Fieldwork rocks: Marooned on purpose

You might think of a deserted island when you picture being marooned, but for some geology researchers the island is their research ship. To collect samples of rocks and sediments from deep beneath the ocean, scientists park a ship called the JOIDES Resolution in place out at sea. That gives them plenty of time to drill for their samples, but it also means spending two months offshore. We talked with Luan Heywood, a marine science technician who sails for six months a year on the JR and with Ally Peccia, a grad student who sailed on a two-month expedition, about the science they do on the ship and how they felt about their time at sea.

This episode was produced by Sara Whitlock and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Jace Steiner.


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:01                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:02                What is the furthest out to sea you’ve ever been away from the mainland as it were?

Vicky Thompson:           00:09                Probably up to my armpits.

Shane Hanlon:              00:12                You’ve never been on a boat?

Vicky Thompson:           00:14                Out in the ocean?

Shane Hanlon:              00:15                Yeah.

Vicky Thompson:           00:15                I don’t think so.

Shane Hanlon:              00:17                Interesting.

Vicky Thompson:           00:19                I really don’t think so. I’ve been on boats in lakes and things-

Shane Hanlon:              00:22                Sure.

Vicky Thompson:           00:23                … In rivers.

Shane Hanlon:              00:23                Sure.

Vicky Thompson:           00:24                But no, I’m pretty scared of the open ocean.

Shane Hanlon:              00:28                I get that as well. Well, actually I’d have to look on a map, but for me, I’ve had two significant experiences. One, I went on a cruise with my family when I was younger-

Vicky Thompson:           00:40                Right.

Shane Hanlon:              00:40                I actually forget where we went out of, New York to Bermuda essentially, and so I do remember there was a rock wall on this big cruise ship, because it’s a cruise ship, and I got to the top of the rock wall and I looked around, it was day two or something, and there was nothing.

Vicky Thompson:           00:56                Right, that’s what gets me.

Shane Hanlon:              00:58                And that was the first time where I went, “Oh goodness.” Recently, I went to Galapagos with my partner and we were on a boat, like a much smaller boat, I don’t know, 16, 17 passenger boat, and we were in the middle of the ocean, but I feel like that didn’t feel as far away for whatever reason because we were going between all the islands, but there were nights where there were the first couple of days where I did not feel well, let’s say.

Vicky Thompson:           01:29                Oh, no. Were you green?

Shane Hanlon:              01:30                I was quite green.

Vicky Thompson:           01:33                Oh, boy.

Shane Hanlon:              01:34                And I was not alone though, but that did not make me feel any better.

Vicky Thompson:           01:38                Oh, I don’t want to get into that any further.

Shane Hanlon:              01:40                Not great. Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           01:40                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              01:57                And this is Third Pod from the Sun. All right, so that’s our time in the ocean, Vicky, but producer Sarah Whitlock is here with a story of researchers who go really far out into the ocean and stay there for months at a time. Hi, Sarah.

Sara Whitlock:              02:18                Hey, Shane. Today, we’re talking about geology research that’s happening out in international waters, and that’s on a ship called the JOIDES Resolution.

Vicky Thompson:           02:25                So geology research, what are they even studying out there?

Sara Whitlock:              02:28                They are pulling up samples of rocks and sediments from the sea floor, and those samples are called cores. The geologists studying them can learn things about the movement of tectonic plates, volcanic eruptions, and the Earth’s climate in different eras.

Shane Hanlon:              02:40                And collecting cores takes quite a while. I assume.

Sara Whitlock:              02:44                It does take a while. To get all the core samples they want, scientists sail out for two months at a time. Today, we’re going to be here from Luan Heywood, a research technician who spends around six months a year on the ship, and from Ally Peccia, a student who sailed on a recent expedition studying underwater volcanoes.

Shane Hanlon:              02:58                Great, let’s get into it.

Luan Heywood:             03:13                My name is Luan Heywood. I kind of have two titles. One is I work onshore at Texas A&M at a research institute called the International Ocean Discovery Program. There, I work as a research associate, but more importantly for most of my job, I sail on the research Jewel ship JOIDES Resolution where I sail as a marine science technician.

