Making Waves on the High Seas

R/V Atlantic Explorer

Marine technicians are an integral part of the crew aboard the R/V Atlantic Explorer, acting as liaisons between the ship’s crew and the science party on board, and operating and maintaining the science equipment that is crucial in carrying out the various scientific missions. This summer, BIOS welcomed two new marine technicians to its Ship Operations Department: Ella Cedarholm (right) and Lydia Sgouros.

In early August, BIOS welcomed two new members to its Ship Operations Department—Ella Cedarholm and Lydia Sgouros—both marine technicians aboard the Institute’s 170-foot (52 meter) research vessel (R/V) Atlantic Explorer.

During any given year, the Atlantic Explorer spends at least a third of its time at sea. Last year, in 2019, the ship clocked 186 days at sea, supporting researchers from BIOS and abroad as they conducted work on 11 scientific investigations, including three long-term oceanographic time-series studies (Hydrostation ‘S,’ the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study, and the Oceanic Flux Program), as well as the multi-institutional collaborative research program BIOS-SCOPE.

The success of this time at sea, which involves 12-hour days, working in inclement weather, and dealing with equipment issues or unanticipated changes in schedule, depends on the hard work of a dedicated team of individuals that includes the scientific research team (the science party), the ship’s captain and crew, and marine technicians.

“The role the marine technicians play is absolutely essential to the success of each and every science cruise we carry out,” said Quentin Lewis, marine superintendent for the Atlantic Explorer. “Their two primary duties are to act as a liaison between the ship’s crew and the science party on board, and to operate and maintain the ship-provided science equipment. Simply put, without them, we cannot carry out our science mission.”

As the newest members of the BIOS team, we wanted to take a moment to get to know Sgouros and Cedarholm, and learn more about their backgrounds and what brought them to Bermuda.

Where did you attend school and what was your major?
Cedarholm: I graduated from the University of New Hampshire (U.S.) with a degree in earth science (concentration in oceanography) and a minor in applied mathematics.

Sgouros: I studied mechanical engineering at Case Western Reserve University (Ohio, U.S.).

Where did you work prior to coming to BIOS?
Cedarholm: I’ve worked both scientific and technical jobs prior to coming to BIOS. Most recently, I worked for a year as an assistant scientist with the Sea Education Association. Their Brigantine tall ships are designated “sailing school vessels” and are fully equipped with much of the same oceanographic research technology as ships in the UNOLS fleet [of which the Atlantic Explorer is a part]. My job was quite similar to my role here at BIOS, with the addition of teaching science and sail handling. Before that, as a student at UNH, I worked for three years as a laboratory technician in the Ocean Process Analysis Laboratory analyzing seawater samples for carbonate chemistry researchers. It was in this position on our regular sampling cruises out to Jeffrey’s Ledge in the Gulf of Maine that I had my first introduction to oceanographic research vessels. I have also had a few internships, including a summer student fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (U.S.) in the physical oceanography department and a marine tech internship aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong with the Marine Advanced Technical Education (MATE) program.

Sgouros: During college, I worked as a technician and teaching assistant in my school’s machine shop. I also had a variety of engineering internships at a machine building company, two U.S. Naval Research Labs, a NASA Acoustics Lab, and finally as a marine tech trainee aboard the R/V Endeavor through the MATE program.

When did you become interested in pursuing a career as a marine science technician?
Cedarholm: It actually wasn’t until just a few years ago that I discovered the marine technician field existed, but when I did, it was a big “ah-ha” moment for me. I was looking for several things in a career: I wanted a job that was hands-on, let me spend time outside (particularly on the ocean, as I am a lifelong sailor), work closely on a team with other people, and one that challenged my brain in math and science. For most of college I thought the answer was to be a sea-going scientist, but in seeking cruise opportunities I was exposed to the marine technician role. It was clear that this was a great way to maximize my time on research vessels, and it offered an opportunity to develop my technical skillset, so I’ve been pursuing it ever since.

Sgouros: Since I was in the fourth grade I’ve been hearing stories about research vessels from my mother, who is a marine biologist at the University of Rhode Island and goes out on cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic. I was always intrigued by the technical and engineering elements of what she was doing, which led me into robotics and engineering projects at my school and the nearby Naval base. Two years ago, a classmate and I started a MATE ROV (remotely operated vehicle; a type of underwater robot) Competition Team at my university. Designing and building an ROV system from the ground up with a brand-new team was a big challenge with a lot of fun problems to solve. As an organization, MATE’s major activities are the ROV Competition and the Marine Tech internships on research vessels. I’d heard about these internships from my mother years before, but after the competition I became involved and here I am.

