Guest post: Life lessons from counting phytoplankton

As part of her co-op, Sam Wessel is doing research with graduate student Jennifer Elliott at the Marine Science Center this semester. Photo courtesy of Sam Wessel.

As part of her co-​​op, Sam Wessel is doing research with grad­uate stu­dent Jen­nifer Elliott at the Marine Sci­ence Center this semester. Photo cour­tesy of Sam Wessel.

Today’s post was gen­er­ously con­tributed by Samantha Wessel, an under­grad­uate biology major who’s cur­rently on co-​​op at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass. Among other things she’s doing up there, she’s also working as a tech­ni­cian in Mark Patterson’s lab with grad­uate stu­dent Jen­nifer Elliott. You can read more of Elliott’s story in the accom­pa­nying news@northeastern post here. Enjoy!


There are things they don’t really tell you as an under­grad­uate stu­dent. They say you can go on to do research, to get your mas­ters or PhD, but they don’t tell you how it works. They don’t tell you how much time and effort you have to put in to col­lect and process sam­ples, ana­lyze data, write up pro­to­cols, defend your research, and even more that I, as a third-​​year under­grad­uate, prob­ably don’t even know about, yet.

It wasn’t until I took a posi­tion at the North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass. that I even began to con­sider what really goes into the whole process. Over the last three months I’ve been spending my time in three com­pletely dif­ferent labs at the MSC: the Hel­muth lab, which has a large out­reach focus; the Hughes-​​Kimbro lab, which focuses on salt marsh dynamics; and the Pat­terson lab, where I have been working closely with one of the grad­uate stu­dents. Each lab has pro­vided a totally dif­ferent expe­ri­ence and taught me a little more about what life after grad­u­a­tion might be like.

When I vol­un­teered to help Jen­nifer Elliott (in the Pat­terson Lab) sort zoo­plankton on Tuesday morn­ings, I was so ner­vous. I mean…my only lab expe­ri­ence comes from the chem­istry and biology labs I had to take as a Marine Biology major. If I messed up in one of those it wasn’t the end of the world. But with Jen­nifer, there was three years worth of research on the line! What if I messed it all up and misiden­ti­fied everything?!

Luckily, it wasn’t NEARLY that bad. I actu­ally kind of got the hang of it. And, man, can I tell a copepod apart from crab larva, or what? In the morning, I would go into the lab and get set-​​up at the fan­ciest dis­secting scope I have ever used (or seen, for that matter). The sam­ples are from the waters near Mau­ri­tius, Jennifer’s home, where she took sam­ples of the water for about three months and ran it through these super small strainers, called sieves, where she was able to sort the micro­scopic zoo­plankton into three dif­ferent size classes. She pre­served them in alcohol and brought them back here to ana­lyze them.

My job was to go through the sam­ples to iden­tify and count the little plank­tonic ani­mals called zoo­plankton. Jen­nifer pro­vided me with guides and images to help me remember what was what but more often than not, I would pick out the ones I knew for sure (the most dis­tinc­tive were the cope­pods and worms) and then get a con­fir­ma­tion on every­thing else. Every once in awhile, I would come across an animal that would stump us both. The first time that hap­pened, I couldn’t even think of what would happen next if it were my project…But Jen­nifer had the answers! We took some pic­tures of the mys­te­rious little critter and she sent them off to her friend who is an expert on Mau­ritian plankton. And then we saved him in a sep­a­rate vial, in case she needed to look at him again.

The more I worked with Jen­nifer, the more I real­ized that research isn’t just about being out in the field. Hun­dreds of hours go into pro­cessing and ana­lyzing the sam­ples you’ve col­lected for “just” a Ph.D. or mas­ters. If you want to become a full-​​fledged pro­fessor, there are years more of researching and writing papers and advising the next gen­er­a­tion of grad­uate stu­dents. It seems absolutely daunting, but at the same time, incred­ibly rewarding and has made look upon grad­uate stu­dents and pro­fes­sors with a new-​​found level of respect and admi­ra­tion. They are the proof that all that work is totally worth it.