Time Scavengers is collaborating with the International Ocean Discovery Program Expedition 390/393 to showcase the scientists recovering sediment and rock cores, and conducting science at sea! Click here to learn more about IODP, and visit the Research Vessel JOIDES Resolution website here to read more about the drillship. To learn more about IODP Expeditions 390 and 393, click here!
You can follow the JOIDES Resolution on Twitter @TheJR, on Facebook @joidesresolution, and on Instagram @joides_resolution!
I’m Jeff Ryan, a Professor of Geology in the University of South Florida’s School of Geoscience. On IODP Expedition 393, I’ll be sailing as an Inorganic Geochemist. It’s my third IODP research drilling cruise, all sailing this role.
In terms of geology subspecialty I’m a “hard-rock” geologist, as I mostly work on igneous and metamorphic rocks. My research primarily focuses on subduction zones, where Earth’s tectonic plates head down deep-sea trenches and cycle back deep into the Earth’s mantle. I study subduction chemically, using key trace elements and isotopic ratios to understand how the old, cold, wet ocean crust reaching deep sea trenches changes as it subducts, and how fluids and melts driven off subducting plates change nearby mantle rocks and lead to volcanism at island arcs, and even at oceanic hotspots like Hawaii or Iceland. My interest in Expeditions 390-393, which will drill sites in the south Atlantic, nowhere near a subduction zone (!!), is to better understand how the composition of ocean crust changes as it ages, and so what the differences are between the young seafloor subducting beneath the Cascades, and the very old crust going down beneath the Lesser Antilles, or the Mariana Islands in the Pacific.
In my courses at USF I use the ocean drilling research I’m doing directly in teaching our Geology students. My Junior-level Mineralogy/Petrology course has for the past six years examined unusual volcanic rocks from the Izu-Bonin subduction zone that I helped recover as a Shipboard Scientist on IODP Expedition 352. The students made some very cool discoveries about the minerals and textures in those samples, which led to a recent student-authored scientific paper in the journal American Mineralogist (Scholpp et al 2022). I hope to do something similar for my future students with Expedition 390-393 basaltic samples.
People come to geology a bunch of different ways, I’ve found. In my case it was a childhood interest in rocks and minerals, combined with a penchant for creative writing. Geology is at its core a storytelling science: we divine and tell the “stories” behind the places in the Earth that we examine. When I encountered the science fully for the first time, as a Freshman in my first undergraduate college course at Western Carolina University, it was a perfect fit. I’m looking forward to helping tell the story of how the south Atlantic Ocean crust formed and evolved as part of IODP Expedition 393.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. My name is Aaron Avery, and I am a geologist who specializes in calcareous nannofossil biostratigraphy. I spent 6 years working as a biostratigrapher in the oil and gas industry, often working offshore on oil drilling installations in the Gulf of Mexico. More importantly, I am a father of one beaming sunray of a 4-year-old girl named Jori. I love spending time showing her around the world and cultivating the same curiosity and wanderlust that has gripped me my entire life. I’m a nerd at heart who loves science fiction and fantasy, but that never stops me from enjoying a great day outdoors; fishing, going to the beach, and hiking are always on the table. My love for adventure led me to sail with an NSF funded science outfit known as the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). As I write this, I am currently sailing for the second time. With IODP, you get the experience of a lifetime through deep ocean drilling where you recover cores of sediments and basic rocks that are unique to the world. It is pure, unadulterated science for two months. I don’t have enough room here to talk about all of the reasons why sailing with IODP is amazing, so I’ll say this: it is the most incredible scientific experience of a lifetime where you will meet brilliant scientists, make connections, and try to answer some questions about the Earth’s mysteries. For anyone who has the stomach for being on a ship and away from home for two months, I highly recommend it.
