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Ashley Burkett at a microscope in the Main Lab on R/V Atlantis
Ashley Burkett exclaims with delight as she plucks foraminifera from a glass sponge collected from the sea floor. Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

In Atlantis’ Main Lab, Ashley Burkett, peers into her microscope and pokes at the glass sponge sitting on the stage. 

“Yes!!” she exclaims, keeping her eyes trained on the ocular lens. “I love science!” 

Using tweezers, she plucks what looks like two tiny specks of white goo from the sponge and places them in a petri dish. They are foraminifera, single-celled organisms that live throughout the ocean, but these two came from over 5,000 meters deep. 

“They’ve been found on glass sponges at 4,000 meters in the Pacific,” Burkett explains. “But I don’t know if they’ve been found this deep in the Atlantic.”

Ashley Burkett and Bill Schmidt with Alvin in the background
Ashley Burkett and Bill Schmidt pose for a photo before their Alvin dive on Sunday, July 31st, 2022. Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Burkett, an assistant professor of geology at Oklahoma State University, has just returned from an Alvin dive with senior pilot Bruce Strickrott and oceanographer Bill Schmidt. 

“It was really incredible—I loved every minute of it,” she says. “When I was filling out the highlights sheet, I realized I wrote everything down.” 

It may seem a bit peculiar that a geologist from Oklahoma is so stoked to be in the deep ocean, but for Burkett it makes perfect sense.

Ashley Burkett emerges all smiles after diving in Alvin and successfully placing her experiment on the seafloor.
Ashley Burkett emerges all smiles after diving in Alvin and successfully placing her experiment on the seafloor. Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“I’ve always lived in a landlocked state,” she says. “You can study the ocean from anywhere.” 

While her teaching and research in micro-paleontology is based in the Geology Department at Oklahoma State, Burkett needed to physically travel to the bottom of the ocean to execute her latest experiment, called SEA³. Using small, handmade cubic structures, Burkett hopes to collect benthic foraminifera, one of her main research interests.  

Comic of Ashlet Burkett holding a sea cube.
I Was A Kid illustration by Karen Romano Young

The idea for this experiment originated when Burkett was in graduate school. Working with her advisor, they created structures out of plastic for simple functionality—but then they realized foraminifera like to colonize them. 

“They stick onto the plastic and hang out there,” Burkett says. “When they are not in the sediments, they can more easily extend their tissues to catch materials from the water.” 

For this experiment, the cubes measure 10 centimeters on each side. Burkett placed six of them in pairs, roughly one foot apart. 

Ashley Burkett holds up one of her cubes destined for the sea floor.
Ashley Burkett holds up her sea cube on the aft deck of R/V Atlantis. Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
A close-up shot of Burkett’s sea cube. Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
A close-up shot of Burkett’s sea cube. Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The idea is similar to purposely sinking an old, empty shipping container to the seafloor so that corals and other animals can use it as habitat. The difference is, we know what happens with metal in that situation (it rusts and degrades over time), but we don’t know the long-term effects of plastic sitting on the seafloor. Do they produce toxins? Or do they benefit the ecosystem by providing materials for organisms to colonize? A little bit of both? These are some of the questions Burkett is hoping to answer. 

Now that she has successfully placed the cubes in a small section of the Puerto Rico Trench, Burkett will apply for a grant to complete the second phase of the project. Once she secures the grant, she will return to this location, remove the cubes, and examine them for living organisms.  

The process of writing and winning the grant will likely take two to three years. In the meantime, Burkett is hopeful that hundreds of foraminifera will make themselves at home in her cubes. 

—Marley Parker

Alvin arm and experiments being paced on sea floor
Sea cubes being placed on the bottom at over 5,000 meters deep. Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution