Beakers and Blankets: Readying for SABOR’s Ocean Voyage

July 15th, 2014 by Kathryn Hansen

Starting July 2014, scientists with NASA’s Ship-Aircraft Bio-Optical Research (SABOR) experiment will make observations from ship and aircraft off the U.S. Atlantic Coast aimed at advancing the technology needed to measure microscopic plankton in the ocean from space. For the next three weeks, follow SABOR researchers as they work toward finding out how and why plankton are changing around the planet, and where the carbon associated with plankton goes. Plankton play an important part of the climate system and deliver oxygen to the atmosphere, absorb carbon dioxide, and form the base of the marine food chain.

The following post is by Nerissa Fisher
Oregon State University

Clockwise from top left: A zooplankton species with a thalssiosira chain in the background; Paralia spp.; a colony of what may be dinoflagellates, and; a ciliate in a protective house -- it is most likely that the ciliate ate the phytoplankton that made this outter shell and it now using the shell for protection agianst zooplankton.

Clockwise from top left: a zooplankton species with a thalssiosira chain in the background; Paralia spp.; a colony of what may be dinoflagellates, and; a ciliate in a protective house — it is most likely that the ciliate ate the phytoplankton that made this outter shell and it now using the shell for protection against zooplankton.

Only three days until the SABOR cruise and I couldn’t be more excited! I have just finished my first year of graduate school in the Microbiology department at Oregon State University where I am pursuing my Master’s degree. I have been on several cruises before, one in the Gulf of Mexico and a couple in Bermuda, but this will be the longest cruise I have ever been on. This is also the first cruise where I have not worked at the research station where the cruise departs, so the entire process of preparing and packing for this cruise that is on the opposite coast has been a much different experience. In past cruises I was not so involved with preparation and my biggest concerns were making sure I had the right clothes and shoes for ship work or the packing list had already been determined and I made sure everything on the list got on the ship. Our research team has had several meetings to discuss the experiments and materials we need to pack. It seems like no matter how far in advance we started packing for this cruise we are still shipping boxes to the east coast. Silly things, like making sure we have beakers to mix solutions in, and all the little knick-knacks that are required for experiments have to be thought of in advance, because once you have left the dock there is no supply closet to run to if materials are missing.

Our research group is measuring how efficiently light energy is converted into phytoplankton biomass. To do this, we are making a number of different measurements simultaneously. Some of these measurements use a state-of-the-art flow cytometer, some use radioisotopes, and some are much simpler and involve filtering seawater and measuring chlorophyll, the pigment that phytoplankton use to absorb light for photosynthesis.

My life in the days leading up to this cruise has been most exhilarating. This past Friday and Saturday were completely booked doing phytoplankton bio-fractionation experiments for my thesis research. I wanted to finish those experiments so that I have data to analyze while on the cruise. Then Sunday, I absolutely HAD to watch the world cup final, which was a fantastic game!! As often as I could pull my attention away from the match, I was also sewing garments that will be used to shade seawater incubation bottles that will allow me to measure primary production at various light intensities.

An SEM picture of Thalassiosira pseudonana provided by Alfred Wegener Institute.

An SEM picture of Thalassiosira pseudonana provided by Alfred Wegener Institute.

Ok, so maybe this doesn’t sound all that exhilarating, but I love phytoplankton ecophysiology, and I could not be more excited to have this opportunity to be at sea for three weeks collecting data that could provide much clearer insights into marine carbon cycling and meet other scientists in the same field. I will have a unique opportunity to apply the measurements I have collected for my research in the laboratory to understand how photosynthetic energy is allocated to different cell compartments, to field samples. This work could potentially be the second chapter of my thesis and broaden my current findings for a single diatom species (Thalassiosira pseudonana, see image above) to natural populations. Without these amazing primary producers of the sea, life on Earth would not exist as we know it and I can’t think of more important work than trying to better understand their physiology, especially in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before. I am ready to be surrounded by great people, fun, yet exhausting, experiments, and nothing but blue.

Tags: , , , ,

2 Responses to “Beakers and Blankets: Readying for SABOR’s Ocean Voyage”

  1. john fisher says:

    Very nice article. Keep them coming.

  2. Fiona says:

    Best wishes for a successful trip, Nerissa. Brings back memories of preparing for my thesis research trip to the Arctic.

Leave a Reply

Keep comments relevant. Inappropriate or offensive comments may be edited and/or deleted. Avoid adding Web site urls.

Notes from the Field