Eight Years of Water Samples

By Allegra Rocha

I have only left my home state of California once in my life – and it was for three days just 15 miles into Oregon. Moving across the country for 10 weeks sounded terrifying, yet incredibly exciting. Needless to say, being a part of the Bigelow REU’s first remote summer internship was not how I initially planned on spending my break from school, but it was an experience I welcomed with open arms. With a surplus of video calls and emails, at this point, it has been an experience better than I could have hoped.

Working in the lab of Dr. David Fields, over 3,000 miles away sitting on the floor of my bedroom, I’m analyzing water samples from the Gulf of Maine. More specifically, 8 years of water samples. With thousands of points of data, the world, or in this case my summer project, was my oyster. In an effort to get the most out of my experience as I could, I chose to analyze a property of water samples I had never heard of before, phytoplankton fluorescence.

Like any terrestrial plant, phytoplankton have the ability to photosynthesize, taking in carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. Years ago, volunteering at an aquarium, I was taught that for every three breaths you take, you should thank the oceans for two of them. That is, you should thank the phytoplankton that live in the oceans. Fluorescence is measured using an aptly named fluorometer, which takes a measure of the amount of the pigment chlorophyll-a in a water sample. Knowing how the chlorophyll-a content changes as you move through the water gives you a general idea of the amount of phytoplankton that can be found.

In order to handle several years of water sampling data, I needed to learn a new way of working with data. Having never heard of the coding language R, and watching my father and brother often struggle writing their own code, I was worried, to say the least. Thankfully, with the help and guidance of Dr. Abigail Tyrell, a post-doc working in Dr. Fields’s lab, I was writing my own lines of code and creating actual graphs to present data within weeks. The use of this language allowed me to look beyond my initial project ideas and track the changes of more than just fluorescence in the water samples.

Very quickly, through my initial analysis of the data, I realized just how significant the data collected in this study really was. Previous studies performed in the Gulf of Maine found that its water temperatures are rising at a rate faster than nearly anywhere else in the oceans. Understanding how ocean properties, and the fate of phytoplankton, respond to these changes in the Gulf of Maine will prove useful as we attempt to combat and prevent these changes elsewhere in the world. Taking on this project has given me an incredible opportunity to contribute to something bigger than myself, even if it’s being done in my bedroom and not on the actual coast of Maine.

Allegra Rocha is a University of the Pacific student in Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. This intensive experience provides an immersion in ocean research with an emphasis on state-of-the-art methods and technologies.

Eight Years of Water Samples