Category Archives: Scientific Research

‘Will research for beer’

I work with scientists every day. To be honest, there are times I wonder what motivates them on a particular project. Now I know.

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Chasing Ice to Jekyll Island

I took a little “blog-cation”: for a while. I was feeling down with a cold-turned-bronchitis for most of January, and didn’t really feel like doing too much.

Mrs. Poolman and I had a nice weekend. On Saturday evening, we drove down to Jekyll Island (about an hour and a half from our home) to attend the screening of an environmental film “Chasing Ice.”  It was very impressive! Several folks from work were involved in the program. Also we are considering sponsoring a screening here in Savannah later in the spring. I thought it would be a good idea to see it first. The organizers from the University of Georgia did a great job. They estimate more than 700 people showed up for the reception, film and panel discussion. I guess there isn’t much else going on in the “Golden Isles” on a Saturday night in February. The film itself was also very good. Here is a trailer.

A lovely trip to Sapelo Island

It’s been a busy two weeks. Now it’s time to catch up.

Earlier this month, I had an interesting day-trip. I had been asked to address a “master naturalist” class being held on Sapelo Island. Sapelo is a coastal island about 40 miles south of Savannah. I was out the door by 6:30 am, just to make absolutely sure I was on board the 8:30 am ferry to the island.

I got to the ferry just as the sun was coming up and the view was almost worth having to get up in the dark of the night.

A beautiful morning.

Marsh near the Sapelo ferry dock.

Nearly ready to go.

The passengers on the morning ferry ride.

Sapelo Island is an interesting place. Even with the ferry, access is restricted. You have to be invited to go there, either because you are visiting one of the residents, or you have some business on the island.  I have been there before when I visited the old Gulluh-Geechee community of Hog Hammock. The occasion at the time had been to accompany a professor-linguist who was working with the local residents to translate some old recordings that had been made on the island in the 1930s. This time, I was headed to the University of Georgia Marine Institute. It is located on the old RJ Reynolds (tobacco fortune) property.

I and some of the other speakers were picked up at the dock in one of the open-air trucks.  I’m glad it was a bright, sunny day, and not storming.

Sapelo Island's answer to mass transit.

I met up with Don Gardener, the extension service agent who invited me to the talk. My talk apparently was well received. I was scheduled for an hour on the agenda, which is about three times our normal civic club talk. But the group seemed to stay engaged, and there were lots of questions. That is good.

While waiting to depart for the 230 pm ferry trip, I got to talking with Dorset Hurley, the research director of the Sapelo Island National Esturine Research Reserve. He had a little time on his hands, so he offered to take me for a drive around the south end of the island. Nice guy. The tour included the historic light house.

Sapelo Island light house

He also gave me with a great rundown of the kind of salt marsh research they are doing there.

The entire ambience of Sapelo is very laid back. One good example of that is what I was told to do in the event my expected “ride” back to the ferry dock did not arrive in time.

“Just take one of these pick up trucks. Drive it to the dock and just leave the keys in the ignition.”

Clearly, auto theft is not a major problem when you are on a small island and there is no way to get the vehicle off.

In any case, my ride showed up in time and I was on the 230 ferry for the half-hour trip back to the mainland.

Back to the mainland.

All told, it was a very nice day. Back to work.

A fun ride!

One of the many things I really like about my job is that, from time to time, I get to do things fun or interesting. Research cruises or trips to isolated barrier islands are two examples. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go along on a cool helicopter ride.

The science purpose of the helicopter was to observe a study looking at water flow through a salt marsh. A concentrated die was dumped into the water and then the flow of the dye was observed and measured.

Releasing the concentrated red dye.

The helicopter was a Robinson R-22.  It is a fairly small four-seater with the doors all off.

The ride.

As I sat in the back-right seat and looked past my shoulder, there was nothing but air. We climbed to 3,000 feet to get a wide view

Skidaway Island at the bottom and Wassaw Island on the horizon.

You can really see how the dye moves through the marsh.

and then zoomed down across the marsh at around 100 feet.

Part of the science team in a small boat.

All told, the flight was only around 25 minutes, but it sure made my day.

Today, it just another day in the office. Oh well, real life returns.

A day on the water

I had a quick turn around and was out the door early Thursday morning for a one-day research cruise on our ocean-going research vessel. I had not been out on a cruise in about a year, so it was time to get some fresh pictures for my files. This particular cruise was for a group of students from a local university.

Safety briefing -- including the survival "gumby suit"

For many of the kids, this was their first experience. For a few, it was their first time on a boat.