What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? I’m a trained biostratigrapher who specializes in calcareous nannofossils, which are tiny marine algae that calcify shells around their cell(s). I got my MS in Geology from Florida State University and used my micropaleontology specialty to land a job with a consulting firm working as a biostratigrapher for oil companies. The company was based in New Orleans, LA, which was a lot of fun, but the rigor of having to go offshore to an oil platform on a day’s notice, missing holidays, and missing important milestones in my daughter’s life really wore on me. The solution was to move to Tampa, FL and start my PhD at the University of South Florida. I’m hoping to combine my knowledge of biostratigraphy and paleontology with a more advanced background in marine geology and paleobiology to study long term climate fluctuations and turn that into informative research for conservation purposes.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? My favorite part about being a scientist is always having an interesting question to try to answer. That is also the most difficult part of science for me. I have an incredibly hard time deciding which project should receive priority. I just want to study anything, take advantage of any opportunity that comes my way. I’m interested in climate science, broadly. My specific focuses are biostratigraphy, climatology, stable isotope geochemistry, evolution, conservation paleobiology, and marine geology.
My path into science included a lot of change of major forms. I began my college career as a biology major with the idea that I would go to vet school. After a year, I was lured into being an English major by my love for writing. From there, I thought I would follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a high school teacher, so I added an education major to my program. Just one semester passed, and I quickly realized this was not the path for me. In the meantime, I had been doing very well in Earth science elective courses and fell in love with Earth science. I switched my major to geography with a focus on environmental science and picked up a geology minor for good measure. That is where I found my true passion. I decided I would start applying for graduate school and pursue a masters in geology. After a year of rejections, I finally landed a spot at Florida State University where I would earn my MS in geology with a focus on micropaleontology.
How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? I mentioned above that I worked in the oil industry as a biostratigrapher. This contributes directly to the production of fossil fuels to keep society running. However, this was always a means to an end, and after a while I wanted my work to be more meaningful than whatever the current price of a barrel of oil happened to be. This led me to start a PhD at the University of South Florida and focus on conservation paleobiology: research that will help me (hopefully) directly inform policy makers and the public about the best practices for preserving our world. I also hope to be able to provide unique insight and perspectives on biologic change through time that will help us make impactful decisions that have real positive impacts on the environment.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming scientists? If you want to be a scientist, my best advice is to never stop asking questions, and never be afraid to be wrong. Cultivate a passion for learning and discussion that allows you to be open minded in all facets of your career. Understand that science isn’t always glorious and that sometimes you have to grind to get to the things/answers you are passionate about. It may sound cliché, but network in whatever way is comfortable for you and cultivate relationships as they will bring opportunities to your doorstep.
Never succumb to imposter syndrome—you deserve to be here as much as anyone, and you earned it! As I write this, I’m sailing for the second time with the Integrated Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and everyone, absolutely everyone, is brilliant. It was daunting the first time I sailed, but I learned on my first expedition that intelligence isn’t something to be afraid of, or to compare yourself to, it is a lifeline to a world of possibilities and learning. Everyone has something wonderful to offer, and you will too!
Earlier this year before the world went into lock down, I had the opportunity to participate in an early career researcher (ECR) workshop through the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). The workshop was focused on how to write a scientific drilling proposal with colleagues and friends.
The workshop was held at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades New York, just north of New York City. At Lamont, scientists and staff manage U.S. scientific support services for IODP, the major collaborative program which, among several other things, allows scientists to live and work at sea for two months drilling and studying sediment cores. The workshop was specifically for early career researchers, which is loosely defined as a researcher who has gained their Ph.D. but has not achieved tenure (that critical phase in a professor’s career where they receive a permanent residence at their college or university).
This workshop, which first ran a few years back, was conceived between Time Scavengers’ own Dr. Andrew Fraass and his close colleague, Dr. Chris Lowery. They, along with their colleagues, built the workshop and it has run every 2-3 years since its conception. What is so neat about the workshop is that it is also run and organized by other ECRs, with the help of more senior scientists.
