BIOS Marine Technician Supports Science at Sea


Marine technicians and crew deploy the MOCNESS (Multiple Opening/Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System) off the stern of BIOS’s research vessel Atlantic Explorer.

Justin Smith was raised in a fishing family in Gig Harbor, Washington, but a crash in the local fishing economy diverted him from the family business. Knowing he liked ships and being on the water, he decided to explore oceanography in college. Within his first month at the University of Hawaii, he discovered the Hawaii Ocean Time-series program and the research vessel Kilo Moana. His volunteer position on the ship led to a job in the physical oceanography lab. By graduation in 2009 he had logged 220 days at sea, and was inspired to pursue a hands-on, “jack-of-all-trades” career as a marine technician in the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) fleet.  

Smith joined BIOS in August 2015 to oversee and organize all technical services aboard the BIOS-operated research vessel Atlantic Explorer. At sea this July on the interdisciplinary BIOS-SCOPE cruise, an expedition to study microbial processes in the Sargasso Sea, Smith coordinated glider deployment and retrievals with the MAGIC lab at BIOS, helped to troubleshoot first-time operations of a large zooplankton net borrowed from the University of Miami, and kept seawater samples coming in on time for onboard science teams.

Justin Smith

Justin Smith has worked on ships for more than a decade. A college job at the University of Hawaii developed into a career as a marine technician, and now a managerial position overseeing technical operations on the BIOS research vessel Atlantic Explorer. Photo by Jorge Sanchez.

During a break, Smith shared his perspective on the marine technician job, and some of his goals for growing the marine technician team’s capabilities.

How would you describe the role that marine technicians play on research vessels?

Cutting-edge ocean science requires a reliable platform for operations. It’s mission-critical for scientists, who often have a single shot to collect data at sea after years of planning and applying for grants. So marine technicians are really there to make the science happen, and I see the job as having three major components.

The first component is instrumentation. We need to provide high-quality, accurate data by keeping equipment calibrated and in good condition for the scientists, collecting metadata as the ship is underway, and saving and distributing data from shared use instruments.

The second component is orchestrating all deck operations. If anything goes over the side of the ship, we’re involved. We oversee safety on the deck, but we also communicate with the bridge (the ship’s command post) about operating the vessel while equipment is in the water. Do we need to fire up another generator for a particular operation?  The captain and officers need to have the right set of information at the right time to make it all happen smoothly. While we hope it looks seamless to everyone on the ship, there is usually a lot of planning on the backend, and plenty of dockside preparations, such as integrating new winches and equipment.

The third component is the people. Every group of scientists, every crew, and every captain likes things done a particular way. Since the marine technicians are the primary point of contact for all operations, we work as a liaison between the scientists and the captain and crew. We communicate requests and requirements, so that the cruise is successful and all science needs are met.

What aspects of the job do you most enjoy?

Planning a new operation is always exciting, like having BIOS scientists Leo Blanco-Bercial and Amy Maas out here this summer with the MOCNESS (Multiple Opening/Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System), which allowed the scientists to sample zooplankton communities at depth.

It’s also fun learning where the trends in ocean science are going, and figuring out what we can do to make the ship more capable of supporting that kind of work.  Molecular work is rapidly growing in significance, and I’m proud that we managed to acquire freezers that cool to -112°F (-80°C) on the ship. With all of the genomics work going on at BATS, we know that if scientists can’t reliably store their samples, their time out here might be wasted.

As the science moves forward and as scientific research methods naturally evolve, we need to assure that impactful change is not limited by the infrastructure we offer aboard the ship.  But adopting new technologies is only beneficial when we know we can offer it reliably. I have been involved in projects aboard other research vessels in which we prematurely adopted promising technology that could not reliably support the scientific operations. I am dedicated to balancing growth of our technical capabilities against the downside risks (that unreliable and incapable infrastructure upgrades can undermine our scientific capabilities). Cutting-edge science requires reliable support infrastructure.

What is your vision for marine technical services at BIOS?

I’d like to make BIOS a marine technician development hotspot for the entire UNOLS fleet.  We had two MATE interns here this year. BIOS has the unique ability to integrate our marine technician interns with the science and education interns, developing a deeper and fuller understanding of the scientific methods they employ while pursuing cutting-edge ocean science. This fosters a unique understanding of the implications and impacts that our performance has on their research. Many institutions only develop the technical skills of their technicians while overlooking the larger vision of the common, collective research goal. We must all be on the same page and understand why we are doing what we are doing in order to contribute positively toward the end goal.

It takes a year or two to become really fluent with the systems of a ship, so one of my goals is to increase retention time with our technicians. Part of that may come from encouraging marine technician exchanges within the UNOLS fleet. Once a BIOS technician has core skills and competencies in instrumentation, electronics, and deck work, I’d like to see him or her learn at other institutions. Sharing skills and broadening expertise makes the whole fleet better and more reliable. Our technicians routinely expand their skills and knowledge by participating in different projects aboard other research vessels within our fleet, and they bring that knowledge back to BIOS to share with our research community.