Todd Morrison, Woods Hole Group
I am freshly returned from two days on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two windy February days spent with the Phyto-Finders of First Flight High School (FFHS). OES has sponsored this student run club since 2010 and these students have so far published nine papers documenting their research in the Proceedings of the OCEANS Conference. The Phyto-Finders are longtime contributors to the NOAA Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN), which focuses on the timely detection of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). These FFHS students have been the first to detect and report blooms of Pseudo nitzschia, one of the PMN target species, on a number of occasions. This family of diatoms can produce domoic acid, a potent neuro-toxin that is harmful and potentially fatal to marine and human life.
The purpose of my trip was delivery of two instruments donated to the club by RBR Ltd. of Ottawa, Canada. RBR very generously provided the Phyto-Finders with an RBR duet temperature and depth (T.D) logger and an RBR duo temperature and dissolved oxygen (T.DO) logger.
On the first day of my visit I showed two of the seniors how to connect a PC to the instruments and how to run RBR’s Ruskin software to control the sensors. I also briefly explained what the sensors measured and roughly how the measurement was made. I then challenged them to program delayed-start deployments of these internally recording loggers, which they very quickly accomplished, occasionally breathing on the thermistors to introduce temperature variations in the recording. They went on to teach nearly a dozen members of the club, other seniors as well as juniors, sophomores, and freshmen, how to operate the sensors and what they measured. Several bench top deployments were conducted by each student until they felt comfortable with the software and the equipment.
We then fabricated secure mounts, including secondary retention, for the two instruments on the plankton net tow frame (see image above, taken after assembly on one of the sampling piers). Learning about and practicing o-ring and instrument maintenance rounded out the first day.
On day two the students programmed delayed starts for both instruments and departed from FFHS for their regular sampling locations, Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, NC, and the US Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility (FRF) in Duck, NC.
As usual, the piers were windy, the water was cold, and the students jumped right into their sampling routines, including training and mentoring the newest members of the club. They conducted three successful tows at each site, collecting phytoplankton water samples and logging measurements with the new instruments.
Back in the classroom at FFHS, some Phyto-Finders prepared slides from their samples and began examining them through microscopes while others carefully washed the new instruments with fresh water and then connected them to a PC to download the measurements. Students in each group were soon moving excitedly back and forth between the various stations to share their observations and results with each other, with their teacher and club advisor, Katie Neller, and with me.
What caused this excitement? The first deployment of the instruments donated by RBR had been successful and there was an interesting new kind of data set to interpret and understand. That, and every single sample examined under the microscopes showed a bloom, potentially toxic, of Pseudo nitzschia.
Following the established protocol, an email was quickly sent to alert the NOAA PMN in Charleston, SC. Their equally rapid request: Overnight air shipment of samples for immediate analysis in the toxin lab.
The students will also be extracting DNA from these samples and shipping that genetic material to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, where it will be sequenced to detect and identify, with very high sensitivity and precision, the different phytoplankton and microbial species present in the samples.
In summary, it was yet another productive and exciting two days with the FFHS Phyto-Finders on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.