WHOI and the Oil

I have the privilege of being a graduate student at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the largest private, non-profit oceanographic institution in the world. Called WHOI (“who-ee”) for short, the institution is a remarkable place to work and learn. WHOI carries out oceanographic research in all of the world’s oceans. Many people assume that “oceanography” is focused on studying biology (whales and dolphins and such). I do have many friends who study marine mammals, but that research is only a small part of what WHOI (and the Biology Department, which studies all marine life from microscopic to macroscopic) scientists study- in addition to Biology, there are four other departments: Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Physical Oceanography, Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering, and finally my department- Geology and Geophysics. To aid in this research, WHOI operates four research vessels, the Alvin manned deep-sea submersible, and numerous robotic submersibles.

I feel very lucky to be part of WHOI as a PhD student in the joint graduate program with MIT. Every so often, I have a moment where I sit back and am amazed that I am a part of WHOI. I am amazed that, every day, well-regarded scientists make time to help me with my research. These scientists listen to me and genuinely care about what I, a lowly graduate student, am doing.

My current advisor (who rescued me after I left my first advisor and my second advisor left me) is a truly remarkable woman- in addition to all of her scientific accomplishments studying hydrothermal deposits, she is currently overseeing the design of the new manned submersible that will eventually replace Alvin. Once, my advisor called me to tell me that she had to reschedule our weekly meeting… because she had to meet with some high-ranking Naval officers about the re-design of the Alvin. She felt terrible and apologized profusely.

I was shocked- clearly, our weekly meeting was not nearly as important as meeting with the Navy about Alvin. Yet, my advisor puts a priority on meeting with me as often as I need- at least weekly. She’ll drop what she’s doing to help me identify a mineral or give me advice on how to ship samples. I don’t bother her with every mundane detail of my research, but I know that I can always come talk to her about anything. And that amazes me and makes me feel very grateful to be here. And that motivates me when it’s 9pm at night and I still have two hours of labwork to do. My advisor is one of the smartest, hardest-working yet still down-to-Earth people I have ever met. The least I can do is work hard to be a good graduate student.

As you all know by now, I am a geologist. Specifically, I study how carbonates form through alteration of oceanic crust. I am a hard rock geologist and a geochemist. As a geologist, I know about compasses, maps, GPS units, minerals, and hammers. As a geochemist, I know about acids, being paranoid about contamination, mass spectrometers, the periodic table, and the table of the nuclides. I know very little about ocean water and oil, and I know even less about deep-sea drilling rigs. Yet, over the past 101 days since the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill began, I have been asked numerous times about the oil spill and its implications. As soon as people know I work at WHOI, they presume I am an expert about everything related to the oil spill. When I try to deflect, they insist that I am a geologist at WHOI so therefore I must be able to answer their questions.

Quite honestly, I know very little about the spill, about how oil spills work in general, about ocean circulation, about the technical details of stopping the spill, et cetera. I mostly know what I have read in the news and on WHOI’s website. I know a little more by talking to friends who work on oil spills, including Deepwater Horizon. Also, I suppose that as a scientist with training in marine geology and plenty of exposure to all things oceanography, I am in a position where it is easier for me (compared to the average person off the street) to understand what’s going on with the oil spill. But, it has been a little frustrating trying to explain that I am not an expert, and trying to refer people to the true experts. I try to convey that scientists, particularly at this level, are specialists- I know a great amount about very little. My thesis research is very focused and has nothing to do with oil or oil spills. However, the questions I have found myself receiving (and usually deflecting) have also encouraged me to learn more about the science of the oil spill, particularly WHOI’s involvement, which is significant.

I highly recommend this website, which has been set up to describe WHOI’s involvement in the oil spill.

I’d also like to point out that TONIGHT from 7-8:30 pm EST there is going to be a public forum here in Woods Hole where WHOI scientists involved in the oil spill response will give updates and field questions from the audience. If you’re in the area, you can come ask questions in person. If you’re not in the area, you can send your questions by email and can watch the forum online. This is a chance for you to have your questions answered by the proper experts. I hope some of you can make it and/or watch it online.


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. Part of why people keep asking your questions is also because there’s so much crossover between the oil industry and academia on the geology side that a lot of academic geologists were in the business at some point and do know a bit about drilling. Though a lot of the questions (about ocean currents and the like) aren’t ones a former petroleum geologist would be able to answer either.

  2. The Alvin may be my most favorite piece of technology ever built.

    When I was a kid I was fascinated with all the deep diving submersibles but Alvin was my favorite.

    Is there any on line info about the Alvin redesign?

    Do you think you might come to Boston Skeptics in the pub to give a geology talk?

    Maybe we could plan a skeptics trip down to WHOI?

  3. Spurge, there is some information here about the Alvin redesign/upgrade:

    I would be happy to give a talk in Boston… if people really are interested in hearing about rocks! I’m booked solid in lab through August, and I’m going to be away in September, but October onwards works for me. Just let me know.

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