Friday, April 5, 2013

Spontaneous Collaborations and the Big Picture

by Colleen Durkin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Yesterday we deviated from our science plan just a little bit. Usually we stay at one longitude and latitude, called a “station”, while we take samples and make all of our measurements. In the future we or another group could presumably return to these fixed locations to repeat our work here, but the water that we sample is always flowing and changing with the currents.

At the station yesterday, we instead decided to follow our sediment traps for 24 hours as they drifted with the currents (see our video from April 2 for a description of the drifting sediment traps). By following the path of the sediment traps we were able to stay with the same parcel of water and measure how its biological and chemical properties changed over time. This new opportunity prompted something special to happen: spontaneous collaboration.

Most of the scientists did not know each other before we boarded Knorr. In the past week of living together on the ship, chatting at meal times, and watching each other work, we have started to learn about each others’ science. Each scientist is making observations and conducting experiments that will, by themselves, be very interesting and important pieces of research. But yesterday’s opportunity to drift with the sediment traps inspired us to be particularly mindful of taking complementary samples that could together enable a more complete picture of the processes occurring there.

Growth of phytoplankton and fixation of atmospheric carbon dioxide into organic matter (also known as primary production) occurs in the surface waters. The amount of production that occurs, and the fate of that production, is tangled up with many other processes. Here is a brief description of a few of the things we did to try to disentangle them:

· Gwenn Hennon continuously measured changes in phytoplankton composition in the surface water, the ultimate source of the organic carbon (see her post from March 29). She also conducted an experiment to find out how fast the microscopic predators in the surface waters were eating the phytoplankton.

· Evan Howard continuously measured how much inorganic carbon was incorporated into the phytoplankton as organic matter.

· Harriet Alexander collected these surface phytoplankton onto a filter, which she will later use to discover which genes they were using while growing in the surface waters.

· Monica Torres Beltran, Maya Bhatia, and I collected particles from the sediment trap onto a filter so that we can later discover which genes were being used by the phytoplankton and bacterial cells while they are sinking.

· Liz Kujawinski will measure what types of dissolved organic matter these particles produce.

· Ben van Mooy will identify the molecules used by organisms in these particles to influence decomposition. He also measured how much carbon was being respired (and returned to the atmosphere), while I quantified the amount of carbon exported from the surface to the deep ocean in the form of sinking particles captured in the sediment traps.

In future blog posts we will explain in more detail these and all the other measurements being made.

Pulling all these measurements together once the cruise is over will be a big task for us all and, like all things in science, the outcome is unknown. But when you are on a ship it is easy to get excited about the science, come up with new ideas, and be inspired to take those ideas in new directions. It helps to be working as part of such a great group of scientists. Nice job putting us all together, Liz (Liz is our chief scientist and invited the people who are on board).

As the cruise continues, I look forward to more of these spontaneous collaborations. This is just one way that going to sea facilitates the collaborative and interdisciplinary culture in oceanography.

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