Phytoplankton, Ocean Basins, & One Billionth of a Multivitamin

By Dylan Halbeisen

The Coronavirus pandemic forced the summer REU program to branch into many fruitful limbs of learning. From the fundamentals of computer code to delivering a science talk over the internet, I am advantageously learning a diverse range of tangible skills. There seems to be something poetic about studying a system that is vast and crucial to the health of the ocean and Earth, yet unseen to the human eye. This summer I am working with Dr. Benjamin Twining at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences from my home state, Texas- Yeehaw! 

 Using R to compare data collected from Pacific, Atlantic, & Arctic ocean cruises.

When we think of the ocean it is easy to imagine an unending body of water full of mystery, life, and undrinkable salt. The salt found in the sea may not be pleasant to you or I, but it bears life through the beauty of its chemical composition. The salt in the ocean is made from a diverse range of elements, each of which serve a unique function in marine biology. Dr. Twining’s lab investigates the relationship between the metals found in the ocean and the way in which plankton use them. Their research seeks to better understand the processes that influence the marine food web and global carbon cycle. Much like you and I, the microscopic plants in the ocean, phytoplankton, need nutrients to grow and sustain a healthy lifestyle. There are several metals found on the periodic table that are also found on the “dinner table” for phytoplankton. Now, these metals are not found like the familiar gold bar or lead weight that we all seem to know. Rather, the metals that phytoplankton require to carry out essential chemical reactions, like converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen, are found in trace amounts.

Trace amounts? Yeah, trace amounts! Imagine taking your multivitamin and splitting it into one billion pieces. This is roughly the serving size for phytoplankton, and the presence of these trace metals in the ocean have a profound impact on the Earth’s carbon and nitrogen cycles. Marine trace metal research has been well-explored and an impactful area of scientific discovery over the last five decades. Ultimately, this research suggests that trace metals are found in similar relative ratios in phytoplankton and ocean water, respectively. Thus, Dr. Twining and I aim to evaluate the accuracy of this current understanding. My project this summer consists of comparing the relative ratios of trace metals measured in phytoplankton and ocean water across large sections of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans. 

To do list and R script for a typical day of work. 

For the last five short weeks I have been immersed in an online ocean internship that has brought me closer to friends, mentors, and leaders that share a deep passion for Earth science. Despite the challenges, sacrifices, and set-backs of the global pandemic, this experience has proved to me that a collection of dedicated and passionate people can overcome any challenge, even those as tedious as measuring one billionth of a multivitamin. 

Dylan J. Halbeisen is a Texas A&M University 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.

Phytoplankton, Ocean Basins, & One Billionth of a Multivitamin