The first day of the workshop focused on introducing the attendees to aspects of IODP. These included presentations on the past and future of scientific ocean drilling and the IODP proposal writing process. We also did participant introductions, where we stood up and had 1 minute to talk about ourselves, our research, etc. using only images on one slide. We, the participants, were also broken out into groups later in the day by themes we identified ourselves as (for example, I indicated I was in the Biosphere group because I work with fossil and am interested in evolutionary questions). From these breakout groups, we then identified 5 places in the Pacific Ocean we would like to target for drilling. Later that night, the workshop organizers held a networking reception for us at a nearby building on campus. The networking event was incredibly cool (they fed us dinner, and it was really great food) and useful (I had the opportunity to meet and speak with other ECRs who have similar interests as myself).
The second day of the workshop, we arrived and discussed how to obtain data for a drilling proposal. Just to give some insight into what goes into a drilling proposal, this is a 15+ page document in which scientists write out their hypotheses, where they want to drill on the seafloor, preliminary data that says something to support the hypotheses outlined, and what we call site survey data. Site surveys are when scientists take smaller ships out with an apparatus pulled behind the ship. These apparatuses use sonar to map the features of the bottom of the seafloor, but also the properties of the sediment below the seafloor. The changing densities of the different sediments appear as ‘reflectors’, allowing an MRI-like preliminary investigation of the sediments in which the scientists want to drill into. An entire presentation was dedicated to obtaining older site survey data. We also heard presentations about the different drill ships and drilling platforms implemented by IODP. The second part of the day was again spent working in groups. This time, however, we split ourselves into different groups depending on what area of the Pacific Ocean we were interested in working on. I put myself with the group interested in drilling the southeast Pacific, off the southern coast of New Zealand. Here, we began to come up with hypotheses for our proposals and begin to write those down.
The third and fourth days of the workshop included limited presentations, with more time dedicated to letting the groups work on their proposals. One of the main outcomes of the workshop is to have participants walk away with an idea of how to write a drilling proposal, but also to have the basic groundwork in place for a proposal with a group of people who share similar interests. So ample time was given for the participants to refine their hypotheses, find some preliminary data about their drilling locations from online databases, and build a presentation to present to the entire workshop. On the afternoon of the fourth day, the teams presented their ideas to everyone, including more senior scientists who have submitted drilling proposals in the past and have worked on panels to evaluate others’ drilling proposals.
All in all, this was a great workshop that really allowed for folks to learn more about the IODP program, where and how to find important resources, and how to begin writing these major drilling proposals. These events are particularly important for scientists from marginalized backgrounds and first-generation scientists. For me (a first-generation scientist), making connections with others is sometimes very difficult, as I have terrible imposter syndrome (when you feel like you don’t belong in a community and that you will be found out as an imposter) and am hyper aware that I was raised quite differently than most of my peers. Being in such a setting, with other scientists, forced to work together, is terrifying but also good because I had the opportunity to talk to and work with people I would not normally work with. For example, I had wonderful discussions with microbiologists and professors whose work focuses more on tectonics, people from two research areas which I hardly interacted with previously.
This summer a few members of the UMass Micropaleo Lab traveled to Texas for the first ever International Ocean Discovery Program-Past Antarctic Ice Sheet (IODP-PAIS) Antarctic School at Texas A&M University! This program allows scientists from all over the globe who research Antarctica to come together to study the marine sediment cores stored at the IODP Core Repository.
During our week at the repository, our mornings were filled with lectures and real-life activities led by geoscientists who have sailed on previous drilling cruises. We learned from them what shipboard life is like, how drill cores are taken, what problems can arise while drilling in Southern Ocean around Antarctica, and how to interpret the clues within the drill cores. To explore those clues, we were divided into mini-research teams and each given a core section from a prior expedition to analyze. Each afternoon we rotated among different core analysis stations: how to make and analyze microscopic smear slides, how to describe the macroscopic features of the core section, how to gather and interpret paleomagnetic and density data on the core sediment, how to scan core sections for key trace elements and improve your paleoenvironmental interpretations using element abundance data, and how to develop a timeframe for your core section (chronostratigraphy). Putting this all together, we were able to map a pattern of ice advance and retreat over where the drill core was taken. Since the core sections we were studying came from expeditions, we were able to double-check our data and interpretations against the published results and see how successful we were–my group was able to match the chronostratigraphy of the original study!
