The Technicians Behind the Time-Series

BIOS research technicians Zachary Anderson, Paloma Lopez, and Quinn Montgomery (left to right) have made contributions to the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) since they joined the team in the last few months.

For more than a quarter century, the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) has been making physical, biological, and chemical oceanographic measurements in the open ocean off Bermuda. Once or twice each month, researchers and technicians board the research vessel Atlantic Explorer and head 50 miles (82 kilometers) southeast of Bermuda to an area in the Sargasso Sea, where they collect valuable data on water column properties (including temperature, dissolved oxygen, and salinity) as well as bacterial production, zooplankton distribution, and abundance. Their data also shed light on the transport and cycling of organic carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen.

Over nearly three decades, these data points have accumulated into the world’s longest-running open ocean time-series, offering BIOS scientists—and researchers from around the world—an unparalleled source of information for oceanographic studies and climate change models. As a result, BATS has been integral in dozens of investigations on a variety of topics, from the ocean’s response to variations in the atmosphere to the role the ocean plays in the global carbon cycle.

During this time, BATS has also provided numerous young scientists with the opportunity to participate in an established research project, while also gaining experience in the laboratory and at sea. For these early-career scientists, BATS acts as a stepping-stone to independent research, publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and long-term employment opportunities.

In the last few months BATS has welcomed three such individuals to its team, all serving as research technicians for the project: Zachary Anderson, Paloma Lopez, and Quinn Montgomery. While their job titles are the same, the different role each technician plays in the project helps shed light on the human dimension of a decades-long scientific endeavor.

What is your background and how did you end up at BIOS?

Anderson: I have an undergraduate degree in environmental and geologic science from the University of Bristol in England and this past September I completed my master’s in oceanography at the University of Southampton in England. One of my tutors knew Rod Johnson (BIOS assistant scientist and co-principal investigator of BATS) and told me about a job opportunity with BATS. The smile on my face grew as I read through the job description; it was exactly what I wanted to do.

Lopez: I have an undergraduate degree in general biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz and a master’s degree in water sciences from the Centro de Investigacion Cientifica de Yucatan in Mexico. I first heard about BIOS while reading an article in the journal EOS, written by Nicholas Bates (BIOS senior scientist and co-principal investigator of BATS) and Rebecca Garley (research specialist in the BIOS biogeochemistry lab). After reading the article I searched for the BIOS website and found the BATS job opening listed on there.

Montgomery: I graduated this past May with an undergraduate degree in marine science, with an emphasis in biology, from the University of California at San Diego. I presented at the 2016 Ocean Sciences conference in New Orleans where I met Julia Matheson (a former BATS research technician), who suggested that I apply for a spot in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at BIOS so I could work with her in the BATS lab. She also encouraged me to speak with Rod (Johnson) about taking over her position once I’d gained the relevant experience.

What are your responsibilities with BATS?

Anderson: I process all of the CTD data, as well as some of the data that we collect while the ship is underway. [The CTD is a set of instruments, along with collection bottles arranged in a rosette, that is lowered into the water to measure the conductivity—or salinity—temperature, and pressure of the water column.]  At the moment, I’m also going out on all of the BATS cruises.

Lopez: I’m primarily responsible for analyzing samples, many of which I’m involved in collecting during monthly cruises. Specifically, I conduct carbon and nitrogen analyses of seawater samples and sinking particles collected by the sediment traps. These analyses help us understand the flux of particulate carbon and nitrogen within the ocean's biogeochemical cycles. I also assist with the dissolved oxygen analysis and the measurement of bacterial production rates.

Montgomery: I run the HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) machine, which we use to separate, identify, and quantify the various pigments in phytoplankton. I also measure primary production in water samples using a radioactive isotope, called carbon 14 (or 14C), to tag and trace the uptake of dissolved carbon by planktonic algae in the water column. Occasionally I’ll be asked to help Paloma (Lopez) process samples from the sediment traps.

What is your typical day like when you’re at sea aboard the Atlantic Explorer?

Anderson: A typical day involves sampling water for various analyses from the Niskin bottles when the CTD rosette is back on deck, filtering samples, deploying various pieces of equipment like plankton tow nets and sediment traps. Every day is different, so there is no set routine other than breakfast at 7:30 a.m., lunch at 11:30 a.m., and dinner at 5:30 p.m..

Lopez: Each day is different on BATS cruises, but our main activities are taking water samples from the rosette sampler, deploying or recovering instruments or experiments from the back deck, monitoring CTD casts to different depths, running primary production and bacterial activity experiments, and filtering a lot of water to measure different parameters.

Montgomery: I've been working the night shift on cruises lately so usually I wake up at 5 p.m. to eat dinner, then start my shift at 8 p.m.. What we're doing varies a lot day to day, but almost everything we do is accompanied by a CTD cast. So mostly we deploy the CTD, monitor it as it goes down, and open and close bottles on the way up to collect samples from various depths. Depending on the day we might also be deploying primary productions arrays, sediment traps, bacteria pumps, plankton tows, or anything else that a visiting scientist brings along. After my shift ends at 8 a.m., I grab some breakfast then sleep.

Rumor has it the food on the Atlantic Explorer is amazing. What’s been your favorite meal so far?

Anderson: Bea (the ship’s relief second cook Beatrice Wicker) consistently makes amazing snacks and desserts. The latest was some form of raw chocolate tart. That was pretty special.

Lopez: We had an amazing sushi dinner one night after being out at sea for almost two weeks!

Montgomery: When the conditions are bad and the boat is rocking a lot, the cooks serve up grilled cheese and tomato soup. This is one of my favorite meals and it really helps to cure seasickness.