1930 hrs, that’s 7:30PM for most of us! Stay with me, it’s going to be awesome!

summer camp students
Rachel explains how core samples are taken to summer camp students.

Christine Hedge, August 12, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Location: Chukchi Sea, north of the arctic circle
Date: August 12, 2009

Science Profile 

Scientist Georgette Holmes at her work station
Scientist Georgette Holmes at her work station

Most of us have never even heard of the many careers that exist today in science and technology.  I find it fascinating to learn about the career paths people take.  Georgette Holmes is a physical scientist with the National Ice Center (NIC).  Just how does a young lady from Belzoni, Mississippi end up in the Arctic analyzing ice on a Coast Guard vessel?  Georgette dreamed of becoming an architect as a child.  When the other kids were watching cartoons, she was watching “Hometime”.  In high school, Georgette says she was good at science and art and okay in math.   She attended Jackson State University, which unfortunately did not offer a major in architecture.  This meant that Georgette had to come up with a new major.  Growing up in a region prone to tornadoes, Georgette had what she called an “obsession with severe weather”. She was glued to the television when hurricanes were approaching or tornado warnings were posted. So why not put this fascination to good use and major in meteorology.  Note to Students: Discover your passions, your interests, even your fears.

We had lunch at the school’s restaurant. You can see both English and Inupiaq written above
We had lunch at the school’s restaurant. You can see both English and Inupiaq written above

Once she found her major, Georgette immediately began taking advantage of internships. Most students wait until their last 3 semesters to “try on” their careers but Georgette began interning during her sophomore year.  One of her internships was with NOAA.  Through this internship she was able to visit many different facilities and decide which type of work she would like best. Note to students: internships and “real world experience” are important. She gained lots of experience before even finishing college. In addition to interning, Georgette went to conferences and networked with people who worked in her field – another great way to learn about careers.

Georgette started her first job as a Sea Ice Analyst one week after graduating from college. She is currently finishing up a two-year internship with the National Naval Ice Center (NIC), an agency that supports the operations of the Navy, Coast Guard, and NOAA.  On the Healy, Georgette works with satellite imagery to help the crew and scientists know where the ice is and what type of ice is out there. Georgette credits her quick ascent through the internship program at the NIC to her questioning nature. Asking questions is the best way to learn new skills and gain information.  Note to students: ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS. Anyone involved in science and technology needs to be a life-long learner.  Georgette is no exception.  She is currently working on her Masters in Earth Systems Science at George Mason University with a concentration in Remote Sensing and Geospatial Information Systems.  In fact, she is missing her first few classes while working in the Arctic.  But, knowing her, she will ask lots of questions and catch up fast! Georgette was my roommate on the Healy until a few days ago when she boarded a helicopter and flew to the Canadian Coast Guard vessel, the CCGS Louis S. St. Laurent. Once again, Georgette will be gaining new skills as she works along side a trained Canadian Ice Observer helping our two countries map the sea floor of the Arctic Ocean.

Personal Log 

One of the school district's school buses
One of the school district’s school buses

I haven’t written much about my days in Barrow and in honor of the first day of school at Carmel Middle School (August 11), I’d like to share a little about this town and education. Barrow, Alaska is located 300 miles above the Arctic Circle (latitude 660, 34’). The native people of Barrow and the NORTH SLOPE are known as the Inupiat. Their language is Inupiaq. Inupiaq language and culture classes have

been part of the school curriculum since 1972.  This complicated language is written all over town and commonly heard spoken in everyday life. We ate at the local community college, Ilisagvik College, and each sign on every building was in both English and Inupiaq. There is also a beautiful Inupiat Heritage Center which helps perpetuate the Inupiat culture, history and language.

The history of how kids went to school in Barrow is a great tale of a community reclaiming its’ culture.  In the 1890’s missionaries established the first schools. In their efforts to teach English, some teachers punished their students for speaking Inupiaq. As is often the case when native cultures meet western influences, students were encouraged to adopt western ways and to abandon their culture.

Barrow High School was built in 1983. One of the strangest sights in town is the bright blue football field. The story of how Barrow obtained this field will have to wait for another day.
Barrow High School was built in 1983. One of the strangest sights in town is the bright blue football field. The story of how Barrow obtained this field will have to wait for another day.

During the 1950’s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs funded schools on the NORTH SLOPE and the Alaska state government operated them.  Until 1969, if a student wanted to continue their education past the 8th grade, they had to leave home and travel to boarding schools thousands of miles away.  In 1975, the NORTH SLOPE BOROUGH assumed the operation of the schools and built new schools in every village. Today, classes are offered from pre-school through 12th grade in every village. Technology has helped the high school to offer a variety of classes in every village. With interactive video distance learning technology – the teachers at Barrow High School can see and be seen by students all over the NORTH SLOPE. With the help of electronic tablets, computers, and fax machines – school can happen anywhere!

Quyanaqpak! (Thank you very much) 

Christine Hedge, August 6, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Barrow, AK, 71°18N 156°47W
Date: August 5, 2009

Weather Data 

Cloud cover: Overcast
Temperature: 450F
Winds: E, 17 mph

Science and Technology Log 

The ladder was too icy to climb down the ice shaft so Jesse had to repel
The ladder was too icy to climb down the ice shaft so Jesse had to repel

Wouldn’t it be amazing to find life on other worlds? Scientific evidence that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, has an ocean under the ice cover and that Mars may have had an ocean in the past is leading astrobiologists to wonder if these worlds have or had microbial life.  One way to determine what type of microbes could survive in such hostile environments is to look for extreme microbial life right here on Earth.  These earthly extremophiles might be similar to microbes that have the “right stuff” to exist on those other worlds. Today, I went on a short trip collecting such microbial life with Jesse Colangelo-Lillis, a graduate student from the University of Washington. Jesse is working on his PhD in Microbiology/Astrobiology.  He is interested in bacteria that are psychrophilic (cold adapted) and live in hypersaline brines (really salty water) that are trapped between ice crystals in the sea ice of the Arctic. These uper-salty fluids remain liquid down to at least 350C and some viruses and bacteria persist – and may even thrive – there.

Jesse goes down to collect samples from the brine lens
Jesse goes down to collect samples from the brine lens

We were not looking at sea ice today but at a wedge of ice under the tundra that has a brine lens (a pocket of liquid salty water). Jesse repelled down into an ice shaft and collected samples of this liquid, which he will analyze for microbes.

Understanding how Earth life survives under such cold and harsh conditions is a first step to understanding how life might thrive on other bodies in our solar system.

Personal Log 

Tools of the trade for a microbiologist
Tools of the trade for a microbiologist

I am in Barrow, Alaska and the place is teaming with scientists doing interesting work. The weather is lousy so travel to the Healy is still on hold. Meanwhile, I am staying at the ARM (Atmospheric Radiation Measurement) Climate Research Facility, which is quite cozy.  This research facility studies the effects of clouds on global climate change.

Today was the day to learn about the community of Barrow.  There is a wonderful National Park Service cultural center here to help visitors learn about this region, which is home to Alaska’s Inupiat Eskimo people. The Inupiat Heritage Center offers beautiful displays explaining the traditional and modern life and values of these people.  Hunting the bowhead whale is at the center of this life. Today I saw men carving the baleen of the bowhead whale into beautiful works of art. To learn more about the Cultural Center visit: