Four of us on deck scrambling to finish processing muddy sediment cores in the middle of the night, one person in the wet lab hurrying to set up experiments, fingers numb, streaks of mud everywhere, sample bags and labels threatening to fly away in the sea breeze. It can be easy to be swept away with hustling from one task to the next. And then, we remember to pause. To look up at our surroundings and take a breath. And, that’s when it hits me. As I stand in awe of the transformational colors of the 2 am sunset over the Arctic waters, the majestic beauty slips me into a tranquil state of appreciation, and I savor the moment. I am on a world-class research vessel, conducting cutting-edge marine science in the Arctic. It might sound like a cliché, but it really is a dream come true.
As a graduate student, I am unbelievably grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of such an all-encompassing research project. To be on a ship with so many experienced and knowledgeable scientists from a diversity of marine disciplines, who study everything from water currents to microbes to zooplankton to birds and mammals, and so many things in between. Sometimes, it is easy to get so focused and enthralled in our own small pieces of the puzzle that we forget to remember and appreciate the big picture. Being on a ship with 24-hour science operations is a humbling reminder that the marine ecosystem is dauntingly complex and truly is a system composed of so many biological, physical, geological, and chemical components.
While I love being on deck helping deploy the multicorer, processing sediment cores, and getting my hands dirty (actually it’s more like getting dirty from head to toe), my project is a little different. I measure oxygen consumption of benthic macrofauna, which are relatively large critters that live in the seafloor, like clams, worms, and, my personal favorite, amphipods. Basically, I measure how fast clams breathe. Measuring oxygen consumption, or respiration, can be used to estimate the amount of carbon or energy an organism needs to survive. Carbon is the currency that provides the energy to sustain life. Phytoplankton and other plants produce it, animals consume it.
Last year, I was able to measure respiration rates of 2 species of clams really well. This year I am excited to measure more individuals of those species to look at possible interannual variability and to measure additional species to better understand the differences among the various types of macrofauna. Already, I am noticing that not all clams respire at the same rate, therefore, suggesting that they have diverse energy demands.
On the ship, I collect benthic critters from the multicore samples and from the bottom trawl. Then, armed with a very high-tech toothbrush and a squirt bottle, I give the clams a bath. I am often amused by the juxtaposition of the supplies and equipment we use in science. Zipties and electrical tape are essential. I use a free toothbrush from the dentist alongside a $5,000 oxygen reader. It’s often appreciating the little things like this that helps me get through the long work days during the field season.
After bathing and gently scrubbing the microbes off the clams, I place them individually in jars. Each jar has a sensor spot which measures oxygen concentration based on the dynamic fluorescence quenching of a luminophore contained in a polymer matrix, which I affectionately refer to as "magic". I secure the lids on the jars, ensuring there are no air bubbles trapped inside, a not-so-small feat. Throughout the day (every 30 minutes), I take measurements to see how quickly each individual is consuming the oxygen.
Oh, I forgot to mention that I do this in an environmental chamber set to 0ºC (32ºF) and that it takes me up to two hours to set up the experiment. Insulated overalls, hat, scarf, too many layers to count, and hand warmers aren’t enough to keep me warm. Luckily, I stocked up on inspirational podcasts before coming onboard to keep me motivated. It can be a lot of cold and frustrating work. But, then, I remember to step outside, breathe the fresh, salty air, and take it all in.