I was excited to learn so much and gain so many new friends at the Antarctic School, but my excitement was tempered by being the only woman of color in the program. I was ashamed to learn that an international program participant could not attend because they were not granted a U.S. visa in time: the American visa process is extremely biased, and as an international organization the IODP should use their agency to help all invited participants attend, regardless of their countries of origin. It is not enough to non-racist in today’s society–we must be actively anti-racist. I think international STEM research programs such as this one should hold spots specifically for students of color, students with disabilities, and other folks who are traditionally marginalized and underrepresented in STEM to attend. Programs like this are critical for early-career scientists to network with each other and the leading scientists in the field, and without holding doors open for marginalized students, how else will diversity in STEM increase?
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
I got interested in science because I loved nature videos as a kid. I specifically remember one about the Alvin exploring the deep ocean that I would watch over and over, and I thought that being a scientist must be the coolest thing in the world. After that, I had a series of passionate and supportive teachers and mentors that nourished my interest in science and equipped me with the tools I needed to pursue a career in it.
There are a lot of things I love about being a scientist, but I think my favorite is the opportunities science has given me to meet people from different backgrounds. I have a network of peers, collaborators and mentors all around the world and I have learned so much, both as a scientist and a human being, from all of them.
What do you do as a scientist?
I study glaciers and ice sheets, the huge masses of ice that exist today in Greenland and Antarctica. I’m interested in how they responded to climate change in the past, so that we can better predict how they will respond to climate change in the future. This is particularly important today, because the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating rate and causing sea level to rise along coastlines around the world. To do this, I run computer model simulations of earth’s climate and ice sheets and compare the results with geologic data. I use these comparisons to understand what caused past changes to the ice sheets (for example, atmospheric or oceanic warming) and make predictions of how much sea level rise occurred during past warm periods.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
My research helps us understand the stability of ice sheets as the climate warms, which is one way we can improve predictions of sea level rise in the coming decades.
What are your data, and where do they come from?
For my research, I work with a lot of continuous climate records derived from ice cores and marine cores, which has been a great way to learn about those archives and given me some amazing opportunities to get involved with fieldwork. If you want to read more about that, you can find information on my blog.
Another part of my work that I am passionate about is making science more equitable. In many ways throughout history, scientific discourse has been dominated by some voices at the expense of others. In the U.S. today this is exemplified by the over-representation of white men as professors, in leadership positions, and as award recipients. This hinders scientific progress and is harmful to our community. Science advances by testing new ideas and hypotheses, which is inefficient when not everyone is invited to the table to share their ideas. Unfortunately stereotypes, discrimination, and harmful working conditions (among other factors) have kept many brilliant people from pursuing scientific careers, and especially academic ones.
At UMass, I have been working with a group of graduate students to address this through BRIDGE. BRIDGE is a program that encourages departments to identify and invite Scholars from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM who are early in their careers to participate in an existing departmental lecture series. We also ensure that we provide the Scholar with a platform to share their personal experiences with obstacles and opportunities in entering and remaining in academia, so that current graduate students are better equipped to navigate that process. This is a small but meaningful way to make sure that all scientists feel like they have role models who have had experiences they can relate to, and we have found that many graduate students do really benefit from it.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
If you want to be a scientists then you should already start thinking of yourself as a scientist. The sooner you start experimenting with that identity and what it means to you, the better prepared you’ll be for actually doing science. I remember the first time I started meeting the “real scientists” whose papers I had obsessed over as an undergraduate. The idea of meeting these big names was overwhelming and intimidating and I doubted that I could ever occupy the same profession as them. Looking back at that almost ten years later, it’s clear to me that was a false distinction that only served to hold me back.
