This week has been a pretty tough one for me. Like many researcher who study animals in the ocean, I use a lot of technology. Technology is very important for a lot of ocean research - humans are not adapted to live underwater, and technology allows us to sea the ocean in ways our puny physiology would never allow.
We keep salt water from getting anywhere near our electricity by separating them with a barrier of plastic or rubber. Unfortunately, sometimes this barrier gets broken, and salt water comes through the break like Orcs through a hole in the walls of Gondor.
When things go wrong with research equipment, it can derail an entire research project. Ocean researchers can spend from thousands to millions of dollars to get to a location to do their research, and if the equipment fails when they get there, everything is wasted. Case in point: the $125 million mars rover satellite that failed in 1999 due to a math mistake in the thruster software.
One of the largest benefits (as well as the greatest challenges) of working at my research lab is that we don't have some of the resources that bigger mainland labs do. For example, the Scripps whale lab employs several engineers, who can design and make electrical recording equipment. We don't have engineers who make our equipment - we make it ourselves (my advisor has a PhD in electrical engineering, so he gives direction). This can be very frustrating at times. For students like me, who have a degree in Biology, there is a steep learning curve to understanding electronics.
|Climbing the electronics learning curve.|
But here's the thing that I think is really important, and which is the reason that I decided to make this video. Without the technical, hands on, practical, getting sh*t done, there would be nothing to blog about. This type of work is the very makeup of most science, but it doesn't really get the recognition it deserves. It's hard work (you may notice I get progressively tireder looking throughout the week), and I just want to give it some props.
Here's to you, equipment-fixers and the trouble-shooters. Blessings be upon you and many thanks!
(BEAR is my jokey-term for my equipment. I use a modified Ecological Acoustic Recorder
(EAR), which I tow off a Barge. I guess I could call it a Towed EAR (TEAR) or a Mobile
EAR (MEAR), but for some reason I think that it's hilarious that you can add one letter to
Ear and get Bear. So I'm calling it a Bear (for now). Hopefully Steven Colbert doesn't hear
about this, or I'll be put on Notice.
Here's a breakdown of what happens in the video:
Hydrophone Breaks, but I'm on the tug, so I don't know until...
I download my data, and find... nothing after the first 20 minutes. I check the hydrophone cable and find a break. I fly back from Kauai to Oahu to start fixing things
Use a hacksaw to cut into the epoxy of the hydrophone and try to expose the wires, cutting my hand in the process. I start soaking the epoxy in acetone, which will dissolve it if it's in there long enough (acetone dissolves plastic, which is why you buy it in a metal container!)
Give a talk about my research at our department symposium, then run around town buying things I need to fix my equipment (cable, aquarium sealant, zip-ties, etc). Remove cable from the tow-rope.
Attach new cable onto the tow rope, then go help out at the symposium banquet (where I got a flat tire).
Attach plug to end of cable. Dremmel into the hydrophone epoxy to get to the wires inside it. Test the hydrophone and pre-amp (still working). Do a happy dance. Attach new wires to the hydrophone. Attach the cable to the hydrophone. Set up a mold and pour epoxy around the hydrophone and cable.
Pour a second mold because my mold is tiny.
Remove hydrophone from mold, clean up and sand. Re-test (it still works!). Take hydrophone to car and drive to tug boat to try again (I'm leaving in an hour).
Update: 3/20/2012 at 8:56 am. Just got to Kauai, downloaded the data, and my fix worked! Woohoooo!