Sara Whitlock:              03:49                Can you tell me a little bit more about what the JR is? How big is that ship?

Luan Heywood:             03:53                Yeah, so the JR is the world’s foremost vessel for scientific ocean drilling. It is, I believe, about 400 feet long. It was built in the 1970s and then retrofitted in the ’80s, and pretty much since it kicked off in the ’80s, it has been doing these two month expeditions in all of the world’s oceans, getting cores from the ocean floor. The core that we’re drilling is essentially a long straw of geological material, it could be sediment, it could be some kind of hard rock or typically basalt. It’s about 10 centimeters wide in diameter, and then the core, if you consider it in total, it might be a kilometer long. So, we bring it up to the rig floor, we drill it in these 9.8 meter segments, but 9.8 meters is pretty big. You need probably at least four people to carry 9.8 meters of rock. So, then we cut it up into 150 centimeter sections. So, most of our lab equipment is equipped specifically for this 150 centimeter rock.

Sara Whitlock:              05:10                That’s amazing. How does that compare to what other research ships might be doing?

Luan Heywood:             05:15                What we do is fairly unique in terms of the international science community for a few reasons. First, most ships are not drilling ships. Drilling technology is pretty specialized as far as research ships go, and a lot of the techniques that we use, for example, for drilling, were invented specifically for the program by people employed by IRDP. So, what we do can be a little bit specialized. Most ships are probably a little bit less specialized. They might have the equipment to run things like submersibles or dredges or water column work. So, most ships have to be pretty multi-function, whereas our ship is dedicated for ocean drilling and we do it a lot.

Sara Whitlock:              06:03                And you’re actually on the ship right now, is that correct?

Luan Heywood:             06:06                I am. We are currently sailing back from an expedition where we were drilling just west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, really close to the Lost City Hydrothermal Field drilling in this underwater mountain, this sea mount called the Atlantis Massif. What it is it’s an oceanic core complex, so due to the structural forces at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, basically the mantle in that area is upwelling and forming a mountain. So, this last expedition has gotten a lot of press because we reached a record in terms of the structurally the deepest rocks from the oceanic mantle that we have ever gotten.

Sara Whitlock:              06:54                What is your day like on the ship? What is your role?

Luan Heywood:             06:57                So as a member of the technical staff, so we’re sailing on these two month expeditions and we do 12-hour shifts every day. So my responsibilities as a tech, there’s a few different facets to the responsibilities. We are in charge of the shipboard labs. So as such, we are in charge of curating these big collections of not only samples because we’re bringing kilometers of core off of the sea floor, but also data. We have many, many instruments on here. So, every day we’re generating huge amounts of data, and that all has to be quality checked and compared to different standards and put in the right format.

Sara Whitlock:              07:47                So, how do expeditions work? You mentioned that you were on a two-month-long expedition. Is that pretty standard, these scientific ships that are going out? Is that normal?

Luan Heywood:             07:55                I can only speak to what we do at IODP and on the JOIDES Resolution we have set up towards this two month structure. That said, the two months will include whatever time we need it in ports, it’ll include transits to the location, which can be up to a week, 10 days. It’ll include operational days where you’re actually drilling. It might include days where we’re waiting on weather, it might include days where we’re trying to run instruments, log instruments in the hole. So, not every day of those 60 days are days where we’re actively getting core, but oftentimes it is almost all of them.

Sara Whitlock:              08:34                So, what does that process look like? How many people are usually on an expedition?

Luan Heywood:             08:39                On the JOIDES Resolution, we sail about 110 people every expedition. Most of those people are ship staff who sail six to eight months out of the year on the ship. Then out of that 110 people, there’s about 20 rotating scientists that will come maybe once every five years, once every 10 years, maybe once in a lifetime. So, there’s a difference between the people that are coming here and getting these rocks and taking them back to their home institutions, versus technicians and crew members like me where this is not only our workplace, but also our home. Last year, I did about three and a half expeditions. There was a funny little transit in there, and I spent six full months out of 2022 on the ship.

