Voyage of Luck
NAGT/USGS Intern Penny McCowen reflects on her first research cruise
That’s my biggest take-away from all of this. We’ve been at sea for nearly three weeks, and it has not stormed once. Not only that, but most of the sites we’ve dived to investigate have had exactly what we were looking for.
The scientists I’m with seem to agree with me. Lead scientist and my mentor Amanda Demopoulos said it was “bananas” that we’ve been able to dive every single day. Then one of the crew whispered that it was unlucky to have bananas on ships.
Off to Sea
My name is Penny McCowen, and I’m a National Association of Geoscience Teachers intern with the U.S. Geological Survey. I had barely arrived in Gainesville, Florida, for my internship when I was asked if I wanted to join this expedition, which is to the Cascadia Margin off the Pacific coast of Oregon and Washington. So luck had found me again—I have done field work before, but never at sea, so this was a great opportunity.
After three weeks at sea, I can say that I have enjoyed this quite a bit and learned a lot. Most of my previous work had been in the lab, analyzing samples and interpreting the results. This cruise, though, I’ve mostly been in sample collection mode.
I start my day logging what goes on in the remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) control room, watching the seafloor of the Pacific Ocean spread out before me. As the pilots of ROV SuBastian navigate around, hunting for bubbles, rocks, and unsuspecting clams, I keep track of what we’ve grabbed and what we’ve seen. So far, my favorite has been the octopuses.
After the ROV brings up samples from the seafloor at the end of the day, I join the other scientists in the lab, processing the samples as quickly as we can while our ship, the R/V Falkor, begins its transit to the next site.
Most of this is new to me. I’ve now dissected more clams than I’ve eaten, I think, and I’ve learned to process sediment cores, pick rocks, and even pry tube worms from their protective coverings. Listening to the other scientists, I’ve also gotten to learn how we’ll use this information and how it all fits together.
Quite a Step Up
My undergraduate research has been with tardigrades (water bears), particularly freshwater ones. I spent my senior year in college hunting them throughout the rivers and lakes of Kansas. I can see echoes of my college research on this cruise, watching Amanda lay out the dive plans and coming up with contingencies in case things don’t pan out.
I had to do similar things when I was designing my own experiments and planning my field work. Coming up with ways to get to the field sites, preparing alternatives in case I couldn’t use one site, laying out all my gear ahead of time and accounting for everything on the fly---it’s all familiar to what we’re doing on R/V Falkor.
The scale of the research here is the major difference. We’re coordinating a dozen scientists with many more support staff from the ship, and our field sites are hundreds of meters below the ocean’s surface. I’ve been very impressed with how everyone has been able to work together and see how their work is fitting into the big picture.
Back to the Lab
I’ve really enjoyed my time on the R/V Falkor. Everyone got along really well; even though we worked hard, people came up with ways to have fun too. The ship has plenty of movies to watch in what downtime you have, and we even played an assassination game across several days to liven things up. It was kind of like reverse Clue-you were given a target and a weapon, and you had to “kill” your target when no one else was around. On a ship, that could get challenging. I made several kills, but didn’t ultimately win.
I’m looking forward to the next step now. After we return to port in Astoria and offload all our samples, we’ll return to the lab in Gainesville and start work on the analysis. Amanda tells me that the analysis and interpretation will span many months, and some people will even be using these samples years down the line. That’s a big change from college, where your project had definite start and end points. If you weren’t done with your research by graduation, you probably weren’t graduating!
This research cruise has been a great opportunity on an amazing ship. I’m very grateful to NAGT and USGS for allowing my participation, and to my mentor, Dr. Amanda Demopoulos, for bringing me with her. Thanks also to the great crew of the R/V Falkor! The Luck Dragon was definitely with us on this voyage.