Friday, September 7, 2012

The Mystery Machine and the Storage Van

Amy here,

Checking in with an update on life in the lab van! Due to its styling red lights, which shine out from three sides during most nights, we have fondly dubbed the lab space on the 01 deck “the Mystery Machine” after the Scooby Doo van. This space is a container van – similar to the ones you see on the back of trailer trucks on the highway – but specially equipped to support science on ships.

 Looking in on Nick working in the science van on the 01 deck late at night. Photo by A. Maas

At night (and early in the morning too!), in the glowing red light, augmented by a headlamp and flashlight, I do my respiration experiments (to see me in action look at my previous post about physiology). During the day, when it is less disruptive to the night vision of the ship’s navigators, I switch to normal lights and enjoy my view of the sea. To support my work we have hooked the van into the ship’s salt water, fresh water and electricity. Inside the van I have a water heater to make hot tap water for washing jars, a microscope for examining pteropods, a refrigerator to keep water chilling for my animals, gasses to change the oxygen and CO2 in my experimental water, as well as a liquid nitrogen tank and a freezer to keep samples in. We also have a heater and an air-conditioner to ensure that wherever we go, the space is a comfortable temperature. 

The water heater (green arrow), which joins up with the tap and the salt water line (yellow arrow) in the sink,  the refrigerator (blue arrow), freezer (red arrow) salinometer (orange arrow), and fumehood (purple arrow) take up one wall of the lab van. Photo by L. Blanco Bercial and A. Maas
My lab space has two waterbaths (green arrow), the one on the left to keep animals and experimental water cold and the one on the right to keep my electrode (red arrow) at the proper temperature. The electrode is hooked up to a meter and computer (orange arrow) where I read the measurements. To the right of the area is a jug of water that I have filtered to remove practically everything but salt from my water (blue arrow). On the left is the liquid nitrogen dry shipper (purple arrow) that lets me quickly freeze my animals for later measurements of their gene expression. The clear lines that are hanging down (black) are hooked up to gas tanks which are way down at the other end of the van. Photo by L. Blanco Bercial and A. Maas

The temperature in the Mystery Machine needs to be pretty constant because the salinometer is also in the van and is relatively temperature sensitive. Once the chemistry team collects the water from each station they bring bottles up to the van where, one by one, they use this machine to figure out the salt content throughout the water column and calibrate the estimates of salinity that we calculate from the CTD's measurements of conductivity.

Nick running salinity samples in the van. Photo by A. Maas

Liza’s shell work (see her previous post!) is also done in the van. She uses the microscope up here to sort, clean and identify her pteropods, then she carefully puts them in the fume hood, safely protected with plastic wrap, to let the shells dry. The fume hood and the plastic wrap are used to minimize contamination, since Liza’s work concentrates on the isotopic signature of the shells, and any contamination can affect the signal. This is because the minor and trace elements she is measuring are hard to detect.

Liza examining pteropods under the microscope. Photo by P. Wiebe
Although the Mystery Machine is the most populated, we actually have two portable vans on the boat. The second one, which sits on the main deck, is what we shipped all of our heavy equipment across country in. Currently it holds our storage boxes, containers of samples and backup gear. Designed for more rugged polar expeditions with heavy equipment, this van originally had multiple heaters, a big hoist and a small winch. We removed most of this back at WHOI to make way for all our boxes, and we will replace them when we return. That’s the beauty of the lab vans – they are versatile, transportable, customizable and rugged.

The storage van in its original configuration at WHOI. The center beam supports a winch which can help move heavy equipent into and out of the van. The heaters are visible to either side at the top of the van. All of these were removed to make space for shipping our gear. Photo by P. Wiebe.

The storage van just before the doors were closed and we sent it across country. We were surprised by how much "extra" space we had in the end. My favorite  part is the last minute chair addition (as a note I am currently sitting in this chair in the main lab - its pretty comfy!) Photo by P. Wiebe.
Craning the storage van onto its current resting place aboard the New Horizon at the Newport dock. It takes a mighty crane to move the weight onto the boat! Photo by P. Wiebe.

When we get back to land, we will refill the blue storage van with all of our heavy equipment, crane it off the boat, and ship it back to WHOI by truck. In about a week or so we will have all of our gear back, ready to be unpacked. The Mystery Machine is part of the UNOLS fleet pool of supplies and will pass along into the hands of some other science group - re-purposed to suit whatever needs their research requires.

In the meanwhile, my work in the Mystery Machine continues to go well. We have had lots of pteropods, and I am learning a lot about how these Pacific species respond to CO2 and O2. I am looking forward to getting back to land to weigh my animals and start doing the analysis to compare between oceans.


  1. Aren't shipping containers just such an easier way of transportation? They can withhold so much, even cars and bikes.

    -Gloria Karmanites
    Panama Shipping