A Powerhouse in the Lab and at Sea
About every 18 months since 2010, Becky Garley, 34, has packed a bag for 5 to 7 weeks of shipboard living in the Arctic or Southern Ocean. As a research specialist at BIOS she works with faculty member and marine chemist Nick Bates to collect and analyze water samples for their work on the ocean carbon cycle. They look specifically at dissolved inorganic carbon and total alkalinity (important to measure the ocean’s ability to neutralize acidic pollution). Their work informs broader, global research into the ocean carbon system and the effects of climate change on the ocean.
Her work with Bates helps scientists develop a more nuanced picture of what is happening in the ocean at different times of the year. When she’s not at sea, she runs samples and processes data from the Marine Biogeochemistry Lab at BIOS and occasionally sails on the BIOS-operated research vessel Atlantic Explorer, using the shipboard system to measure carbon dioxide in the surface seawater.
How did you arrive in this line of work?
I grew up in southwest Britain, near Bristol. My parents have careers in science and medicine, so science was on my radar. My undergraduate degree was in ocean and earth science at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. After graduation I took two years off for a backpacking trip, followed by a year-long master’s program at the University of Southampton in ocean and carbon chemistry. I had read Nick Bates’ papers for my graduate work, so I wrote to him to see if I could volunteer in his lab in Bermuda, knowing that I would be working with an iconic researcher in the field. He agreed to host me for an internship—I think he appreciated that I used the same lab equipment in Southampton as he did in Bermuda—and I arrived in January 2010. I was supposed to stay for three months. I’m still here, nine years later.
How do you spend your days at sea?
I work a 12-hour shift; I’m quite good at not minding lost sleep. Since we measure dissolved inorganic carbon and alkalinity we have two systems on board and we try to run the samples within 12 hours of sampling. We also use an instrument that we lower and raise to various depths from the side of the ship called a CTD [which stands for conductivity, temperature, and depth] to gather information about salinity, temperature, and depth of the water and the organisms we’ve collected. We use the Niskin bottles attached to the CTD rosette to collect water samples.
Where have you traveled for your work at sea?
I have done three cruises in the Arctic and two in the Southern Ocean, some of which are research programs that build upon each other. For the Arctic work, I sailed on a U.S. Coast Guard ship out of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands and into Seward, Alaska. I was also on a Russian vessel that operated in and out of Nome, Alaska. In 2011 I was in the Southern Ocean running from Chile to South Africa. In 2012 we sailed from South Africa to Australia to gather plankton from that area of the Southern Ocean. I have two more cruises in the Southern Ocean in 2020 and 2021. We will sail out of South Africa looking at plankton and ocean eddies. I’ve also helped researchers out of Southampton with one of their 50-day cruises from Newfoundland to the U.K..
How did you become interested in ocean research?
When I applied for university I looked at every course available. I knew I wanted to do something “environmental” and related to the sciences, but I didn’t know what. I took classes in geology and oceanography and ended up focusing on oceanography for my master’s degree. Before graduate school I remember browsing through the research topics at Southampton and I saw a topic with an advisor who worked on ocean acidification. I remember thinking ‘oh, that’s probably going to be big’ and I ended up working with him. We did a plankton monitoring and collection project on a ferry that went from Portsmouth, England to Bilbao in northern Spain, and that formed the foundation of my background prior to working at BIOS.
Any particularly memorable cruises?
I enjoy being in the Arctic, out on the ice, and especially working on U.S. vessels. On the Russian ship I ended up eating a lot of salami and cheese because I’d work all night and that was all they would have in the fridge the next morning. I like the American Coast Guard ship because they had a helicopter hanger, a basketball net, and ping-pong tables for tournaments. Every Sunday was a barbeque. I tried to get a darts tournament going on the British ship, but they were a tough crowd.
Coolest things you have seen while sailing on a polar research vessel?
Polar bears. Whales. Icebergs. A group of 30 or 40 walruses on an ice floe. One time we saw a polar bear eating a seal. On the 50-day cruise we saw only one wild animal—a snowy owl. That was a bit of a surprise.
How do you prepare to be at sea for weeks at a time?
I take my own coffee and vitamin tablets. I don’t get sea sick on the bigger ships, fortunately, because they are steadier.
When is your next research cruise?
I’ll be sampling in the Southern Ocean in early 2020 as part of a team that will identify, track, and study eddies across the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean. This is an area that supports rich populations of either coccolithophores (which have been found to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in regions near Antarctica) or diatoms (a common phytoplankton group in the Southern Ocean that acts as a carbon dioxide sink, or reservoir, during photosynthesis), plus their associated microbial communities.