Sara Whitlock:              09:35                How did you become a person who’s spending all this time at sea?

Luan Heywood:             09:39                It varies a lot depending on what part of the crew that you’re on. For many members of the crew, they come from maritime backgrounds. Then in my department, the technical and analytical services department, most of us come from some sort of science background and specifically some oceanography background. In my case, I’m a geologist, an igneous petrologist by training, and my academic research work was based off of IODP samples because if you think about it, the program has existed for like 55 years. So for many people, their entire career could be based off of IODP research and IODP samples. So, I’m on the younger side of the IODP generations of scientists, and then I came here. It has been an experience like none other. I’m not really sure I knew what to expect when I started it. The lifestyle is completely different than most people. We are constantly coming to and from the ship and out here the workplace is very different than what a workplace would be like at home, onshore because you not only do you work here, but you live here.

Vicky Thompson:           11:07                Six months is a really long time to spend at sea in one year.

Shane Hanlon:              11:11                Yeah, I am not sure I could handle that much time away from land, among other things, frankly, but it sounds like there are scientists who come onto the ship for individual two-month long trips, right?

Sara Whitlock:              11:24                That’s right, each expedition is designed to try and answer different sets of scientific questions, and about half of the scientists who sail on an expedition are participating because they want to study that particular spot. Ally is a grad student who sailed because the ship was actually near a volcano that she wanted to study.

Ally Peccia:                   11:39                I’m Ally Peccia. I’m a graduate student at Columbia University in Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Sara Whitlock:              11:46                And can you tell me a little bit about what you’re studying while you’re there?

Ally Peccia:                   11:48                Yeah, I study the interactions between volcanoes and climate, so how volcanic eruptions instantaneously impact climate and then on longer time scales, how climate impacts volcanism in the Earth’s system.

Sara Whitlock:              12:02                That sounds really fascinating. And can you talk a little bit about how field work is a part of what you’re doing?

Ally Peccia:                   12:08                Well, I guess field work is a part of what I’m doing and that I work oftentimes with physical samples. So, those samples need to be collected by somebody in the field. So the International Ocean Discovery Program, which is now IODP, has been going on for quite a long time, but it’s one of the only programs in the world that collects deep drill cores. So, that’s when you go out oftentimes into the middle of the ocean, places like the middle of the Atlantic or the middle of the Pacific, a little bit different in our case, of course, and you drill into the sediments that lie on top of the ocean crust. And this is something that is relatively challenging to do, but has offered some of the greatest insights into the way that our earth works of any really field work, in my opinion.

                                    12:59                I’m a little biased because I work with those materials quite often, but something that is relatively inaccessible to do in normal field geology because it’s usually under several hundred meters of water and then drilling several hundreds of meters of sediment. And then recently I had the pleasure of going on an expedition where I was a part of being able to collect those samples. So, we were on the IODP expedition to go and drill in and around Santorini caldera, and I actually oftentimes work with deep sea cores. So, I’m working with those materials and it was really a great experience to go out and actually collect them in person. It was sort of like pulling the curtain to see how that’s actually done, and I think the impact that has on the samples that are then retrieved.

Sara Whitlock:              13:55                But how did you come to be on this particular expedition?

Ally Peccia:                   13:59                So, this particular expedition was really a combination of the two types of projects that I’ve worked on previously. So, I’d previously worked on things that were very volcanic focused, so looking at the rocks that come out of a volcano and then relating that to whatever processes are happening in individual eruption, and then another project that I work on, which focuses on deep sea sediments. So, our expedition was really interested in volcanism around Santorini caldera. So, Santorini is the lovely vacation destination in the Mediterranean, but also the caldera itself, and the island itself was formed by multiple major massive eruptions that have happened over the last 100,000 years. Of new interest is also the submarine volcano Kolumbo, which is just to the, I think, southwest of Santorini, but we are really interested in characterizing the history of the Santorini system. So, there’s three volcanoes in that area, Christiana, Santorini, Kolumbo, that have evolved over time, as well as the general tectonics of the region that have then interacted with the style and magnitude of volcanism that we see.

