Friday, 17 June 2016

IODP as an ECS

Left to Right: ESO's Alex W├╝lbers, Associate Professor
Marco Coolen and myself at breakfast
As a follow-up on the ‘a packing list for working offshore’ blog I wanted to talk about my experience on the ship itself, but (as previously mentioned), this is not a new idea because, quite simply, it’s an exciting experience to talk about. As a consequence, there are already lots of good blogs out there about the actual living process such as what eating is like, sleeping arrangements, and especially large numbers of blogs about the work itself – shift patterns, what was discovered, etc.… Whilst I’m on the subject though I would recommend the IODP Expedition 364 blog, even though the offshore phase of the expedition has now completed it is still a good read and will introduce you far better than I can to what life was like offshore. There are good blogs on what daily life was like on the Myrtle; the drilling process and operations; and the science itself.

So with most major topics covered by voices that carry more authority than mine; I wanted to talk about the times in between working and operations, the free time. Because this is the stuff that has really stuck with me since I returned. Now before I go any further I want to preface the rest of this by saying “this is not an advert for working with the IODP”. Although I can’t help it if you take it that way and I would still recommend it personally… especially to Early Career Scientists (ECS’s).

Everyone was a long way from home
Bountiful free time is never guaranteed when working offshore because each day presents a new set of and interesting problems to tackle. Even in the middle stages of the expedition when you might expect everything to be taking care of itself and when there are generally fewer ‘peripheral’ jobs that need doing such as setting up, cleaning and packing down equipment. When I was on board there were several days when spare time was a valuable commodity because rock core and fresh samples were arriving very hour; and there were some days when the drilling team were changing a drill bit (yes, this is as literal as it sounds) and I needed to be a little more creative with how I filled my time (although there are always things that need doing and it’s easy to fill the time with QAQC and calibration checks). So what did I do with my time? There were a few things going on. I could make a sign that pointed in the direction of home and the number of kilometres to get there (photo); I could enter the photo competition for a chance to be featured in the next iteration of the ECORD calendar; I could play a strange form of quoits using the end-caps of cores; lots of options. Usually though, I would sit and chat with the other scientists about the science itself (If you aren’t aware already I was offshore on IODP Expedition 364: Chicxulub Impact Crater, have a read, exciting stuff!). When you are offshore on a scientific drilling expedition though, there are times where chit-chat can be hard to come by because other participants are busy with work, overwhelmed with human contact and wanting to be left alone, or asleep. But there other occasions, usually during a shift change when scientists and engineers are out of their containers or off the drill floor that are golden opportunities not to be missed.

At this point I should introduce why people make the insane choice to live on a 42 m long platform with 33 other people for up to 2 months. Because they love what they do, it’s their passion. And this makes for some rather interesting free time conversations, because there isn’t really any cognitive free time… and that’s fine! Personally I was on shift with: impact petrologist Auriole Rae, organic Geochemist Marco Cooleen, and expedition co-chief scientist Sean Gulick; along with a whole host of ESO staff – all specialists and successful scientists in their own right.  Such diversity meant that conversation topics ranged from meteorite impact models to rock core curation processes; making quick stops at microbiological and geochemical testing methods. As well as simple things like: ‘what’s for dinner’ and ‘how many days after you get home will it take to binge-watch Game of Thrones’. Now bear with me here because this is the point where I may lose your trust and you may start to believe that this is indeed an advert. Collaboration and knowledge sharing are both fundamental corporate values to the IODP. It says right at the beginning of the IODP Science Plan for the period 2013-2023, in the Executive Summary section: “This science plan for the International Ocean Discovery Program is intended to guide multidisciplinary, international collaboration in scientific ocean drilling during the period 2013 to 2023.” When I read this I envisioned formal invites to conferences and black tie events where participants critique one another’s work, listing the pros and cons of working together. And these events may still occur, in addition to the informal exchanges I experienced offshore.

Not a bad view I'd say
There are no conference rooms on a research vessel, everyone has to wear personal protective equipment (overalls, hardhats, steel toe-capped boots and safety goggles), and you are on a boat, a very small boat… so conferences are not a practical choice. Instead, people just talk. Simple. And these conversations are what I meant by ‘golden opportunities’ earlier. Now just because I refer to them as casual conversations does not mean that they were hand-wavy or nebulous. These were more like deep dives into scientific hot topics because the conversationalists are passion driven experts in the process of discovery. And if that little question: “why?” was ever dropped in; the likelihood is it would release a torrent of fact-based and fully sourced justifications. They still weren’t formal though; despite being intense! Most discussions were spontaneous and happened over an ice-cream at sunset, or with a cup of tea at the midnight shift change. And THIS was what stuck with me, there was no pressure, no judgement, just a passion for science.

I know personally that I came away from a week at sea knowing far more about a much wider range of topics simply by being involved in such a project. I can honestly say that the expedition has been the most motivational week of my life, and I had already decided that I love what I do. That is why I recommend getting involved with IODP if you are an ECS, not just because it is exciting to be on the front lines of discovery for your OWN science; but because you are on the front of everyone else’s as well and you never know where that may take you.