Sea Discovery

Insights with WHOI's Dr. Susan Avery

Dr. Susan Avery, Director, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has a rich history in ocean exploration and research. Founded in 1930 the institution sits in the middle of a quintessential New England village with a thriving ocean science community. WHOI’s beginnings date back to the early 1920’s when scientists began to discuss a vision of an institution that would bring together experts from multiple fields to focus on global ocean research. The Institutions first research vessel, Atlantis conducted 299 cruises from 1931 to 1966 covering 700,00 miles, exploring all aspects of ocean science and exploration. Today WHOI is one of the most prestigious, and respected Oceanographic Institutions in the world. Recently MTR was able to sit down with Dr. Susan Avery, the current Director at WHOI to get some insight into the newest research and educational programs at the Institution.

By Rhonda Moniz

Could you tell us a little about your background, and how you came to WHOI?

Yes, I have been here now for four and a half years. Prior to this I was at the University of Colorado. I was at UC for 26 years as both faculty and in administrative positions. I am an atmospheric scientist, and a lot of people ask me what I am doing in oceanography. Well, turns out the ocean and atmosphere interact a lot together. They are both fluid, one is compressible and one is not. They obey some of the same physical laws. Chemistry is a little bit different and of course biology is a lot different in the sense that the atmosphere doesn’t support the diversity of biology that the ocean does. A lot of the issues that we deal with in the ocean today are connected with the atmosphere, as they are joint coupled atmosphere-ocean problems. It has been a really exciting move for me because I have done a lot of interdisciplinary work. I headed up interdisciplinary institutes to a smaller scale before, and now this just adds the ocean dimension to the work that I have done in the past. It is really exciting.

What are some of differences and challenges this position has brought you?

It has allowed me to learn new things and share new ideas with people here. There have been some challenges because of the economy, but we are still moving ahead and doing some exciting science and engineering. Part of my work lately has been to coalesce what we are going to try to do in terms of setting the stage to be a little bit more robust, as well as developing new partnerships. We are looking at new dimensions of integrating a little more of the things that we have here, and the development of new partnerships in both academic and government areas. That is the direction we are going in. We are developing a new effort in marine robotics, and creating a new center for marine robotics that is really exciting. We are continuing to grow and look at new dimensions for our interdisciplinary institutes, and that is a really exciting new effort going on. We focused recently on conservation science, and we will probably be doing another focus in the future on ocean acidification, and of course we finished up a focus on the arctic. There is still a lot to do in the arctic.

With regard to the robotics center, could you tell us a little more about that?

Oh yes. We all realize that taking measurements in the ocean is a challenge, and robotic technology is the wave of the future with regard to getting more and more observations in the oceans. The development of autonomy and communications development associated with robotics, as well as the new centers we are developing that are coming online, provide us an opportunity to take a lot of the work we have done in robotics and really bring it together in a systems integrated approach.

WHOI is involved with the Ocean Observatories Initiative. Is the robotics center geared to ramping up that technology?

It is basically leveraging what we are doing already and enhancing it so that we can develop new tools for science as well as new tools for applications for working in the ocean. This is ultimately linked to the work we are doing with OOI and also our work with all of the new sensors. We have a number of new sensors coming on board.

What are some of the new sensors?

We have new small mass spectrometers that can be integrated into these robotic platforms that will be able to in real time measure, and analyze the chemistry of the ocean. The new imaging flow phytobot will really focus on getting images and the meta data associated with those images on phytoplankton. One of the challenges of putting AUV’s in the ocean to do sensing is the ability to communicate with them because it is very difficult to communicate with them in water. We have developed a new optical modem for that communication. We have a new camera system called Habcam, which is now being used by NOAA for scallop surveys, and reef surveys in the northeast. We are also developing a new vehicle called Nereid developed for looking at under ice operations, particularly in the polar regions.

So Nereid is an AUV designed specifically for under ice operations?

Yes. We also have another instrument that is focused on taking measurements so that we can get a better idea regarding ocean acidification.

Sounds like there is quit a bit of activity on the ocean robotic side.

Well when you talk about the future of getting measurements out in the ocean and doing the science, ocean robotics plays an integral role. Not only the vehicle itself but the autonomy and the control of the vehicle as well as the communication with the vehicle and the sensors on the platform. It also involves power and endurance and things like that.

Could you tell us more about the approach to problem studies you mentioned?

We have had these institutes that instead of focusing on the physical oceanography, chemical oceanography or biological oceanography they focus on problem areas. For example our ocean and climate studies, where we have had a major thrust in Arctic work. We have made some phenomenal progress in understanding the processes that are happening with the ice sheet melting and the accelerated ice loss in the Arctic. We have also done some work in the Antarctic as well. So that is a program that we want to continue to make sure it moves forward. New interdisciplinary problem oriented environment studies include the science that underlies conservation work. The idea there is, “look you can damage these marine protected areas, but if you don’t know what your protecting or how your going to protect it, or even what the stresses are in these areas it is going to be very difficult for these areas to succeed”. This involves really looking at what we are calling conservation science and indentifying areas that will be really good in terms of not only bio-diversity, but what are the stressors in these areas, how would you determine what is most likely needed if it was protected, and working with governments who have conservation areas under their jurisdiction. Also working with select conservation groups is important. So that is work being done in the marine protection area.
Now a third area which is really a new problem disciplinary area is in ocean acidification, which goes everywhere from making the measurements, which is not just measuring the PH, but measuring 3 or 4 other variables and really beginning to understand what is happening in the ocean. Also what are the biological, chemical, physical processes that are happening in marine ecosystems that are attacked by ocean-acidification. That in turn, leads to what is going to happen in terms of our marine fisheries and other marine mammal distributions.

Dr. Avery, I understand that much of the research coming out of WHOI also has an educational component can you talk about that?

Yes we have a regular joint degree program with MIT, which awards Graduate and PhD degrees. We have just awarded our 900th degree out of that program, which is quite exciting. We also have an out reach program. In the past we have always had the “Dive and Discover” program. When we know there is going to be a research crew out on a cruise that is conducting research, and we have the resources, we work with K through 12 grade teachers in developing a curriculum module around that expedition. We continue to do that when we have the resources to do it, and when there is a cruise going out with a scientist willing to put the time and work into it.
Secondly, two years ago I initiated a program where we got to do some public events and it has been a major success. I have always been shocked that the Cape Cod and Massachusetts area in general knows we are here, but not always what we actually do. Since we started with this we have done two events a year. We just did one about a week ago on ocean acidification with a panel and some hands on exhibits that people came to and had the chance to talk to people. That worked out pretty well. We’ve got a more formal program than outreach with New England aquarium on climate literacy. The aquarium is actually the lead on this and we are a co-lead with them. This is really looking at how you communicate climate and how you use the aquarium environment to talk about the ocean and its role in climate. That is a big climate literacy program we are working on and we are delighted to be partnering with the New England Aquarium as well as many other aquariums across the country on this. And of course we have our exhibit center, which has been revitalized with some new exhibits. We have also done some projects including locating the air France plane that went down. We have done some more work on Titanic. Those projects highlight our technology but also I think draw in more people to take a look at what is really happening in the ocean.

Of course education and outreach is always an important element in dissemination of information and getting the word to the public about the research going on at WHOI.

Yes, it certainly is and it also encourages people to take a look at our web site and to come to our events. The public can get information on a variety of research and projects going on at WHOI including the re-build on our manned submersible Alvin, and more recently the keel laying ceremony on one of our newest research vessels the Agor 27. Education and outreach plays a vital role.

(As published in the September 2012 edition of Marine Technology Reporter)

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