                                    15:15                And so, I had previously worked with volcanic materials and drill cores, and then this project was sort of the perfect combination of both of those two things. So, I saw the position advertised by IODP, which I was already familiar with, and I had been at the Gulf Coast repository in Texas, and the XRF manager, Jennifer Hertzberger said, “Oh my gosh, you have to apply for Expedition 398. This is perfect for you, and you would love being on the ship. Everybody would love you. You’d have such a great time.” So I was like, “Oh, of course.”

                                    15:50                And it’s pretty competitive, so I applied for it, put a project proposal in. Each scientist also has to propose their own project based on what they might expect the materials drilled to be, and then ended up getting accepted, had a little bit of cold feet. It’s a big commitment, it’s two months on a ship. It was in our case over Christmas, over New Year’s. So I was definitely nervous, but everybody who I work with said, “Oh, no, you have to go. Once in a lifetime experience, absolutely make it happen,” and it was worth it.

Sara Whitlock:              16:21                That is truly amazing, and you mentioned that we’ve had these great revelations from drilling into the Earth’s crust underneath all this water, but why would we bother to do that? Why would we drill into the area underneath the ocean instead of just looking at what’s on land?

Ally Peccia:                   16:36                I think there’s a few reasons, and it does depend really on what you’re interested in, but those records often can offer you fundamentally different information than what’s available on land. So for example, in our case, when we’re interested in tefer stratigraphy, which is the past record of volcanic eruptions, marine records, those that are captured in basins are actually much more robust than what you can get on land because oftentimes records on land are exposed to weather, something that we experience every day, you have rains, you have floods, you even have dry periods that can then wash away different tefer layers, whereas a marine record preserves a much better total record of all of the eruptions that have happened and oftentimes much further back in time because things don’t last very long on land thanks to plate tectonics.

                                    17:33                Whereas something that is deposited right at a mid-ocean ridge can last the entire life cycle of a plate until it’s returned to the deep earth via subduction. So, I think a potential to A, expand what we’re able to look at, so obviously on land is much more accessible, but then also the timescales and then the quality of the records that we’re looking at.

Shane Hanlon:              18:04                So, basically we can learn things about geology from studying the underwater record that we’d never learn otherwise.

Sara Whitlock:              18:13                And for the past 50-plus years, people have built whole careers studying these cores to understand what that underwater record is telling us.

Vicky Thompson:           18:20                So that’s great and all, but what’s it like to actually live on the ship?

Ally Peccia:                   18:26                So, I was on the midnight to noon shift. I would wake up at 11:30 PM which never was not weird to set your alarm for 11:30 PM, and then I would work from midnight until noon, and then I was off at noon, which was really lovely because then I would have my time off. So, I’d usually go to bed around three or 4:00 PM and I would have my recreation time from about noon to three, which was the beautiful time in Aegean to sit in the nice Mediterranean sun and do karate or chat with people, play the guitar, or whatever it was. We got the opportunity to take karate lessons on the ship, which was absolutely a highlight. Actually, there was a lot of great recreation opportunities on the ship. They have a really nice movie room, we had a few dance parties, 12 hours, not a lot of time, but we definitely packed as much in as we could during that off time.

Sara Whitlock:              19:22                I’m sure people were not expecting to be doing karate out there in the Aegean.

Ally Peccia:                   19:27                No, certainly not. That was definitely an unexpected highlight, and I think doing karate on the deck of the JR and the Santorini caldera was even more epic.

Sara Whitlock:              19:38                Such a good backdrop for all of that. Did you find anything that you really did miss, though? It sounds like you had a lot of food, a lot of entertainment, great friendships. Was there anything from land that you missed while you were there?

