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You wanted to know: who are these scientists? Introducing: Kay Bidle

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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One of the things a lot of people want to know is just who these scientists are in the first place. So in the next few days I’m going to introduce you to some of them. We probably won’t get to everyone – there are 25 scientists on board and only 10 days left of the cruise – but

I’ll try to cover as many as I can.

We’re going to start with what are called “PI’s” or “Principal Investigators.” Basically that means they’re in charge. A PI has his or her own lab, and oversees all the different experiments going on. There are six PI’s represented on the boat, and five of them are on board. So we’ll start there.

First up: Kay Bidle, Chief Scientist.

Every cruise has someone who’s in charge of the whole science team – the chief scientist. On this cruise that’s Kay Bidle. Kay works at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, where he spends his days trying to figure out what makes Ehux tick.

The fearless leader.

As the chief scientist, Kay’s role on this cruise is unique. He’s not doing a ton of experiments himself (although he’s got a lot of post-docs and graduate students here with him who are) but instead his role is to coordinate the scientists on board, communicate the plan to the crew, and oversee everybody’s mental wellbeing. Which means a lot of planning, a lot of looking at Google Earth, and a lot of walking around the lab asking how everything is going.

I sit next to Kay’s station in the main lab, which means I see him constantly field questions from everyone on board, from his graduate students, to the other PI’s, to the captain and crew. “Where are we?” “Where are we going?” “When is the net trap going out?” “Who hasn’t returned their bottles?” “Why is the coffee machine broken?” He’s up past midnight pouring over satellite images and planning the next day’s schedule, and then up again at 5am for the first CTD of the day. When someone doesn’t get what they want, they go to Kay. When something is broken, they go to Kay. When someone is confused, they go to Kay.

Luckily, Kay’s pretty well suited for all this. If you had to, you’d probably guess that he’s from Southern California; something about the easy smile, the longboard, and the way he draws out the word “yeahhhhhh.” And he did go to graduate school in San Diego, at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. But his roots are in Maryland,  outside of Annapolis, where he spent a lot of his time in the Chesapeake Bay sailing, fishing and exploring. From there, oceanography was an obvious choice.

In San Diego, what got Kay interested in Ehux first was this question of programmed cell death that we talked about in an earlier post. They saw that Ehux, a single celled organism, would go through programmed cell death – basically cellular suicide – to keep the virus from growing. But why would a single celled organism just suddenly kill itself? We know that social organisms express altruism to save their family’s genes, but single celled organisms don’t have family. Once they day, that’s it, it’s a genetic dead end. So the fact that Ehux killed itself didn’t seem to make any sense, unless it was considering the greater good of something.

Since then, Kay’s team have figured out a whole lot more about Ehux. They’re starting to understand how the cells might know when they’re infected, and how the virus might try to hijack the cell. They’ve got intriguing results about ways in which the coccolithophore might hide itself from the virus, and how it might signal viral infection to other coccolithophores in the area. (More on that in an earlier post). On board, they’re looking at the effects of different enzymes and gasses in the process.

Plankton hunter extraordinaire.

I think of this cruise kind of like a big machine, with a main question at its center, and auxiliary research like gears all around that question. It moves together, rotating around the biology and ecology of Ehux. Connected are questions about the virus, its role in infecting the cells, how it might effect the transport of nutrients into the deep ocean and how it might be changing genetically. As are questions about the chemistry involved in the system, and the types of molecules that the cells might be using as signals. There are questions about the air surrounding a bloom, and how coccolithophores might affect cloud cover. Keeping all that straight, and the gears moving together without a jam, isn’t easy but that’s Kay’s job.

To do it, he drinks a lot of coffee.

Tomorrow we’ll meet Jack DiTullio

During this trip, I’ll be answering your questions about the science, this ship, and life onboard. Want to know how we search for plankton, why we’re here, or what the food is like? Just ask me! And if you’re wondering how I got here, check out the groups that made this adventure possible: Mind Open Media and COSEE NOW.

Previously in this series

All Aboard: how you can be a part of our research blog
You wanted to know: what are these phytoplankton?
You wanted to know: what am I bringing to sea?
Greetings from Ponta Delgada! We set sail tomorrow.
Steaming North: how the scientists are trying to find plankton
The superstar sensor: what is a CTD?
Status Update: Day 3 at





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