For BIOS Scientists and Staff, an Unprecedented Challenge

Since March, many BIOS staff and faculty have been working from home offices, processing COVID-19 samples, making masks for the community, and volunteering their medical and scientific expertise, including (clockwise from upper left) BIOS accommodation and catering manager Jane Burrows, biogeochemical oceanographer Damian Grundle, BIOS dive safety officer Alex “Dready” Hunter, microbiologist Rachel Parsons, and research specialist Tim Noyes.

The global health emergency has deferred or shut down many areas of marine science research since March, including at BIOS, forcing scientists and staff to change how and where they work—all while in the midst of uncertainty regarding how their research and teaching will continue.

The challenges have caused scientists to pivot their focus to other areas of their work, often in creative ways to accommodate social distancing and travel restrictions. And for some BIOS staff, the pandemic has lead to generous donations of time and talents (including sewing more than 700 masks).

For biogeochemical oceanographer Damian Grundle and other BIOS faculty, being homebound means continuing to accomplish key tasks, like writing research papers and advancing work-related computer skills. This spring he revised one paper that was submitted for publication with colleague Qixing Ji, and is in the process of co-authoring two others, one with Brett Jameson (a Ph.D. student he co-mentors at the University of Victoria in Canada) and another with former intern Annaliese Meyer, also from the University of Victoria.

“In addition, I’m finally able to work up some nitrous oxide production data from the eastern tropical South Pacific that I’ve been sitting on for some time now,” he said. He added that for years he has wanted to learn MatLab, a programming platform for scientists and engineers. “I have now found the time to take a couple of online courses,” he said.

The shutdown upended field research for zooplankton ecologist Amy Maas. Her month-long research cruise in the Atlantic, planned for this spring as part of a multi-year plankton research project called EXPORTS (for EXport Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing), was canceled. Maas studies plankton, organisms that play a critical role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and in the ocean’s carbon cycle. Instead of heading to sea, she and her colleagues have spent weeks during the shutdown conducting “major synthesis and analysis” of data they collected in the Pacific last summer.

She added that she has also been doing “lots of paper writing, submitting, and revising.” She is also on a committee for a Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida scheduled to defend his research this June. “So we are pushing like mad to help him finalize his papers and get things in order for a remote dissertation defense,” she said.

In early May, BIOS research specialist Tim Noyes, who is studying for a Ph.D. at the University of Salford in the U.K., received an academic grant from Teledyne Marine in the U.S. The grant gives recipients use of Teledyne’s flagship scientific equipment for up to a six-month period to support research programs. Noyes is hopeful that the Bermuda-based study focused on water currents between deeper-reef coral ecosystems with low-light (known as mesophotic reefs) and adjacent shallow water reefs will start in late June. He said the research will give greater insight into the ecosystem connectivity between shallow and mesophotic reefs, specifically how the larvae of reef-dwelling marine life are transported between these systems.

BIOS oceanographer Eric Hochberg said that in addition to publishing ongoing research and developing new proposals, he has pursued activities with the Alliance for Coastal Technology (ACT) related to hyperspectral remote sensing of the coastal zone. He has been working with colleagues in the U.S. and internationally to explore and compare the various technical approaches to analyzing and interpreting remote sensing data, such as identifying harmful algal blooms or to map coral reef communities.

Future plans for ACT have been impacted by the pandemic, Hochberg said. In response, “we have reshaped the program to accommodate the current limitations on travel, leaving open the possibility for a field-based technology demonstration in late summer 2021,” he said.

Others at BIOS are contributing their medical expertise and sewing talents in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

From the lockdown’s start on island in mid-March until more masks arrived in early May, BIOS accommodation and catering manager Jane Burrows has sewn more than 700 masks. To keep up with the demand, she borrowed an extra sewing machine and enlisted the help of her family.

Mask recipients have included BIOS microbial ecologist Rachel Parsons, who since March has been working to process COVID-19 test samples at Helix Bermuda, the first lab to begin such work on the island. Masks have also gone to individuals in BIOS’s finance department, who are among the few staff that have continued to work from campus.

Burrows said she sews masks in batches by color, completing about eight per hour.
“I made 70 masks for the Regis Hotel construction site in St. George’s, for grocery and drug store workers, a plumbing company, and I found some camouflage fabric in my stash, so I made some for the Bermuda Regiment,” she said. “I passed them out to the soldiers as we went through checkpoints.”

Alex “Dready” Hunter is the BIOS dive safety officer and small boats manager, as well as a trained emergency medical technician. “I heard an appeal on one of the nightly press conferences for help with medical coverage,” at Cedarbridge Academy (a school converted into a shelter for vulnerable people), he said. He volunteered with former BIOS employee JP Skinner and said their work primarily involved caring for minor complaints, handing out prescription medications, keeping records, liaising with St. John’s Ambulance and Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute over issues on the evening medical personnel handover, and “being an extra set of ears to listen.”

“I would like to emphasize that compared to the huge efforts and extremely long hours (12 to 14 hour shifts) put in by the Child and Family Services crew, St. John’s Ambulance, and the security guards, our contribution was quite minor,” he said.