New beginnings in the never ending exploration of research

Jessie Masterman picking Pleurobrachia.

By Isabella Garcia

Jessie Masterman looks into a tray of seawater, carefully plucking out another nearly invisible jellyfish and dropping it into a jar. The jellies she’s collecting, called Pleurobrachia, or Sea Gooseberries, look like perfectly translucent marbles with dainty rows of “arms” that flutter up and down. The beating of arms makes the jellies slightly easier to spot in the tray that is not only chock full of various phytoplankton, fish larvae, and krill, but also sloshing back and forth with the pitch of the ship.

Pleurobrachia, or sea gooseberry, held by metal forceps above the picking tray.

Her metal forceps hover over the dish and she stares intently at the squirmy contents. When she spots a Sea Gooseberry, she uses a gentle scoop and squish motion with the forceps to keep from damaging the jelly as she transfers it to a new container. Keeping the organisms in good condition is essential to the experiment she is developing during this scientific research cruise. 

Jellyfish are a new topic to Masterman. For the past couple years, she’s worked as a lab technician in Minneapolis testing samples from a water waste treatment plant to ensure environmental protocols are being followed, or what she refers to as “working for the man.” It was the corporate grind that inspired her to seek out PhD programs, leading her to Dr. Kelly Sutherland.

Sutherland has been studying jellyfish for nearly two decades. Her work, currently based out of her University of Oregon jellyfish lab, often creates baselines for gelatinous organism research—what they eat, how they swim, where they can be found, etc—and fills in gaps in the literature of her field. 

Dr. Kelly Sutherland and Dr. Robert Cowen looking through a picking tray.

Filling in the gaps is what inspired Sutherland and Dr. Su Sponaugle and Dr. Robert Cowen of Oregon State University’s Plankton Ecology Lab to write a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation. That grant led to the cruise Masterman is scooping and separating jellies on. 

The research cruise is the second of four excursions. This time, a team of 20 oceanographers and 22 crew members find themselves on the RV Sally Ride, a scientific research vessel hauling extensive marine testing equipment off the Oregon-California coast for 10 days. The aim the project is to collect data on mesozooplankton—a size specific subset of crustaceans, larvae, jellyfish, and eggs—and its role in the northern California Current food web.

Mesozooplankton, particularly fragile jellyfish and fish larvae, have been routinely understudied, partly because of how difficult it is to collect samples without damaging their physical integrity. Traditional nets and processing techniques can leave delicate gelatinous organisms crushed, compromising the information that can be gathered from each sample. The Sponaugle-Cowen lab developed more specific nets and additional imaging equipment to minimize the deterioration of the samples collected during this project.

Studying this large section of marine life can establish a foundation of information about the sampled areas’ food web, environmental health and species that live in Oregon and California waters that will serve as building blocks for future research. 

For Masterman, the cruise marks the start of the next five to six years of her life.

The spherical jellies she is focusing on were showing up in large numbers in the net tows, something Sutherland anticipated after seeing an influx of them during the last cruise as well. While many of the species being collected on the cruise are understudied, research on the role of Pleurobrachia in the Oregon coast food web is particularly lacking in scientific literature given how well-studied the jellies are elsewhere.

The experiment Masterman prepared—analyzing the jellies after they had evacuated their gut contents, something that they do if they are jostled or shocked in some way, to learn about the nutrition they absorb from their diet—is an introduction into her PhD path. An interest for a teardrop jelly she developed on this research cruise could influence her entire career.

It was only towards the end of the cruise that Masterman was able to develop her project because the first couple days were plagued with mechanical failures and technical difficulties.

The MOCNESS being deployed.

The reality of field work in an unpredictable environment is that the one thing you can count on is that things will go wrong. Equipment breaks, best laid plans are foiled, and scientists are forced to either fail or adapt. In this case, the Multiple Opening and Closing Net and Environmental Sampling System (MOCNESS), a large metal frame rigged with 10 nets that can be remotely opened and closed, lost connection with the computer that controlled the nets. The resident technicians, engineers, and scientists all worked methodically to find the source of the misconnection. They learned that the steel cable connecting the nets to the computers was waterlogged and would need to be cut and re-terminated, a time consuming process.

