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Some scientists have all the fun

by Angela Herring

Some sci­en­tists get to have all the fun. Last week my col­league Joan Lynch and I made the trip up to Nahant to visit with a team of marine researchers based at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center. They’d just returned from a month­long under­water research expe­di­tion led by Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the late great Jacques Yves Cousteau and they were clearly still reeling from the incred­ible experience.

Joan and I expected we’d meet with pro­fes­sors Brian Hel­muth and Mark Pat­terson, who were sci­ence advisers for Mis­sion 31, and with Liz Bentley Magee, the pro­gram coor­di­nator for Northeastern’s Three Seas Pro­gram, who par­tic­i­pated in the  mis­sion as an aqua­naut. Instead we got to hang out with those three, plus almost the entire rest of the team. This included three grad­uate stu­dents, two research tech­ni­cians, one admin­is­tra­tive assis­tant, and an embedded teen jour­nalist. Another grad stu­dent couldn’t make it because she had to go to Mau­ri­tius to carry out some more research (see what I mean?).

The group told us that they accom­plished a stag­gering amount of work while they were in Florida for the Mis­sion, which took place at Aquarius, the last remaining under­water research sta­tion. Two years’ worth in just two weeks, to be exact. But even more than data, Brian Hel­muth told us, was the quan­tity of fun they wracked up.

Each day the so-​​called “top­side” researchers would make about three dives down to Conch Reef, where Aquarius is based. They’d check on their existing exper­i­ments, set up new ones, take mea­sure­ments, and just gen­er­ally have a sci­ence field day. They accom­plished about 100 hours worth of work during the mis­sion but it was Liz’s sat­u­ra­tion diving that allowed the team to soar above even their highest data-​​collection expectations.

Sat­u­ra­tion means that Liz’s body had sat­u­rated with nitrogen. Under normal cir­cum­stances, this isn’t a good thing because it’s a long process to desat­u­rate and you can’t come back to the sur­face too quickly without get­ting sick with “the bends.” But since Liz and the other Mis­sion aqua­nauts had no imme­diate plans to sur­face, this wasn’t a problem. It meant that she was able to go on the longest dives of her life, to col­lect data throughout the day from exper­i­ments that would have oth­er­wise been infea­sible, and to simply sit and observe under­water life in a way she never had in her 10 years of diving. Once it was finally time to say goodbye to Aquarius, Liz and the other aqua­nauts spent almost an entire day slowly bringing their bodies back up to surface-​​level nitrogen con­cen­tra­tions before they finally swam back up.

During our inter­view, Joan and I got to listen to a group of people talk about their work in a way that I nor­mally only hear when people rem­i­nisce about an amazing vaca­tion or an epic rock con­cert. There was a ridicu­lous amount of laughter and glee as they recounted every­thing from Liz’s char­ac­ter­sitic under­water clap­ping to the way a trumpet fish living out­side the habitat aligned its long, thin body with a tripod set up for one of the exper­i­ments. They noted how “JYC,” a 200-​​pound grouper living out­side Aquarius who’s named for the elder Cousteau, would watch over the habitat, pro­tecting it from intruders.

Members of Mission 31 stand atop Aquarius, the last remaining underwater research habitat.Photo courtesy of Francis Choi.

Mem­bers of Mis­sion 31 stand atop Aquarius, the last remaining under­water research habitat.Photo cour­tesy of Francis Choi.

They laughed at the nitrogen-​​narcosis-​​induced sci­ence jokes that Liz recorded with her fellow aqua­naut Grace Young, but mar­veled at the advances that research at Aquarius can afford for urban coastal sus­tain­ability. The habitat, they told us, has become a fully-​​integrated part of the envi­ron­ment sit­ting within eye­sight of the shore. Nor­mally, researchers go to com­pletely pris­tine envi­ron­ments to learn how sys­tems func­tion on their own, but it’s becoming more and more impor­tant to study exactly how human impact fea­tures in those sys­tems. Conch Reef and Aquarius–which has become a fully inte­grated member of that reef–give researchers the ability to study how we can live with the envi­ron­ment, not sep­a­rate from it.

As Morgan Helmuth–Brian’s 13-​​year-​​old daughter who kept a blog from the top­side headquarters–said, sci­ence isn’t always a pris­tine lab with people sit­ting around looking through micro­scopes. “Sci­ence is a lifestyle,” she said, and the atti­tudes in the room clearly demon­strated that sen­ti­ment. These folks aren’t here for the perks–although there are many–of a life on the sea. They’re here because they love the data and what it could mean for the world, just as much as they love col­lecting it.

This story was originally posted by Northeastern’s iNSolution blog on July 25, 2014. 

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