What Business Does a Modeler Have at Sea?

Lessons learned from a research cruise
APR 2020
Faith
D.
Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences

If you’re anything like me, then there is a good chance you have never even heard of a research cruise. That was about my (lack of) knowledge level until I started applying to graduate schools. Next thing I knew, I was a part of the incoming class for the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science & Engineering. 

Summer 2019, my first summer in the program, was a whirlwind of emotions and experiences. I joined this program as an aspiring ocean modeler, eager to tackle big questions such as “how does the climate of the past inform our understanding of the future?” 

How does a modeler wind up miles offshore, on a research cruise?

Let’s circle back to that “research cruise” idea – what is it? As I am far from an expert in observational oceanography – hence why I spend all hours of the day staring at error codes on a computer screen – I will sum it up as follows. Research cruises are one way in which scientists can gather data about the ocean. Basically, scientists, engineers, technicians, and all other pertinent parties have a number of topics they hope to investigate, so they gather up equipment, pack their waterproof clothing, and hop on board a research vessel. 

How did I, a computational modeler whose only sea experience was a ferry boat trip in Ireland that I spent 100% of the time throwing up on, find myself aboard a research vessel on one of these trips? The Joint Program hosts an orientation cruise, where students further in the program will serve as chief scientists, and students new to the program or with minimal sea-going experience can apply to join the cruise and broaden their knowledge base. My previously nauseating experience at sea did little to stave off the buzzing curiosity, which had started building just as soon as I learned that even those students lacking an ‘observational’ component to their research could find opportunities to join a cruise and acquire skills in a previously unknown realm of science. Brimming over with anxious anticipation at the chance to see first-hand how all the data I’ve used for projects – previously only excel sheets and massive netCDF files – is collected, I filled out my application to join the trip, and desperately refreshed my email for days on end. Long story short, there I was, barely two weeks into my first semester at grad school, overcome with excitement as I climbed aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong. 

What now? 

As it turns out, my high school chemistry class where we did lab experiments once a week did not come close to preparing me for what it would be like to do research at sea. Overcome with joy at the possibility of being able to go to sea, I had barely given a thought to the fact that I had no idea how to do lab work. 

Before coming to MIT, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “wet” and “dry” lab. Side note: at sea, wet and dry labs are usually separated by about three feet and a couple chairs! Suffice to say, I was horribly unprepared. 

One of the most beautiful things about being on a research cruise, though, is that everyone on board is there for the same reason: to advance science, in whatever form that takes. Why was this good news for me? It meant that everyone was more than willing and patient to show me the ropes and help me learn what it means not only to do lab work, but to do so on a moving research vessel with limited equipment. Witness: the following photo of me desperately trying to get a grip on what it means to do lab work as my shipmates kindly explain the same thing to me for the seventeenth time.


Photo credit: Astrid Pacini

What did I learn? 

Perhaps a better question would be: what didn’t I learn? One of the biggest takeaways, from an academic perspective, is that conducting lab work enlists a suite of problem-solving techniques that are not frequently required for modeling work. How so? Namely, and this is especially true for a research cruise, lab work can require a special type of improvisation under a time crunch, which is seldom necessary for modeling. This is amplified at sea, when both time and resources are limited. I also learned that lab work can be repetitive; for example, chlorophyll-a filtering for ten samples from every cast, where casts can be taken anywhere from once to multiple times an hour. 

Being at sea is demanding. I don’t mean grad school demanding, where you sleep six hours on a good night, eat crackers for dinner more often than you’d like to admit and can’t remember the last time you showered. I mean a whole new type of demanding. At sea, work is usually done on watches. The crew is divided into different watch groups (e.g. A and B) and take shifts. For us, this meant we had dawn watch (yes, as in 1:00 am to 6:00 am) every night (or morning?). You adapt to an entirely new lifestyle, where you sleep on and off in six-hour shifts, trying to cram as much food and science into the time you’re awake while occasionally opting for a shower, too. 

If it’s so demanding, why do it? 

Life at sea is rigorous and challenging in unique ways. The science never stops – yes, that means that even at night you are working hard! See below for a glimpse of how, all hours of the day and night, scientists are working to gather as much data as possible. 


(Left) deploying bongo nets and (Right) yes, still deploying bongo nets at night.
Photo credit: Taylor Crockford

Being at sea is in some ways like parenting: waking up at any hour of the night, desperately looking forward to the next moment of sleep, constantly trying to solve a problem, and there’s almost as much crying (okay, not really, but you get the idea). So why do it? Well, all the complaining aside, we love it. From dawn watch to the infinite supply of candy during night shifts to the unbreakable bonds formed between shipmates and the CTD casts in rocky waters, it is unlike anything else. 

The science never stops! 

We already talked about how the science happens 24/7, and while this can be tiring, it is basically every scientists’ dream! A research cruise teaches you about more than just science, too. For us, we learned about the dynamic ocean structure; namely, how climate change and the intrusion of warm, salty waters from the Gulf Stream can influence not just the physics but also the ecology of the region. We also learned about selflessness, since a common motto at sea is “ship, shipmate, self.” In other words, these are the rankings of priorities at sea: take care of the ship, or everyone is in trouble, then of your peers, and finally of your own needs. You learn how to stay alert and excited, even though you all may be inexplicably tired and on your third dawn watch in a row. 

Before coming to MIT, and becoming a part of the MIT-WHOI Joint Program, I could never have imagined that I, a natural born computational modeler, could have found such a love for the world of observational oceanography. To hammer this point home, I leave you with these photos of just how much fun we have at sea.


Collecting water samples from the CTD during a night shift
Photo credit: Ruijiao Sun


Net tow deployment off the stern of the ship
Photo credit: Ruijiao Sun


One of the many amazing sunsets that you can see when in blue waters
Photo credit: Ruijiao Sun

For those curious minds (and anyone interested in watching an insane video of an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) 

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

What is the MIT-WHOI Joint Program?

Autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) explores the Atlantic Shelfbreak