After already losing two days of sampling to technical difficulties, the team decided to deviate from the schedule and move from the Newport, OR stations to the Trinidad Head, CA stations early, using the transit time to fix the MOCNESS.

The MOCNESS nets stretched out in the water.

Fortunately, the clouds parted—literally and figuratively—when the Sally Ride reached Trinidad Head. Once the nets were deployed that morning, the team worked double time for two days straight, making up for the lost sampling days at the beginning. The two labs worked together graciously, quickly forming an efficient working community that kept Masterman and her peers constantly moving.

The chain of work flowed from out on deck collecting the MOCNESS nets directly into the wet labs where the catch was processed. The Sutherland lab would pour the net contents as gently as possible into a glass tray to pick species from. Once Masterman had fulfilled her gut contents and biomarker picking duties, she would focus on collecting the best looking Pleurobrachia for her experiment before being called to start processing the next round of nets.

Kelsey Swieca carrying a cod end from a MOCNESS net into the wet lab to be processed.
Masterman pouring catch into picking tray.
Jellies caught by the MOCNESS in the picking tray.

As the cruise circled back to Newport, the team ran into some weather that stirred up some waves. Though the ship and equipment were made to withstand much more, the jellies caught in the nets were not.

Many nets were returning with mangled and dead jellies that were of no use to Masterman—she needed her samples to be happy, healthy, and, most importantly, alive. Though her pickings were starting to get slim, she remained optimistic about the number of net tows she still had to choose from.

Then, on the second to last day of the cruise, the dangerous side of field work reared its head as the MOCNESS was being pulled onto the deck from rough waters. The taut cable lifting the frame of nets into the air was under thousands of pounds of tension when people on deck recognized that it was fraying.

The MOCNESS cable, almost entirely frayed.

If a cable of that magnitude snaps under pressure, it has the potential to mangle everyone of deck with its recoil. Due to the sudden threat, all the nonessential crew were ushered off deck and forced to watch with wide eyes as their cruise mates were battling the rocky seas to get the MOCNESS back on deck before all of the coils on the cable snapped.

It was only once the MOCNESS was back on deck and safety line secured that everyone was able to have a deep breath before jumping back into action. The net contents had been beaten up by the waves and swinging around the deck for a concerning amount of time and, considering the state of the MOCNESS cable, Masterman knew that she wasn’t going to get another tow.

When the catch was poured into the picking tray it was thin and mangled. Masterman scoured the mess and was able to salvage enough Pleurobrachia to complete a reasonable sample size for her experiment. She celebrated with a sigh of relief as she screwed the lid on the last jar.

The nets from the traumatic tow were processed as usual, but the cruise had come to a magnificent halt. Not only was the MOCNESS off limits, but several other pieces of equipment had started acting up leading up to the cable fiasco, leaving the labs with little tools to work with. After several days of nonstop work, circumstance forced the cruise to end.

The crew watching the sunset after dinner before the night sampling starts.

Even though everything on the ship was seemingly broken and the seas were rockier than ever, spirits were high. Despite all of the roadblocks and mishaps, the labs completed 95% of the intended data collection—which was palpable in the boxes and boxes of samples that would be loaded off the ship the following day.

The samples just mark the beginning of a long, arguably never-ending, process that is demanding and exciting. Masterman’s Pleurobrachia will start her PhD journey and possibly help her author a paper that stands out in the field. The jellies collected for the Sutherland lab will help bring attention to an underrepresented section of our oceans and contribute to the growth of students for years to come. Ten days of work will serve the labs directly for years as they process and analyze their data, but also indirectly indefinitely as the knowledge gained from this cruise forms the foundation for more exploration. 

In the meantime, the labs will prepare for another voyage in February, the samples will begin the long process of being analyzed and Masterman will kick off her PhD with her Pleurobrachia.