“Scientific Frenzy” Aboard the Ronald H. Brown

Author: Katelyn Schockman

Imagine packing up your entire workspace and relocating … to a boat. This will be your “office” for the next 36 days; talk about some remarkable views.

Essentially, this is what we scientists on board the R/V Ronald H. Brown have done.  While the lab procedures we run on the Brown are similar to our home labs, collecting quality data on a ship requires extensive preparation and a few adjustments to normal lab routines. Months before we set sail, my lab mates and I began assembling our packing lists. Lists upon lists. The impending month at sea meant we couldn’t forget anything. There’s no Home Depot in the middle of the Gulf, so if we forgot a part, we’d be out of luck. Additionally, we had to consider all the issues that could arise at sea and bring extra supplies just in case. 28 boxes of Kimwipes, 15 boxes of gloves, 80 spectrophotometric cells, extra power cords, computers, water baths, and the list goes on. Even with all the planning, there’s bound to be something forgotten. That’s when you get creative.

There are many simple tasks performed on land that cannot be done onboard. Everything must be pre-weighed because scales do not function correctly at sea, due to the constant movement. There’s also no tap for purified water; it must be made onboard with a machine. And most importantly, everything must be tied down. I mean everything. Each piece of lab equipment is either tied to a table or stored in a drawer. The ship is constantly rocking from the waves and swells, and the last thing we want is our precious equipment falling and breaking.

Equipment Tied Down copy
Spectrophotometers, computers, and water baths all tied down at the pH and carbonate lab station.

Lots of time and energy is put into preparations, but once at sea the real science can begin. Sampling is done around the clock, as CTD and net tows are cast 24/7, from 100+ stations. There is no such thing as a “typical” 9-5 day here on the Ronald Brown. Everyday activities revolve around variable sampling times. We plan all of our meals, sleep, and exercise based on when the CTD will be ready to be sampled. Each lab station is manned at all hours, and shifts are typically noon to midnight and midnight to noon.  I’m on the night shift and it undoubtedly took me a few days to adjust to working such unorthodox hours.

The lab spaces are very open on the ship, with several groups in each lab area. This gives the lab a community feeling. Everyone is running samples simultaneously, so we can compare our results in real time and get a comprehensive picture of the chemistry through the water column at each station. In the main lab, for example, we have groups running ocean optic parameters, pH and carbonate ion concentrations, dissolved oxygen, and nutrient concentrations. The ship has a unique sense of camaraderie, as the crew and scientists are working and living in such close quarters. Each individual is a piece of the puzzle, and we need everyone to make the cruise a success.


Scientists in Main Lab copy
Scientists in the main lab running samples during the night shift. Leah Chomiak, far left, dissolved oxygen concentrations. Ian Smith, middle left, nutrient concentrations Ellie Hudson-Heck, middle right, pH. Katelyn Schockman, far right, carbonate ion concentrations.

While all of this science may sound exhausting, I can promise you that working on a ship is especially enjoyable as well. We partake in bingo and game nights, there are endless movies to watch, a library full of books, an exercise room, and the option of watching waves and searching for sea life right outside. Not to mention the plethora of shooting stars every night and spectacular sunrises and sunsets. Living on a ship is something not everyone gets to experience, and I’m thankful to be one of the lucky few aboard the Ronald H. Brown that does.

Sunset copy
One of the many beautiful sunset views from the ship. Photo Credit: Leah Chomiak.

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