Hello again, World! We’ve had another great day at sea and a smooth transition into our third phase (Junior Watch Officer) complete with another rotation of the mates and scientists. With all of the novelty of life at sea, it can be easy sometimes to forget about the reason most of us are here: science! I thought I’d use my blog today to share with you some of the excitement and particular challenges of doing science at sea. Every day on watch two people are assigned to lab with our scientist to keep working on projects. While this team is always ready to help with sail handling or with tasks like chores or galley cleanup, there is always a seemingly endless list of work to be done in lab.
A Velella velella (by-the-wind sailor) that was caught in a Neuston tow.
Deployments happen every night watch and morning watch, weather permitting. These include surface deployments: Neuston Net tows and surface stations, as well as wire deployments like CTD and Meter Net tows, which we send down as deep as 450 meters to sample the water and creatures below. These deployments are quite a process to set up because not only do they need to be securely attached to the ship and ready to collect data, they often require sail handling to get the ship hove to or moving at a specific speed. Not to mention, sometimes we’ll do three deployments in one six-hour watch! Once all the gear is safely on board, it’s time to look at what we’ve collected and process it for useful data. On dawn watch and afternoon watch the first task to be completed is usually processing the deployment done by the watch before. This process includes lots of measuring, labeling, and identifying species. Samples also must be identified for PCR.
Isabelle and Matt deploy the CTD, with Elizabeth driving the wire and Marin on the J-frame.
One thing that sets MBC apart from other SEA programs is the molecular component to our science curriculum. We have four groups studying leptocephali, hydroids, crustaceans, and sargassum, and each project has a genetic focus or component, so every watch we continue the pipeline of extracting DNA from samples, doing PCR, running a gel, and purifying the sample. Lots of scientific equipment was brought on board specifically for these projects, including a seemingly endless supply of micropipette tips and buffer solutions, as well as an extremely expensive Nanodrop machine that’s securely strapped to the wall on the desk next to me right now.
I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it can be to use tiny pipette tips and be precise while running a gel, especially in 12-foot swells, but there are other things that must be considered in order to perform this genetic work on a ship. For one, we have a limited supply of our resources, so we are extra careful to avoid contamination and have mastered the art of reusing gloves (if they’re not too dirty). The motion of the ship also adds a level of challenge to every task, from trying to keep your handwriting neat while labeling tiny tubes to having to tape a petri dish in place while looking at it under the microscope. Additionally, the entire pipeline takes longer than one or two watch periods, so we are always handing over the next steps to the oncoming watch and communicating everything they need to know in our detailed logs and notebooks. We all help with each other’s projects and know how much work needs to get done before we reach land, so it’s not unusual to have a watch where you start the extraction process for hydroid DNA then hop over to Nanodropping crustacean PCR products, all before or while you deploy a Meter Net.
On top of all this, we collect hourly information on abiotic factors like sea temperature, salinity, and current, and still manage to have time for extra fun under our party lights! Some of our favorite activities are solving the Wordle set by the previous watch and writing haikus.
I clearly have a lot to say about science, but it’s a big part of our lives aboard the Cramer, and this experience is so exciting. For some of us molecular work was new and a little scary, but now we have experience doing it in maybe the most ridiculous setting. This is another area where we’ve had a steep learning curve and are ready to head into JLO (Junior Lab Officer) phase.
To everyone at home, I love you and I’m excited to hear all about what I’ve missed when we get back to land. Happy graduation, Julia! Happy early birthday, Maddy! To those who made me promise to take pictures, I promise I have enough for multiple PowerPoint presentations. See you soon?
Elizabeth Siminitus, A Watch, Hamilton College