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The possibilities are endless

 ROV Jason first impressions with early career scientists

(Left to right): Texas A&M graduate student Kayla Nedd, WHOI Guest student and Scripps Institution of Oceanography postdoc Emilie Skoog, and Texas A&M graduate student Alexis Adams processing fluid samples just procured in the deep ocean. (Photo by Hannah Piecuch ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Touching down

When Emilie Skoog got her first glimpse of the ocean floor, she was in the control van of ROV Jason. She had been there since launch, watching the sunlit blue of the surface ocean grow darker, watching marine snow drift up throughout descent, catching glimpses of jellyfish and squid.

"We started approaching Anemone Vent and there were these palm-like tubeworms swaying," she recalled. "The water was shimmering. I don't know what I had expected, but I didn't know it would be so beautiful. It felt like it was part of a different planet. I cried."

Skoog's first Jason dive took place during PROTATAX 2022, when she was a WHOI guest student working with Julie Huber on a doctoral generals project at MIT. This year, Skoog is part of the expedition before she starts a postdoctoral position in microbial oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She is working with Texas A&M professor, and former WHOI postdoc, Sarah Hu, on microbial grazing experiments.

It's bingeable

Kayla Nedd is starting her graduate studies on PROTOTAX23. In fact, this is her first week as a Texas A&M PhD student in Hu's lab, and her first time working with an ROV. During the first Jason dive, Nedd went into the control van hours before her scheduled watch just to see what was happening-she was still there an hour and a half later.

"It was surreal seeing Jason work," she said. "When you see how huge this vehicle is you wonder how it is going to maneuver around the seafloor. And then you see it in action. It is capable of a lot. I watched it collect gas samples, sulfide pillars, ciliate mats."

The range of what Jason can do continues to make an impression on Skoog, as well. "It can lift heavy things and drive across the seafloor, but it is also agile. It can place probes in tiny vent holes and loop bungee cords on the scientific basket. With Jason, you can get samples of anything-even things as small as viruses."

Scientists wait to unload sulfurous seafloor samples after a Jason dive. (left to right): Jason Expedition Leader Chris Judge; Texas A&M Professor Sarah Hu; WHOI Guest student and Scripps Institution of Oceanography postdoc Emilie Skoog; and Texas A&M graduate student Kayla Nedd. (Photo by Hannah Piecuch ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Jason, bring us more sulfur

Alexis Adams is also in her first week as a Texas A&M graduate student. "When I think of a robot, I often think of something simpler than Jason," she said. "I was impressed seeing the whole process: on the deck, in the water, the quality of the images in the van, and then it actually came up with the samples and I was all adrenaline. The smell of sulfur hit me. It was go-time."

Processing water samples captured earlier in the same day was a unique experience for Adams. "I could actually see the particulate matter in the fluid and there was a shrimp on the filter. I like field science because you get stinky and dirty and work from base one."

"It might be weird, but I liked the smell," Nedd added. Being in the field to collect the samples that she'll work on back at the university lab is a unique opportunity this early in her studies. "I am at sea before I've been in the lab. I'll know exactly where these came from."

Room for discovery

A vehicle like Jason offers access to an environment where there is a lot of room for early career scientists to grow, Adams and Nedd agreed.

"Hydrothermal vents are essential to the health of the whole ocean, and we didn't even know about them a few years ago, Adams said. "That is something that really interested me about this field: it is a new frontier. There is so much that no one has studied."

"Sometimes, during my undergraduate, we'd ask why a bivalve was a certain color and my professor would say 'we have no idea,'" Nedd said. "There is so much to discover, especially in the deep sea. I think the possibilities are endless using a vehicle like Jason."

This is one way to start a PhD in Oceanography. At sea! From Texas A&M: Alexis Adams, Sarah Hu, and Kayla Nedd. (Photo by Hannah Piecuch ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

- Hannah Piecuch

This NDSF blog series will follow the PROTATAX23 expedition to Axial Seamount, covering the science and scientists at sea, and the ROV Jason operations that make it possible. PROTATAX23 is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF OCE Award #1947776).