Ally Peccia:                   19:48                Anything from the land I missed while I was there, I really missed land, particularly because we often could see land from the ship. I was dying just to touch dirt that wasn’t hundreds or millions of years old because we obviously saw a lot of land in our cores, but I think to not be able to touch grass or see trees or just vegetation in general, I did really miss. There was one tree in the bridge deck. They have a small little tree and sometimes I would go just touch the leaves to be like, “Plants still do exist.”

Sara Whitlock:              20:35                What do you think is the most difficult part to deal with of being at sea for this amount of time?

Luan Heywood:             20:42                The most difficult part of being at sea for long periods of time is that you really can’t go home. There’s no weekends, there isn’t really time to mentally decompress. If you’re at work and something has put you in a bad mental state, or if you’re tired, you’re around 100 other people that are equally as tired because we’ve been on a ship for 45 days, so that can be really challenging, but also I think that the type of people that gravitate towards this kind of work have a lot of resilience and also tend to value the power of mutually supporting each other because we’re out here and we’re the only people out here, so everyone has to support everyone else.

Sara Whitlock:              21:32                What do you think are some of the favorite types of science that you’ve gotten to do on the JR while you’ve been there?

Luan Heywood:             21:37                I think that for me, my favorite part of the science that I’ve done in the JR is really just seeing the rocks. There’s this incredible moment when the core comes off of the drill floor and when we first split it and in the splitting room, it’s only technicians, so we’ll pop it open, and that is the first time that those rocks have ever been seen by a human. Maybe the first time that those rocks have been seen by any organism for millions of years.

Ally Peccia:                   22:08                So, I think for me to interact with other people’s ideas of why they found this so exciting and the pieces of it that were really fascinating and watching everybody else learn alongside me was really refreshing, and I think actually renewed my love for science. It could be challenging to be a graduate student at times because you feel really dumb. People don’t talk about that enough. It’s really hard to just feel like you don’t know what you’re doing sometimes, but I think being on the ship and every single day was like… None of us really know what we’re doing, but we’re doing our best and we’re learning on the way, and some of the small mysteries were so fascinating to me and our attempts to reconcile that with our own understandings. So, that was personally my favorite part of it, and I think the most important takeaway.

Luan Heywood:             23:02                So, the scientific discoveries of the JOIDES Resolution have been hugely influential in our field. Really right after the JOIDES Resolution came out, right after the first expeditions of our predecessor programs, the Ocean Drilling Program and the Deep Sea Drilling Program, there were these incredible scientific discoveries. Some of the first expeditions were drilling these transects across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which helped confirm the theory of plate tectonics. Some early expeditions were done in the Mediterranean that landed great evidence towards the Messinian salinity crisis, which is where the Mediterranean closed and dried up and formed these thick beds of evaporated salts and chip sums.

Shane Hanlon:              23:59                It sounds pretty great to do karate on the deck of a ship while making revolutionary scientific discoveries.

Vicky Thompson:           24:05                Oh boy, sign me up, Shane. I can’t wait.

Shane Hanlon:              24:10                It sounds like it.

Sara Whitlock:              24:10                Unfortunately, both of you only have a couple more opportunities to sail. The JOIDES Resolution is retiring at the end of 2024. It was at the end of its lifespan, and there’s not a replacement vessel yet.

Luan Heywood:             24:20                It’s an incredible time of flux for the entire scientific ocean drilling community and also especially all of us that are in the JOIDES Resolution family. So, scientific ocean drilling will continue. IODP currently has two other components of the drilling program. We have the Chikyu, which is operated out of Japan, and the European countries band together in this organization called ECORD that runs what we call mission specific platforms, which is when they might rent some sort of industry platform or maybe an icebreaker to do a one-off expedition. Between the Chikyu and the mission specific platforms, I don’t have the exact numbers, but I believe it’s been in total, maybe on the order of 10 or 20 expeditions total between those two organizations. The JOIDES Resolution, we’ve had hundreds of expeditions over the past 50 years, and IODP is run by this incredible international collaboration by scientists from many different countries.