Being a scientist starts with being curious or interested in something and simply asking questions about it. How does it work? What happens if I do this? If you are asking those questions about anything, then you’re already thinking like a scientist, and you can do anything that a scientist can do. Some of those things that a scientist does are more exciting than others (doing experiments and taking measurements compared to writing grants, for example) but my advice would be to try all of it. Writing grants based on your own ideas is scary because there’s a potential for rejection, but it’s extremely important to try, and there’s no end to what you can learn through that process. It’s taken me a long time to understand that rejection of one of my ideas isn’t a rejection of my worth as a scientist; and conversely, when you apply for a grant or scholarship and you do get it, there’s an incredible feeling of validation and support.
So I would say get started as early as possible looking for opportunities to get rejected. Apply for everything you can. A lot of things won’t come through, and you have to learn to accept that. But other things will, and getting that recognition will not only be good for your self, it will pave the way for other opportunities and lead you to new research questions. And if you’re ever intimidated by an application, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have been there before – more often than not we are willing to support you through the process.
Back in January, I was in College Station, Texas on a trip related to the scientific ocean drilling expedition I was on last summer (see my previous posts about ship life and my responsibilities on the ship as a biostratigrapher). Part of the trip was dedicated to editing the scientific reports we wrote while sailing in the Tasman Sea, and the other part of the trip was spent taking samples from the sediment cores we drilled.
While we were sailing in the Tasman Sea, our expedition drilled a total of 6 sites: some in shallow waters in the northern part of the Tasman, and some in deeper waters towards the southern end of the sea. In total, we recovered 2506.4 meters of sediment (8223 feet, or 1.55 miles) in 410 cores.
The cores were first shipped to College Station, Texas from the port in Hobart, Tasmania. Eventually, they will all be stored at the core repository in Kochi, Japan. While they were in Texas, several of the scientists from the expedition met up to take samples from the cores for their own research into Earth’s climate in geologic time.
I requested samples from two of the six sites we drilled in the Tasman Sea. All of my samples are younger than about 18 million years old, in the period of geologic time called the Neogene. All in all, I requested about 800 sediment samples! Not all of these samples will be used for one project. Instead, they will be used in several different projects, such as to determine evolutionary events of planktic foraminifera in the Tasman Sea and investigate changes in sea surface temperatures during major climate change events of the past.
To begin sampling, students who work at the College Station core respository set up cores at each workstation. There were 6 workstations: one for each site that we drilled. A team of 3-4 scientists were assigned to each station to sample the cores. We had approximately 1 week to take ~14,000 samples! Luckily, I was able to sample one of the cores from which I requested samples from!
Every workstation had all the materials that we need to sample: gloves, paper towels, various tools (small and large spatulas, rubber hammers, and various sizes of plastic scoops). In addition, each station was also given a list of all the samples every researcher had requested for a specific site. This way, we could cross the samples off the list as we took and bagged them.
My team, which consisted of two other scientists that I sailed with, Yu-Hyeon and May, began sampling the youngest part of our assigned site. Because these sediments were located right at or below the seafloor, they were very soupy! As we moved through the cores (back into time), the sediments became less soupy, and eventually pretty hard. We never encountered sediments that were so hard we had to use a hammer and chisel to get out the samples, but other teams did.
After scooping/hammering out the samples, we then put the samples into a small plastic bag. These bags were then labeled with a sticker with information that includes what site the samples came from, the core from which is came from, the specific section in the core, and the two-centimeter interval in that section. This way, the scientists know exactly at what depth (meters below sea floor) the sample came from. It is crucial to know the depth at what each sample was taken, as depth will be later converted to age using various methods (for one using fossils as a proxy for age, see my post about biostratigraphy)
Because the sediments my team and I sampled in were so soft, and we had requested a lot of samples from the core we were working with, we were able to quickly take a lot of samples! I could only stay and sample for two days (I had to fly back to UMass to teach), but in that time, my team and I took so many samples, we broke a record! We currently hold the record for most sediment samples taken in one day at the Gulf Coast Repository in College Station!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
The best part of my job is my interactions with students. I feel very fortunate to have a group of masters and doctoral students working in the lab on various projects that focus of climate change, evolution and improving the geological time scale. Many of the students are international and have different research backgrounds, and thus I get to learn about different cultures as well as benefit from unique insights that they have to science. I also really enjoy how every day is different, and I get to look down the microscope at extraordinary fossil plankton from millions of years ago.