"Abandon ship drill." Fortunately we did not have to go through with it.

We went off shore for about 90 minutes and then came in the Savannah River and worked our way all the way to downtown Savannah. The offshore part was a bit of an eye opener for some. We didn’t expect rough seas, but we got it. We were bouncing around like a cork in a hurricane.  I took a motion sickness pill, but was still just a little green. I was pretty happy when we made our way north to the Savannah ship channel and things calmed down quite a bit. I think one poor kid thought he was going do die, and was afraid he wouldn’t. A handful of the kids just went below and curled up in a bunk for a couple of hours. Can’t say I blame them.

Deploying a conductivity-temperature-depth, water collection array

Recovering a plankton net

It was a long day. We got a back well after dark. But aside from fighting the “Gee I just want to go to sleep” after-effects of the motion sickness pill, it was a very good day.

Just before we pulled back to the dock

It’s all in the words

One of the fun things I do at work is to try to translate science into something that can be understood by the general public. This is often an interesting challenge. At the level I am dealing, the general scientific concepts aren’t usually that difficult, but the language is.

For example, I got a call yesterday from our local congressman’s office. They wanted to produce a news release from their office on a new National Science Foundation grant we have received. They needed a brief, “plain English” project description and quote. The title of the project –

“Collaborative Research: Does competition for nitrogen between autotrophs and heterotrophs control carbon fluxes in the western coastal Arctic?”

Right off the bat, I was in trouble. The single-spaced one-page project summary wasn’t a lot better. The issue was, as usual, with the language. What are autotrophs and heterotrophs? Actually the answer, it turns out, is simple. Autotrophs are organisms that utilize photosynthesis, aka plants. Heterotrophs are organisms that do not, aka animals. Why is this so difficult?

Actually, after some consultation and interpretation with my boss, I found the project is actually fairly interesting. It stems from the warming climate; the resulting loss of sea ice and increased river flows; and their effect on the basic food web in the Arctic Ocean.Arctic icebreaker Here is what I came up with for the congressman’s office.

Description: A warming climate is causing significant changes to the Arctic ecosystem, including reduced sea ice and increased river discharge. This research will investigate the cycling of nitrogen and carbon among the different components of the food web in the Arctic Ocean and especially the role of bacteria in that process.

Quote: “We are most appreciative to the National Science Foundation for funding this significant research. A warming climate is causing significant changes in the Arctic marine environment, including reduced sea ice and increased terrestrial discharge from rivers of nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen. It is very important that we understand the way these changes will affect food web dynamics and, ultimately, the entire Arctic marine ecosystem.”

I run into the same issue when I attend one of our fairly frequent science seminars here on campus. These are informal scientist-to-scientist “brown-bag” presentations that essentially break down to “Here is what I am working on these days.” I usually try to attend in the hope I might actually glean some bit of useful knowledge. Too often, I don’t understand a work the presenter is saying after he gives his name. Although, I later discovered I would probably understand more of the science, if I understood the acronyms and technical “shorthand” they usually use when communicating with peers.

I was walking out of one such program one day and expressed my frustration to one of our faculty scientists, who happens to be a chemist. I felt better when he said, “Heck, you’re not alone. I have a PhD, but it is in chemistry. That guy was a biologist and I don’t think I understood any more than you did.”

It’s nice to not be alone.

Back to “booniestomping”

I was back out in the field again this morning taking more pictures of the same project that I was working on last week. This is a geology project. What they are trying to do is to “drill” out core samples of the marsh material to determine the depth of the earlier ice-age era marsh surface. Fun, huh?

This is what it looks like. (This was early in the day, so everyone is still fairly clean.)Vibracore 3

It’s called a Vibracore. That vertical pipe is 20 feet long and the device hooked to hit causes it to vibrate and slowly sink down into the marsh, collecting a core sample for later analysis.

I don’t mind going out and taking pictures. I was only out there for a couple of hours. I don’t envy the rest of the science crew who stayed out all day. It was hot, humid and buggy, and the labor was an awfully lot like work. As I indicated in an earlier post, the ground there is also about eight inches of sucking muck. I fell only once. I tried to take a step backward but the marsh muck wouldn’t let go of my foot. No damage. I was wearing a pair of rubberized overall-pants so my clothes actually stayed clean. One of the crew helped me up. (Placing your hands down to push yourself backup doesn’t work well. Your hands just sink to your elbows so you get no push-off. Also, your hands and arms are covered with the lovely, black, stinking muck, which is great when you have an expensive camera to operate. It’s always better if someone can give you a hand.)  I got to return the favor to the same crew member later. Nice to know I’m not the only klutz on he crew.

