Yesterday I mentioned that two of the coolest things about this cruise are time and scale. We covered time yesterday, looking at Marco Coolen's work on paleo-genetics and the history of Ehux's battle with the virus. Today we're going to talk about scale, and zoom out to 20,000 feet above the earth where satellites orbit.
Ana Martins is the head of the oceanography section at the University of the Azores, and on board she uses the data from those satellites to figure out where to direct our vessel. I explained in an earlier post that you can see these plankton from space, and that we use satellite information to steer in the right direction. That's Ana's job: using the satellite images to make her best guess about where the Ehux are.
At the beginning of the cruise, Ana said she felt some pressure. The whole team was looking to her to find the plankton they needed. But there are definite limitations to satellite data. Cloud cover can render the image useless -- the image ends up looking like a big black shroud over the ocean. And even when conditions are good and the satellites can measure how much chlorophyll is in the water, it doesn't necessarily mean that the chlorophyll is being produced by Ehux, or that the bloom of whatever it is will still be there by the time we arrive. Still, a lot of chlorophyll is usually a positive sign. "Whenever I get a really good image, I'm really happy," she says, "it's like winning the lottery."
Finding an area with a lot of Ehux is important to these scientists because while Ehux is found almost everywhere, many experiments require a large number of cells in order to work. Some instruments and detectors simply can't see low levels of Ehux DNA or other compounds. And if you only have a few Ehux, it's hard to tell how much of what you're observing is due to them, and how much is due to whatever else is in the water.
Of course, having satellite data at all is a huge improvement for oceanographers. This is the first time Ana has done satellite processing in real time on the ship, rather than beforehand or remotely. For a long time they were flying blind in a gigantic ocean, hoping to stumble upon something they can use. Today, between satellite data and robotic instruments that can check out areas beforehand, researchers have a much better idea of where to go and when.
I have a favorite story about Ana's work. After about a week and a half of sailing around, looking for a big batch of Ehux, we hadn't really had much luck. No one expected to find a big bloom down near the Azores, since blooms usually happen further North, but we were getting into Ehux territory. And then, voilà, Ehux in the water!
Kay went down to Ana's desk in the lower lab, where she sits most days waiting for her data to download (which isn't easy in the middle of the ocean), to tell her about the bloom and that her data had led them to a good spot. She was excited, and it turned out, Ana had never actually seen an Ehux cell under the microscope. After so many hours of looking for the little cells from thousands of miles above the Earth, she had never seen one in front of her, never squinted through a microscope to make out the tiny little plant she was hunting for. Upstairs, in the microscope room, she finally had her chance. "You're seeing something really far away, by satellite, and then suddenly you see it on the microscope and it's there, it's alive," she says. "Suddenly you say okay, it exists, it is there."
Ana also has a PhD student with her on board, Clara Loureiro who's studying bacterial production and how satellite imagery could help scientists find and study bacteria. Clara is quite experienced at sea, says Ana, and recently won a prestigious fellowship at the University of the Azores. After the cruise, she's heading to the United States to work a bit with oceanographers at Rutgers.
For Ana, going to sea is never tiresome, she says. At home she is distracted by work, by meetings and organizing and being the chair of departments and boards. But at sea, she says she just does science. And takes pictures - lots and lots and lots of pictures. Though not everyone loves having their picture taken.
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:
You wanted to know: who are these scientists? Introducing: Jack DiTullio" target="_blank">You wanted to know: who are these scientists? Introducing: Marco Coolen