Science wasn’t my first choice – I originally applied to university to study English Literature, but my grades weren’t good enough! So this was a big turning point, but in retrospect I’m really glad that I couldn’t take that path. These days I spend much of my time reading and writing, so perhaps these worlds are not so far apart.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution and climate change?
I use microscopic marine plankton and their chemistry to determine how the oceans have changed over the last 50 million years. I’m particularly interested in how life responds to climatic change and what drives a species to extinction.
What are your proxies, and how do you obtain your data?
The microscopic fossils I work on are called planktonic foraminifera. These are about the size of a grain of sand. Their shells are made of calcium carbonate and over time the shells of dead foraminifera accumulate in marine sediments and yield a long fossil record, which we can use to gain information on oceans and climate of the past. I use cores obtained through the International Ocean Discovery Program. Core samples taken from the ocean floor can help form a picture of climate changes which took place millions of years ago. I use the foraminifera to examine changes in evolution and extinction rates and mechanisms in different time intervals, and use their chemistry, such as oxygen and carbon isotopes to reconstruct changes in marine temperatures, track glacial/interglacial cycles, and productivity through time.
What advice do you have for young, aspiring scientists?
Find your passion, focus on the aspects that you enjoy the most and have fun!
Last summer, I participated in a scientific ocean drilling expedition (check out my previous posts here and here). More simply, I spent two months on a ship in the Tasman Sea, recovering sediment cores from the seafloor. We drilled the newly-named continent of Zealandia to determine the geologic history of the now-submerged continent. I sailed with about 30 other scientists from different backgrounds, which means that we learned a ton from the cores we recovered and learned a lot from one another.
But all this new knowledge is useless if it isn’t written up and available to other scientists. So while we were on the ship, we wrote up our findings in documents we call ‘Site Chapters’. A site is what we call each new location where we drill. The scientific results from each site will eventually be published into chapters available online to the public.
While we were on the ship, the scientists had only a limited time to spend writing up their site chapter sections (every different group on the ship contributes a different section to the chapter; for example, as a paleontologist, I was only responsible for writing up the chapter section that deals with fossils). This writing time-crunch often leads to good, but not great, writing and figures. Thus, there comes a time after the expedition when some of the scientists that sailed together meet up for a week and thoroughly edit all the chapters.
At the end of January, the science party, including myself, met at Texas A & M University in College Station, TX. The university is home-base to the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), the program through which our expedition was organized and funded. Not all the scientists attend this ‘editorial party’, as only about 1 to 2 scientists from each group are needed. For example. there are two paleontologists (myself and another researcher from Italy) out of the original ten paleontologists that sailed working on the fossil-specific section for our site chapters. All in all, there was about 12 of us edition our chapters.
We spent 5 days in a room together, with access to all of our files and figures that we typed and created on the ship. In the room with us were 4 support staff, whose sole job it was to support us in any way they could. For example, they helped us edit figures, they gave us access to additional files that we needed, and they edited our chapters for grammar and spelling. The support team also formatted the chapters to a very specific style.
So why spend all this time on editing, drafting, and formatting a bunch of science-y stuff? There are several reasons! First, all IODP expeditions are paid for via taxpayer dollars, so the science that we do at sea and our major findings should be made available for public consumption. We anticipate that our chapters will be published online, available to everyone for free, in February 2019. Second, there is a diverse group of scientists that sail on the ship, and thus a diverse (and global) following of other scientists that are interested in what we did and what we found while at sea. Publishing our finding lets others interested in our science know what we collected, the age of the material, and if there is anything they could possibly work on in the future. The chapters also serve as a record and database (there will be an online database of findings as well) for others.