There was one cool thing I had never encountered before – snapping shrimp. (not my photo)Snapping ShrimpI didn’t see any, but I heard them. When you are quiet you can here them snapping. It’s a very audible popping sound all around you. Pretty neat.

Say “no” to the moon and Mars!

I was watching the news last night and I saw that President Obama took advantage of the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing to meet with the three Apollo 11 astronauts. They encouraged the President to endorse a program to send men to Mars. There are already preliminary plans to return to the moon by 2020, and now these guys, as well as others, want to keep going on to Mars. My reaction – “Are you out of your mind?”

Please understand, I grew up in the 1960’s and was fascinated by the space program. I remember sitting in class watching Alan Shepherd’s first launch on a small black and white TV. I followed the Mercury and Gemini programs religiously. When I was bored in school I would doodle pictures of astronauts on space walks in the margins of my notebooks.

Apollo 8 Dec 24, 1968

Apollo 8 Dec 24, 1968

I remember being moved at the Apollo 8 astronauts’ Christmas Eve 1968 telecast from lunar orbit where they read the Book of Genesis as the camera showed the Earth rising over the lunar horizon.

Apollo 11 Moonwalk

Apollo 11 Moonwalk

And I remember sitting with my family on the afternoon of Saturday, June 20, 1969, when we first heard Neil Armstrong’s dry, understated transmission, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”

I think space exploration is great, but it is a luxury, not a necessity. And it is simply a luxury we cannot afford. Space exploration costs enormous sums of money — tax money. It is money we don’t have. Didn’t we just borrow something like a trillion dollars from lenders like China and Saudi Arabia to bail out the Wall Street idiots who tried to send us into the next Great Depression? We have plenty of problems right here on Earth that will account for all our affordable and non-affordable tax dollars. These are issues that actually affect the lives of real human beings – health care, hunger, education, crumbling infrastructure, defense, and so on. Non-commercial space exploration has no tangible benefits except to those scientists, technicians and companies actually working on the projects.  It’s fun; it’s exciting; it’s inspiring;  but it is not necessary when we are borrowing to the hilt from other countries just to take care of the urgent needs.

I am not including commercial projects that pay their own way or defense projects that have their own justification in this. If it is necessary for defense or it is commercially funded, then go for it.

Compare it to a family budget. Expenses like defense and education are the national equivalent of buying the groceries and paying the rent. Space travel is like taking a vacation – fun, inspiring and exciting, but not necessary. It makes no sense for a family that is borrowing from their credit cards to pay for food and utilities to plan a European vacation. Likewise, it makes no sense for a nation that is up to its ears in debt and sinking deeper to spend massive amounts of money on space travel.

This may sound weird from someone who works in a scientific research laboratory. The issue is different. I’m not suggesting we shut down scientific research. That must continue. We simply do not know enough about any of the sciences to solve the current and future problems we do and will face. For better or worse, scientific research in this country is funded primarily by tax dollars. No matter how basic, or seemingly bizarre to the non scientist, most of that research will eventually have some affect on our world or the people in it – not so for extravagant space ventures.

We shouldn’t be planning an expensive European vacation until we can afford to pay for the utilities and groceries.

Hunting the doliolid and a leap of faith

Two of our scientists are taking our ocean-going research vessel, the R/V Savannah on a four day trip looking for the elusive doliolid (doe-lee-OH-lid).

R/V Savannah

R/V Savannah

“What is a doliolid?” you may ask, “and why do I care?” Good questions. These little critters are tiny, not quite microscopic, gelatinous (like jellyfish) organisms that look like little beer barrels.

Doliolid

Doliolid

They occasionally “swarm” on the continental shelf. The changing ocean environment, especially a falling pH, may create conditions ripe for these critters to proliferate. It would be nice to know what they eat, what eats them and how they fit into the whole oceanic food-web scheme of things. Right now we know very little.

Actually, I would love to go along on the trip, but I cannot justify four days at sea for about an hour’s worth of photography work. So I have turned over one of our institutional cameras to the marine tech and asked him to snap away.  In the past, I have not been very successful in getting useable photos from amateurs. (Not that I’m any great shakes, but I can get it in focus and properly exposed and framed frequently enough to get some serviceable photos.) Actually, our marine tech is a very sharp guy and so I am optimistic. I’ll let you know how it turns out.