Ocean Research in the Face of a Pandemic


Like most gathering places around the country, the campus of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences is quiet these days. The facility is closed to the public and only a handful of essential staff roam the halls, but the bustle that typically fills the laboratory has moved online.

"Our first priority is to protect the safety of our staff, families, and local community, but it's imperative that we keep up our pace of discovery," said Deborah Bronk, president and CEO of Bigelow Laboratory. "The COVID-19 crisis underscores the importance of our work to address global challenges that are unfolding simultaneously. We must not lose ground during this time."

Bigelow Laboratory scientists are used to working in the field and collaborating with colleagues around the world, and most have easily transitioned to working remotely. For the small group who need to continue visiting the laboratory to care for crucial experiments and resources, life is dramatically different. Social distancing guidelines must be adhered to, and a host of new procedures are in place to prevent any spread of contagions.

One of the teams still making trips to the laboratory is the group that maintains the National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota (NCMA). This living archive of more that 3,200 strains of algae is the world's largest and most diverse collection of marine phytoplankton. It serves as a vital resource for scientists and companies around the world who use NCMA samples to power their work on issues as diverse as climate change and cancer.

About half of the collection is kept frozen, but the other half lives in small vials that must be tended like a garden. Without regular care, the collection would be lost – as would its enormous potential to support novel solutions.

"The NCMA is an international hub of research and innovation," said NCMA Director and Senior Research Scientist Mike Lomas. "We have countless systems in place to protect our algal collection, but it takes our team of dedicated curators to preserve this resource and all the future discoveries it represents."

Despite efforts to minimize research disruptions, all near-term fieldwork has been postponed or canceled. Senior Research Scientist Ben Twining was set to leave for a research cruise in the Sargasso Sea, when the decision was made to cancel the fieldwork due to rapidly growing concerns about COVID-19.

Twining's work is part of an international effort to improve models that predict future ocean productivity as climate and human activities change. This research cruise was to be the final in a year-long series designed to determine how the iron content of phytoplankton and water in the Sargasso Sea change over the course of a year.

"Iron is a key ocean nutrient and often provides the spark that's needed to ignite ocean ecosystems," Twining said. "Without this final cruise to study the spring phytoplankton bloom, we will be missing that piece of the puzzle; however, we will still be able to draw on our previous measurements to make valuable conclusions about the future of the ocean."

Fieldwork, and scientific research in general, always demands a high degree of adaptability. Surprise discoveries and disappointing dead ends keep researchers constantly looking to make the most of unexpected circumstances.

This ingenuity and optimism are already shaping the Laboratory's response to this unsettling time. Almost immediately after most of the staff shifted to working remotely, researchers began sharing ideas for how to utilize the time for in-depth data analysis and publishing results.

"The global cost of this pandemic will be great, and our research won't be spared," said Senior Research Scientist Paty Matrai. "But there are also unique ways to move our science forward in these challenging times. Our job is to see past the obstacles and find the opportunities."

At Bigelow Laboratory, and around the world, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of community – the many ways we're all connected, in addition to the many ways that we can't be right now. New weekly staff meetings and even after-hours social gatherings among Laboratory staff have moved online in an effort to maintain the bonds and collaborative spirit that are essential to creative science.

The staff has also been collectively looking for ways to aid in the scientific response and circulating ideas to help the local community. Over the last week, the staff worked together to gather all spare laboratory masks and gloves for donation to the Lincoln County Emergency Management Agency.

"We'll help our community however possible throughout this crisis, and we won't take our eyes off the horizon," Bronk said. "There are other global challenges coming our way, and we have great optimism in the power of our discoveries and solutions to make a difference."