Entering the ‘Twilight Zone’

Northern Michigan University graduate takes part in ocean study

Chandler Countryman, far left, a Northern Michigan University graduate and members of the research vessel Roger Revelle’s zooplankton team, works with a MOCNESS, which stands for Mulitple Opening/Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System. MOCNESS is a large metal frame with 10 nets that can be individually triggered to open at a desired depth in the water by a computer on board. This is how researchers sample zooplankton at various depths. (Photo courtesy of Chandler Countryman)

MARQUETTE — Chandler Countryman’s current job title of “graduate student” doesn’t really say it all.

Countryman, who graduated from Northern Michigan University in December 2014 with a bachelor of science degree in biology, is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Marine Sciences Department at the University of Georgia in Athens.

She also is on the research vessel Roger Revelle as part of the NASA EXPORTS project, a research expedition looking at understanding the export of carbon from the surface of the ocean.

EXPORTS stands for EXport Process in the Ocean from RemoTe Sensing.

Its website, oceanexports.org, explains the program in detail.

Chandler Countryman is pictured aboard ship. (Photo courtesy of Chandler Countryman)

The project involves understanding how carbon makes it to the “twilight zone” of the ocean and deep ocean interior and how long it stays there, which is crucial to comprehending present and future ocean ecosystems and global climate.

The biological pump, which basically sequesters carbon from the atmosphere to deep water and sediment, is the part of the oceanic carbon cycle responsible for the cycling of organic matter formed mainly by phytoplankton during photosynthesis, as well as the cycling of calcium carbonate formed into shells by certain organisms such as mollusks and plankton.

The upper sunlit ocean, called the euphotic zone, teems with phytoplankton that provide food for zooplankton, which are tiny oceanic animals. Some of the organism’ waste products are transported from the ocean surface to that “twilight zone,” which is the deeper and dimly lit part of the ocean, taking the carbon they are made with them.

Some of that carbon eventually will make it to the deeper ocean interior where it will remain for months or many years.

There are links between the biological pump and the pelagic food web as well as the ability to sample these components from ships, satellites and autonomous vehicles.

The EXPORTS project, Countryman said, has two ships: the Roger Revelle and the Sally Ride.

Countryman and her crew left from Seattle Aug. 10 and is scheduled to return Wednesday. The study location is Ocean Station Papa in the northeast Pacific Ocean.

“This is actually stage one of the project, with another research

cruise scheduled for the North Atlantic in the next year or so,” Countryman said via email.

However, there are a few side benefits to being involved in such an effort.

Countryman recently made a Facebook post about the deep-sea animals to show some of what she called the “flashier” animals caught in the vessel’s tows.

“We aren’t actually studying the deep-sea creatures per se,” Countryman said. “I am actually part of the zooplankton team on board, which studies planktonic animals at all depths between the surface of the ocean all the way down to 1,000 meters.”

The Revelle researchers, she said, are studying several aspects of planktonic animals — zooplankton — and that involves species present in the water column, how many individuals there are and at what depth they are found. They also catch live animals for experiments measuring metabolic parameters such as fecal pellet production, respiration and excretion.

That might sound like a dirty job, but someone has to do it — and Countryman is more than OK with this.

Upon her return, she also will have the opportunity to explore Seattle, which she never has visited.

“Because I have been doing scientific work all day long, every day for the past month or so, so I am rewarding myself with a mini-vacation,” Countryman said. “Sampling on board while out at sea takes place 24/7, so there are always people in the labs no matter what time of day.”

Once Countryman completes her Seattle adventure, she will return to the University of Georgia to continue her personal research — modeling the biological pump, which is what the EXPORTS project is examining.

Countryman said her entire experience at NMU is helping her while she performs her current work.

“I had an amazing undergraduate advisor, Dr. Jill Leonard, who inspired me to love science and really encouraged me to pursue a career path that included science,” Countryman said. “Not only did she help me with research, but she also taught two of my favorite courses that I took while at NMU: marine biology and a Fisheries of the Amazon course that actually took place in Brazil.”

These classes, she said, inspired her to go after an academic career and to one day lead those types of courses herself.

“Dr. Leonard gave me a love for aquatic biology and helped me develop really great lab and field skills,” Countryman said.

Leonard in turn had kind words for Countryman.

“Chandler spent several years working in my lab as an undergraduate,” Leonard said. “Her dedication and enthusiasm for research and science allowed her to move into graduate school in marine biology. It’s wonderful to witness her adventures.”

Countryman said she also had great guidance through the McNair Scholars Program.

“As a first-generation college student, I was really unaware of the ins and outs of college and how to navigate it, much less how to try to get into grad school,” Countryman said.

The people guiding her in the McNair program helped her with the entire process and pushed her along when she needed it, she said.

“Their support meant the world to me,” Countryman said. “Another program that helped me at NMU was the Student Leader Fellowship Program, which gave me really great skills and confidence as a leader.”

That program, she noted, has helped her lead several organizations on her new campus.

“That program really helps you understand not only yourself, but how your personality meshes well with other personality types, which helps tremendously when you work with so many different people, and I highly recommend it to everyone,” Countryman said.