What do you like most about your job?
Cedarholm: I’ve been really happy with my jobs so far on all the different ships I’ve worked on. As a tech, I am responsible for maintaining, troubleshooting, and repairing all different kinds of shipboard technology, including expensive oceanographic instrumentation, data acquisition systems, shipboard computers and networks, navigation equipment, and lots more. We are constantly having to come up with creative solutions, sometimes without the internet or in unforgiving sea conditions. To some this might sound overwhelming, and it can be, but it is one of the best environments for developing a skillset that is not only extremely valuable, but that yields a sense of independence that I will hold onto for my lifetime—which is something that women are rarely encouraged to do. On top of that, through this job I have traveled to ports all over the world, talked to inspiring and engaging scientists about their research over breakfast in the ship’s galley, and gazed at countless light-pollution-free night skies. Marine tech chaos aside, I like the slow, simple life that being at sea offers.

Sgouros: I like how no two days are the same in a position like this. The troubleshooting and problem-solving involved in keeping the many technical systems going are fun puzzles for my brain.

Have there been any particularly exciting or memorable moments at sea in your career so far?
Cedarholm: One day from this past spring that stands out is the day I sailed across the equator. I was working aboard the SSV (School Sailing Vessel) Robert C. Seamans on a transpacific voyage to relocate the ship from New Zealand to U.S. waters after New Zealand closed its borders due to COVID-19. There were 17 of us onboard, eight of whom had never sailed across the equator before (nicknamed “Pollywogs”) and 11 who had (nicknamed “Shellbacks”). It was an epic cruise, totaling nearly 9,000 nautical miles by the end. There were a lot of uncertainties along the way—where our final destination was, what the world would be like when we got there, or when we would arrive. At the equator, however, we put all of that at the back of our mind and celebrated. We jumped in the water and swam across the equator, had a shellback ceremony for the pollywogs onboard, and I donated my entire head of hair to King Neptune (ruler of the sea) as part of a longstanding tradition that has existed for as long as people have gone to sea. I can’t think of a better time to discover what my and my shipmates’ hairless heads looked like than during a pandemic in the unforgiving heat of the equator. Sailing from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere, we were humbled as we watched the entire night sky change, saw the moon flip upside down, and sailed through gyres and around storms that switched direction upon our crossing.

Sgouros: I was aboard the Endeavor for a cruise that involved taking sediment cores from the ocean floor and sometimes we would find little bits of biology catching a ride up in the samples. One time, we found what looked to be short sections of fiber optics, but what it turned out to be was even cooler: spicules—small pieces of silica that comprise the skeleton of a deep-sea sponge. I’ve previously worked on biomimetic robotics projects that look to harness nature’s solutions to engineering problems for our own applications, and it was cool to see that nature also has its own fiber optics. In fact, it has a better design than ours, with improved light transmissivity due to its formation in a high-pressure environment (the deep sea) rather than a high-temperature environment, as well as higher strength and flexibility due to an inner protein layer. The bottom of the sea is not where I’d think to look for organisms with adaptations for light, but one theory is that these spicules are used to channel light outward from bioluminescent (“glowing”) bacteria in the sponge’s tissues to attract small organisms to feed symbiotic shrimp that live in the sponge. It amazes me what complex and unique adaptations can be found in harsh environments and just goes to show you how much technology can be developed by turning our eye to nature.

Since Cedarholm and Sgouros came to BIOS this summer, they were, as Lewis puts it “thrown into our operation in a trial by fire.” Not only did they arrive in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, while ship operations were just beginning to start back up after a three-month shutdown, but they had to hit the ground running to replace the two marine technicians who left just prior to the pandemic. And, if that wasn’t enough, Hurricane Paulette made landfall in Bermuda as a Category 2 storm on September 14. Then, less than a week later, the crew was preparing for Hurricane Teddy as it barreled toward the island.

“With the situation at hand, their learning curve was and is extremely steep,” Lewis said, “but they have both risen to the task.”