Editing is hard work, so it was important to take regular breaks and have some fun. Luckily, the weather was warm (or at least warmer than in Massachusetts) and sunny! Our lunches were catered everyday, and a few of us often went on walks around campus. Lucky for me, the limestone blocks that are used as walls around campus were filled with fossils, which provided me plenty of entertainment!
Adriane here, reporting once again from the beautiful Tasman Sea!
You may recall from my previous post that I am currently sailing the RV JOIDES Resolution (the JR), a research vessel equipped with a drill rig that is used for scientific ocean drilling. During these scientific expeditions aboard the JR, a team of about 30-35 scientists and several crew members (the JR can hold a maximum of 130 people) drill sediment from the seafloor. Everyone on the ship has a job to do, and in this post I’ll explain what my role is while sailing in the beautiful Tasman.
I am sailing as a planktic foraminifera biostratigrapher (click here to learn more about what that means, and here to read more about how we use fossils to tell time) or someone who uses fossils (‘bio’) to tell time from the rock record (‘stratigraphy’). Altogether, there are 9 paleontologists on the ship. Some of us are here to tell the other scientist what age the sediments are that we’re drilling into, and some are using fossils to interpret paleobathymetry, or the water depth of the Tasman Sea at different times in Earth’s history.
Every scientist’s role on the ship is vastly important, but the first thing everyone wants to know as sediment cores are being drilled and brought onto the ship is how old this sediment is. This is important for a few different reasons: 1. There are specific intervals in Earth’s history that we (the scientists on the ship) want to drill into; 2. With age, we can tell what was going on in the geologic past in the Tasman Sea and further interpret the plate tectonic movements and environments when the sediment was deposited, and 3. We can modify our drilling plan including changing out the drill bits, slowing down the drilling, or speeding up the drilling process to best capture key intervals in Earth’s history. Thus, being a biostratigrapher is initially a very important job, and one that can affect the drilling operations on the ship. That’s why there are four main fossil groups that we use to tell time: the calcareous nannofossils (which are REALLY tiny), the planktic (and in this case, the benthic) foraminifera, siliceous radiolarians, and pollen spores. All of the fossil groups are important to have, as there are intervals in the cores where one or two fossil groups may disappear, or there may only be planktic foraminifera in one sample, etc.
But enough about biostratigraphy, now to show and tell you the entire process we go through when we receive a core on the ship!
The first thing that happens when a core is pulled up onto the core deck is that an announcement is made, such as ‘Core on deck!’. I then put on a hard hat and safety glasses and grab a bowl to collect the core catcher sample (the end piece of the core that literally keeps the sediment in the pipe as the core is brought back to the surface). The core catcher sample is the very last 10 centimeters of the core that is given to the paleontologists to analyze for age. The technicians bring the core from the drill floor to the core deck, where the core is cut into sections. While the core is being cut, another technician is given the core catcher to disassemble, remove the sediment, and give to the paleontologist.
Once I have the sample, I take it back inside to process. If the sediment is very soft, I simply rinse it over a screen to remove small particles (refer to my previous ‘From Mud to Microfossils: Processing Samples’ post). But recently on the expedition, the sediment we are recovering has been very hard. In this case, the core catcher sample is cut into thin slices using a rock saw, then small pieces are shaved off of a slice using a sharp-edged tool. These smaller pieces are crushed with a mortar and pestle for a few minutes.
The sediment is then rinsed over two screens: a 2 millimeter (mm) screen to hold back the larger particles, and a 63 micrometer (μm) screen to catch the microfossils. The >2 mm rock pieces are then crushed again until there is enough particles in the 63 μm screen to analyze for planktic foraminifera. The sediment, which we call the residue at this point, is then put into filter paper on a stand to drain out the extra water. The filter paper and residue are then put onto a hot plate to dry (yes, there have been a few times when the paper has burned!).