                                    25:28                So, even though we’ve gotten so much core from the JOIDES Resolution, scientific ocean drilling will continue on other vessels. Also, if you consider the quantity of core that we’ve gotten in the past 40, 50 years, all of that material is still available to be studied by the international scientific community. It’s held in three main repositories in Japan and Texas, Texas A&M where I am and in Germany. So, that material is still around. That said, I do think that there will be an effect in terms of people’s careers going forward because we’re simply not bringing up the same amount of rocks off of the sea floor. Another great thing about IODP is that it has formed such a large community. We’ve been really intentional about trying to spread that out across different generations. So, it’s been this incredible platform for interaction between senior scientists and early career scientists. So, it’s hard to know what that’s going to look like going forward.

Sara Whitlock:              26:36                So, how do you think that might change the early research careers of other graduate students?

Ally Peccia:                   26:43                It’s really a shame, and I think, of course there’s plans to develop a new ship for the future, but that does involve a gap of about 10 years of a functioning expedition, and it is really unfortunate. I think it will shift the focus of a lot of ongoing work to cores that have already been collected, and I imagine that graduate students will probably have to look elsewhere if they want to take place in a drilling cruise. So it is unfortunate, and it’s something that actually comes up pretty often. When I accepted the position to be on the expedition, I didn’t know that the JR was getting retired. That’s something that’s just been developing after having been on the expedition, and now whenever I tell people they say, “Oh, wow, you must feel so lucky to have been able to take place in one of the last expeditions.”

                                    27:34                So, I think I do feel not guilty, but I feel really grateful to have been a part of it, and I do feel sad for new graduate students who won’t get to be a part of it within their careers, well, within their graduate student career, hopefully after that, but I imagine the focus will shift more towards legacy cores, which I think still hold knowledge that we have no way of knowing the potential there, and I think that that was one of the biggest points that I think I really took home from the cruise also, was that these cores will continue to offer valuable information to scientists and people in general for the foreseeable future. And there’s things that people will be interested in with our cores and also cores that have already been drilled for as long as the repositories exist.

Shane Hanlon:              28:31                I wonder what aliens would think if they would come to earth and find us just hoarding thousands of tubes of rocks and mud.

Vicky Thompson:           28:41                I feel like they’d definitely assume that they’re very important artifacts to us, which I think they are, right?

Shane Hanlon:              28:47                To some folks, sure.

Vicky Thompson:           28:49                Well, they are important.

Shane Hanlon:              28:50                Yes, no, no, no, not to minimize that.

Vicky Thompson:           28:50                I got offended by that, they are-

Shane Hanlon:              28:55                I see that. What do you hoard, Vicky? What’s your thing?

Vicky Thompson:           28:57                Oh, pocketbooks.

Shane Hanlon:              28:59                Fascinating. All right, Sarah, what about you?

Sara Whitlock:              29:02                I think for me, it’s got to be thrift store mugs that are as weird as possible.

Vicky Thompson:           29:08                Oh, that’s great.

Shane Hanlon:              29:09                Oh my gosh, mine is pint glasses or beer glasses. I started in college and we would go to this bar and once a week you could take the mug home, and now I’ve gotten rid of many, but at one point I had hundreds for myself, just single me. I could spend months and never have to actually go and do my laundry… Wash my dishes. Anyways, as all good things happen, we’re just going to keep going and just sign off because at this point I’m just rambling. So with that, that is all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           29:46                Thanks so much to Sarah for bringing us this story and to Luan and Ally for sharing their work with us.

Shane Hanlon:              29:51                This episode was produced by Sarah with audio engineering from Colin Warren and artwork by Jay Steiner.

Vicky Thompson:           29:57                We’d love to hear your thoughts on the podcast, so please rate and review us, and you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at

Shane Hanlon:              30:05                Thanks all, and we’ll see you next week. You know what’s funny is before you all signed on, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to press the button again so that the light doesn’t turn off in the middle of me speaking,” and of course it did, and that made for some very unhinged commentary on my part, but we’re just going to leave it in because-

Vicky Thompson:           30:30                Laundry.

Shane Hanlon:              30:32                It’s staying there because I don’t feel like redoing it and it adds to the charm, or at least in my mind it does.


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