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You wanted to know: who are these scientists? Introducing: Ben Van Mooy (sort of)

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


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So far we’ve met five of the six principal investigators of the cruise: Kay Bidle, Jack DiTullio, Marco Coolen, Anna Martins and Assaf Vardi. The only one left is Ben Van Mooy.

Broadly, Ben’s lab works on marine chemistry. They ask questions about things like how lipids are formed and when. Lipids are the main component of cell walls – and there are lots of different types. The cell can change the composition of its cell membrane – which lipids it’s building its little house out of – based on the environmental conditions. If it’s hot, or cold, or salty, or the cells are stressed, they’ll swap out certain lipids in favor of others. Kind of like how we might change the types of curtains we use in our house to keep light or heat in or out depending on the season.

But I have to confess… I’ve never met Ben Van Mooy. I hear that he’s tall, and I know that he works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but otherwise he is quite a mystery to me, since he’s not onboard.  He does have three representatives here, so we’ll meet them instead.

Justin thinks we should have worse weather.

Justin Ossolinski is a research technician in Ben’s lab. On board, Justin’s main job is to coordinate the team’s big instruments. The Van Mooy group has a bunch of instruments with them, and Justin he helps toss those instruments off the side of the boat and then drag back out. That includes big nets, traps and sensors.  These things are heavy, expensive and complicated. The ship has all sorts of expertise and special parts to help make sure instruments get into the water safely and come back out alive. Simply finding these traps again can be tricky, and watching the ship idle up just a few feet from the buoys bobbing along is pretty impressive.

This role, of being outside and hauling in heavy things, suits Justin quite well. It’s hard to imagine him sitting at a lab bench for too long, or, in fact, sitting anywhere for too long – even to sleep. Which isn’t to say that he’s fidgety or easily excitable. Rather, if he’s not helping, hauling, or being useful somehow, he’s probably trying to find a way to be of assistance. That’s just how he is.

Bethanie Edwards also helps with the deck operations (deck-ops, as everyone calls it) alongside Justin. Bethanie is a second year PhD student in Ben’s lab.

 

Bethanie thinks the weather is great.

Along with deck-ops, she’s doing experiments on enzymes, lipids, and something called quorum sensing. The idea is that cells in the water can sense and signal to one another. By doing so, they can regulate how much, and by what processes they consume different nutrients. Sometimes the signals might be mutually beneficial – triggering a collective action to consume nutrients in the water. Other times they might be selfish – some microbes might try to trick others and keep all the nutrients to themselves. Bethanie looks at a couple different molecules that might be involved in quorum sensing, and when they seem to be more abundant in the water.

Bethanie is also studying for her qualifying exams at WHOI – the test that determines whether she can continue forward in her PhD. Which means we’ve both spent some time searching for quiet places on the ship. Turns out, there really aren’t any – although the science chart room is about as close at you can get for a desk without too much noise.

 

Jamie thinks it's formaline brine time.

Also along with Ben’s group is Jamie Collins, a first year PhD student in Ben’s lab. Jamie’s got more experience at sea than most of the scientists on board after five years with the coast guard. So the Knorr feels roomy and luxurious to Jamie. He has kept his eye rolling to a minimum when I fret about 20 knot winds, and I appreciate that.

On board, Jamie’s in charge of an instrument called a pit trap — a contraption that collects particles as they fall down through the water. The traps are made up of an array of tubes that are open at the top (a lot like the CTD) with tops that close at a designated time to trap the water. At the bottom of each tube is a mixture of super salty water meant to kill anything that falls down into the bottom. This keeps things from decaying and eating each other while the instrument is in the water.

Using the pit traps, Jamie can understand what kinds of organic matter is sinking down through the water column. It helps to tell him things about how carbon and phosphorous are produced and consumed in the ocean. The traps are also key to a lot of people on board – from Marco’s work on marine snow to Daniella’s investigations of how the virus might carry carbon down through the water column.

The three of them correspond with Ben by email and phone calls, conveying the good and bad news and asking for advice. And all three seem to have a similar mentality about the cruise: making things work. There’s very little moaning and groaning when things break or don’t go the way they thought they would, but rather a quiet determination to fix it. When a few of their instruments were attacked by a sea bear-cat (or just roughed up in the surf, who knows) they got to work fixing them.

Later, I asked Bethanie what her favorite thing about being at sea is.  Immediately she said, “It’s really challenging, and I kind of like that.” Basically, if I had to pick a team to travel with during some sort of apocalypse, I’d pick Ben’s.

 

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 the Cyclonic Eddy
You wanted to know: what is this virus that infects the phytoplankton (Part One)
You wanted to know: what is this virus that infects the phytoplankton (Part Two)
Plankton hunting: Part art, Part science
You wanted to know: what’s the food like on board?
Wildlife watch!
Jumborizing: a brief history of the R/V Knorr
On the importance of names. Or, “are we at the hump or the hole?”
Arts and crafts day on the Knorr
On the importance of names, part two. What’s the difference between a boat and a ship?
How to stay sane on a ship in the middle of the ocean
A graphical representation of the cruise so far
You wanted to know: who are these scientists? Introducing: Kay Bidle
You wanted to know: who are these scientists? Introducing: Jack DiTullio
You wanted to know: who are these scientists? Introducing: Marco Coolen
You wanted to know: who are these scientists? Introducing: Anna Martins
Water water everywhere: a flow chart guide to the science on board
You wanted to know: who are these scientists? Introducing: Assaf Vardi

Rose Eveleth About the Author: Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn. She's got a degree in ecology from U.C. San Diego, and a masters in journalism from NYU. Now, she makes sciencey stuff for places like The New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider and OnEarth. Follow on Twitter @roseveleth.

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





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