After the residue is dry, it is put into a small plastic bag with a label indicating exactly where it came from within each core. At this point, the residue is ready for analysis! At my desk, I have a microscope, a small tray, very small paintbrushes for picking very small fossils, a jar of water, and green food dye. Because the microfossils that I look at are made of calcite, they are very bright under the lights in the microscope. Dying the fossils a green color cuts down on the reflectance of light off the foram’s shells, and enables me to see the details of the fossil necessary to identify it to the species level.
There are usually many different planktic foraminiferal species in each sample, but there are only a few that I usually look for that tell me about the age of the sediment. These are called ‘marker species’. The geologic time at which a marker species evolves or goes extinct has been calibrated by previous scientists before me over several decades, so when I find a species, or when a species suddenly disappears, I have a chart that I use to look up when that speciation or extinction event happened.
Once I have a datum (reference point of time) and an age estimate for the residue sample I’m looking at, I write this information on a big white board in the paleontology lab. All of the other scientists look at this board frequently to determine the age of the sediment that is being brought up.
Education and Outreach Aboard the JR
Every IODP expedition has an education outreach coordinator that sails with the crew and scientists. This person’s job is to blog, post photos on social media outlets (Facebook), and conduct ‘Ship to Shore’ linkups. These are scheduled events with colleges, university, and K-12 schools where the education outreach coordinator gives the viewers a live tour of the ship and the activities that are going on. Because every expedition is funded by public monies from several countries, it is our responsibility as scientists to engage with the public and tell you all what we’re doing and what we’re learning. I’ve participated in a few ship to shore linkups already, and have really enjoyed talking with students of all ages about fossils, what we’re finding in the Tasman Sea, and how we use the fossils to tell time!
If you are an educator and want to participate in a Ship to Shore video event, click here to sign up!
On July 28th, I will board the scientific drilling ship, R/V Joides Resolution, to spend 2 months in the Tasman Sea! This expedition, through the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) will recover sediment from the seafloor between Australia and New Zealand to learn more about the plate tectonics behaved in the geologic past and the climate and ocean history of the Tasman Sea. A group of scientists were chosen to participate on this expedition, all have a very specific job to do while at sea. My job is to look at the tiny fossils, planktic foraminifera (also called ‘forams’) recovered from the sediment, identify them, and tell everyone else how old the sediment is. This technique of using fossils to tell time is called biostratigraphy. Thus, I am sailing as one of four planktic foraminferal biostratigraphers on the ship.
Preparing for an expedition like this is no small task. In fact, it’s downright terrifying! I will be working for 2 months straight on 12 hour shifts, and will be around some of the best scientists of my time. I am certain I will learn a ton of new information, but it can be intimidating knowing you will, as a student, be working with such great scientists.
So, how does one prepare for an expedition of this magnitude? First and foremost, I am staying positive and reminding myself that this is a remarkable experience! Second, I have been reading scientific papers where the research focuses on microfossils from the Tasman Sea, and putting these important papers on an external hard drive to take with me on the ship. Third, my lab and I made a ‘Biostrat Book’, where I combined three different zonation schemes, or ways to tell time using planktic foraminifera, for use on the ship. This document also contains tons of pictures of important foram species that we use to estimate time.
But it turns out the best place to look at and learn different species of forams was right here, in the lab of my advisor! My advisor, Mark, has collected sediment samples from all over the world, and has amassed quite the collection of planktic forams. So as part of my training, I sorted all of our samples first by species, then by age. This collection will serve as references for me to practice identifying all the foram species!
And finally, the last way I’m preparing for this expedition is by relying on the support and positivity from my peers and lab mates, both previous and current members (I lovingly call them my paleo brothers and sisters). Several of my advisor’s former students have sailed aboard the Joides Resolution, so their advice and support has been invaluable to me!
Stay tuned for more updates from my time in Australia and aboard the Joides Resolution!