View from the top: what does a principal scientist do?

by Brian King, Principal Scientist and physical oceanographer

Earlier in our cruise your Chief Blog Correspondent asked me to write something about the View From The Top, or in this case from the PSO’s cabin. By tradition, the leader of the expedition is known as the Principal Scientific Officer, or PSO. You won’t be surprised to hear that a research cruise like this takes years of planning. In our case, a group of scientists got together back in 2011 to discuss what measurements we might make that would help us learn about how the North Atlantic is changing as part of global climate change. We would need a big team to measure all the things that are important: my specialism is the physical properties: temperature tells us about global warming; salinity tells us about changing rainfall patterns. We would also need to measure biological and chemical properties: oxygen tells us about the activity of plants and animals that live in the ocean; the concentration of carbon dioxide tells us the extent to which the ocean is absorbing carbon dioxide from the burning of coal, oil and gas, and slowing the rate of increase of what is left in the air. A total of 5 universities and national laboratories were involved and at the end of a detailed description of the scientific questions and methods we would use to address them, was a short sentence saying “and if you give us 6 weeks on a ship to make some of these measurements, Brian will lead the expedition”. The process through initial ideas, writing a detailed funding application, scrutiny by leading scientists within and outside the UK and an eventual funding decision is very thorough, but by the middle of last year we had been told we would have 42 days of scientific time on the James Clark Ross.

Every year the ship operators gather all the scientists who will be ‘PSO’ on a cruise the following year, so I was duly summoned in 2013. Most of the meeting is about technical aspects of planning the cruises, but as an ‘old lag’ I was invited to say a few words to first-timers. I told them that when they arrive at the ship and walk up the gangway as PSO, they should be thrilled and terrified in equal proportions. If they’re not thrilled then they haven’t grasped what an extraordinary privilege it is to be given a chance to lead a research expedition. If they’re not terrified, at least for a moment, then they haven’t grasped the magnitude of their responsibility to make it a success.

On the last day of this trip I will have spent precisely 2 years at sea on research ships, spread over more than 20 expeditions. Quite a big chunk of my 30 years of working life. More than half of that has been as leader or co-leader, but I still get butterflies in my stomach as I walk up the gangway to join a new cruise. For the next 6 weeks 50 people are going to be working to a common goal, and I need to tell them what that goal is and how to achieve it. Thrilled and terrified. But as soon as we get to work unpacking our equipment I know that we’re very thoroughly prepared and the terrified moment passes. Just the thrill remains.

So what does the PSO have to do ? First and foremost I must know the scientific objectives of the trip and how the detailed day-to-day activities will enable us to meet them. Of course we know in general terms that we’re going to travel from Canada to the UK via Greenland and Iceland, and collect water samples along the way. But on a rolling program of a few days at a time I must specify exactly where the ship will go, where it will stop and what water samples we will collect. We have a plan before we set off, but this plan needs to evolve in response to the weather, the speed we travel at, any other holdups, and sometimes in response to what we are observing. In making these decisions I am greatly assisted by two others on board: The Captain, Graham, keeps a careful eye on the evolving weather and advises me when it is likely to deteriorate, and how that will impact on our progress. Bad weather may slow us down, or prevent us using our CTD equipment when we reach a certain place. Early in the trip he would obtain charts of ice coverage around Greenland and interpret them for us. It is imperative that the Captain understands what we’re trying to achieve, and several times we altered our plan in response to his advice. My other close advisor is your chief correspondent Penny, another experienced oceanographer and co-leader of the expedition. I don’t make any major decisions without talking it through with her first, in case there are things I have overlooked. If we make a mistake, we can’t go back and do it again next week. We have just once chance, and we must get it right.

Throughout the trip I have been keeping a careful eye on rate of progress, number of measurements made, distance covered, distance remaining. First and foremost it is my job to ensure we complete everything we are supposed to before the end of the trip. If we have holdups we may need to leave some things out in order to make up time. I must know what can be left out with least impact on the final outcome. I must know how long the remaining work will take, and leave contingency time in case we have bad weather in the final few days.

Next in the PSO’s list of tasks is to ensure that all the measurement teams are running smoothly and getting samples to feed into their analytical equipment. We capture water samples in 10-litre bottles, and every time we bring a bottle back on deck there is a queue of analysts waiting to take some of it for analysis. If every analyst tried to analyse a single sample there wouldn’t be enough to go round, because some of them need several litres for their analysis. So we need a plan that says ‘These measurements from the first bottle, these measurements from the second’, and so on. The analysts on this trip are a fantastic bunch. Friendly, good-humoured, working around one another in a confined space. There’s a strict pecking order for collecting their samples. People measuring dissolved gasses like CFCs and oxygen go first, before water from great depths can become contaminated by gasses in the air. Samples for salinity and nutrients go later, because there’s less risk of contamination. Last in line are biological samples which will be filtered to see what particles are found in the water. Sometimes there just isn’t enough water for everyone’s analysis, so we stay on one site for an extended period, and repeat the water-capturing until we have enough. But that takes time and must be allowed for…

The PSO has a number of housekeeping tasks to take care of. I am the main point of contact between the ship and the scientific party so I have to answer questions that can range from ‘how many people will you have working night shifts and what time of night will they require meals’ through to ‘can you tell us what chemicals you will be offloading when we reach the UK that will require specialist transport and documentation’. The first question I can take care of myself. The second I rapidly delegate to one of our nutrient analysts who has the expertise to answer it correctly.

When I’m not being PSO then I take my place as an ordinary member of the physics team: processing data on our computers, analysing water samples to determine salinity, helping deploy or recover equipment. Six weeks ago there were a lot of things in the physics program that Penny and I were the only people on board who knew how to do. Now we have the tasks distributed around a group of six. I find the chance to pass on knowledge and experience to be profoundly satisfying. To know that in the future things can be done because I helped someone learn how to do them. Just as I learned by going on cruises with scientists from the generation before me. You cannot learn how to be a good field scientist from a book or in a classroom. There is only one way to learn: go on fieldwork and see how its done.

So yesterday was the last day we stopped to collect water samples. But we are still working today: plenty of samples to feed the unending appetite of the analytical equipment. Now we have a couple of days steaming to get to our final destination on the east coast of the UK. The first 24 hours will be a spectacular transit up through the isles off the west coast of Scotland. It will be hard to look away from the scenery to write those final reports. Photographs of Mull or Skye are more likely if the weather is kind to us.

So. Thrilled and Terrified ? Now I’m just elated and exhausted. We’ve done everything we set out to do. Fantastic achievement by all the scientific party. Wonderfully supported by the ship’s personnel. For us it’s the pinnacle of three or four years planning, and for them it’s just another cruise. But they are patient, attentive, careful with our equipment, responsive to our requests. A truly great privilege to lead a group like this working so willingly towards common goals. No two trips are ever the same. The most recent one is always the best ever team and the best achievement. Until the next one.

And in case you were wondering what the view from the top is like, I do get a very nice cabin, with a separate office or ‘day room’, a couple of armchairs, and my own fridge. And yes it is very high up in the ship.

Images: First one is Brian and Stefan (by Felicity Williams), the rest are by Penny Holliday.

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One thought on “View from the top: what does a principal scientist do?

  1. We have certainly enjoyed the daily comments and pictures from all. Kudos on a good cruise and good science by excellent students. The JCR Crew makes cruising the oceans look easy!

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