Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Fun and flare in phys props

Not only am I new to the blogging world, I am also new to International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) expeditions. On that basis, I would like to share with you my time with EPC, working on their most recent IODP expedition, Expedition 364: Chicxulub K-Pg Impact Crater. Expedition 364 started in Mexico 6 months ago to discover the secrets of the dinosaur- killing asteroid impact that occurred 66 million years ago; and if you’re interested why, find out here. No expedition more exciting than that, right?
EPC team at Bremen Core Repository
So this has been a fairly well-documented expedition, and there are many blogs out there which outline the scientific details of the expedition, through to documentation of how to decide how many pairs of pants you will need for the duration of the offshore expedition. However, my perspective of the Expedition 364 Onshore Science Party (OSP) is slightly different to most. As mentioned before, I am new to the IODP world, but I think this provides a unique perspective and so I would like to share with you my experiences, and what I took away from my very first OSP.
The first stage: splitting the Chicxulub core
I joined the OSP midway through the onshore stint at the Bremen Core Repository, Germany. Upon arrival (after a very early 3am start back in the UK) I was warmly welcomed by the Physical Properties (or Phys Props as we are famously known) Team of which I was to be a member. The majority of my time at the OSP was spent continuing the ongoing Moisture and Density measurements (or MAD for short) on small, discrete samples from the Chicxulub cores, and the name speaks for itself, it really is MAD! I arrived at a very busy time, when core splitting had surpassed the target of 35 m a day and accelerated up to 75 m a day! That’s a lot of core, and a lot of running between labs to ensure you aren’t lagging behind with your measurements. Although this was the role which I was responsible for, you are part of a team, so help is always given when asked for. However, the Phys Props Team is also a cog in the much bigger OSP machine, and so helping outside of your designated role always helps to keep the core flow going smoothly. For example, you can help the digital line-scan team cart core to the Visual Core Description (or VCD) lab, or prepare the cores so they are ready for colour reflectance work. All these tasks help to keep things in running order. However, there is always room for some creativity, from simple drawings on the core labels, to setting up a time lapse camera, to record the comings and goings in the Phys Props lab during the shifts.

All the running around aside, there is still time for a cup of tea (or coffee if you are that way inclined) and a few biscuits, pretzels, fruit, sandwiches, mini burgers… (you get the picture), while waiting for a batch of MAD measurements to finish. From day one I realised that hovering around the refreshments offers the best chance to meet the vast array of people from different scientific backgrounds and expertise that make up the science party. There was always someone around (with there being over 50 science party and technical staff) providing ample opportunity to learn more details about the expedition, the science that will continue for years to come, and even hear about past and future expeditions, and of course a few anecdotes.
Creative core labels
I found it really interesting to attend the science meetings during the OSP, which occurred at the shift cross-over each day. This was the time where the science party discussed the results and their ever-evolving theories over the coming weeks, as more core was split, described, sampled and analysed. This was the meeting where any member of the OSP could listen to discussions and learn more about these fascinating cores. Not being an impact crater specialist myself, it was a brilliant insight into the ongoing research, which meant as the OSP progressed I began to understand more about the science and the many different research questions being addressed by the Expedition.

Unsurprisingly, this IODP expedition drummed up a lot of media interest, bringing journalists, photographers and, for the first time on an OSP, a film crew! This was a very exciting time for scientists, who were given the chance to communicate to the general public the importance of the work that the IODP and ECORD are doing, specifically surrounding the Chicxulub impact crater. Of course also this was an opportunity to get yourself in the background of a shot that might end up on TV. Hi mum!

So I’ve mentioned the hard work that has gone into making this OSP a success and the brief moments of respite during shifts, but what happens after the shifts and at the end of the OSP you may wonder? Well, being in Germany, you have to take advantage of the situation, so going for a few delicious beers after work is a sure thing! Although, if you are not familiar with OSP shift patterns (as I wasn’t a few weeks ago), the afternoon shifts are preferable, where you begin at midday, giving you just enough time to recover from the post-shift karaoke antics at Paddy’s Pit the night before. However, being on the morning shift, starting at 7.30 am (as I was), doesn’t stop you from participating in late night karaoke. Once the OSP had finished, we all had the opportunity to relax and enjoy some local events, such as the annual Bremen Freimarkt, which has to be one of the biggest and fantastically bonkers funfairs I have been to. From munching on traditional German Bratwurst and soft pretzels, to enjoying a local beer and riding the roller coasters, there isn’t a better way to end a few weeks in Germany.
The w√ľnderbar Bremen Freimarkt
A final thing I would like to add is that, this isn’t your everyday job, and is definitely unique to anything I have done before. Working as part of an OSP, together with sampling Chicxulub core, sharing in the discovery of impact crater peak ring contents, and having the chance to witness ground zero for the K-Pg boundary is a once in a lifetime opportunity and something I will probably never experience again.