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From the ocean to the clouds: Life on the NOAA ATOMIC mission
Katie Valentine

From the ocean to the clouds: Life on the NOAA ATOMIC mission

In honor of Women's History Month, NOAA scientists from across the country are taking readers inside what a typical day in their life looks like. Today, we’re doing things a little bit differently, and hearing from five scientists at once! Sandy Lucas, Trish Quinn, Janet Intrieri, Elizabeth Thompson, and Rachel Pryor were all scientists on the ATOMIC mission, a six-week research campaign in Barbados aimed at studying how the ocean, atmosphere, and shallow clouds work together to create our weather. Wave gliders, ocean drifters, drones, the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown, and the NOAA P-3 aircraft helped scientists gather data during the mission, with the goal of improving weather and climate predictions. 

What was the ATOMIC mission like for you? 

Sandy Lucas: As the programmatic lead for ATOMIC, part of my role while in the field was to make sure things were running smoothly and, if there are any issues, determine how we could all work together to solve them. My typical day was dependent on the needs of the program and the mission. Some days, I was meeting with the U.S. Embassy and Barbados Government officials wearing a formal business suit. On another day, I was in more casual clothes driving Janet around the island to scope out a launch site for the RAAVEN drone. On other days, I was meeting with the scientists to hear about their observations and plans for the upcoming field days. And, on one very exciting day, I was an observer on a P-3 research flight. 

Ron Brown

Ron Brown

The NOAA Ship Ron Brown in port. Photo courtesy of: Alex de Klerk.

Trish Quinn: I served as Chief Scientist for the first leg of ATOMIC onboard the Ron Brown. My days on the cruise started the night before with a science meeting that would help to determine the next day’s plan of the day. During a typical day, I would inform the ship of our plans and then check in throughout the day with scientists (including Elizabeth and Janet) and the ship’s operations officer to revise our plan as needed. In between, I analyzed data in real time, looking for interesting events that might help guide what we did next. It wasn’t all work, though. I found time to play a few games of ping pong each day, and I usually went for a run on the treadmill every afternoon and played bingo on Thursday nights!

Janet Intrieri:  I was on the Ron Brown for both legs of the cruise and served as Chief Scientist for the second leg of ATOMIC. I traveled from wintry Boulder, Colorado to tropical Barbados to participate in the mission. My typical morning: I woke up, grabbed coffee in the galley on my way down to the “hydro lab” (where our balloon launching station was set up), and started to prep for a balloon launch. By 6:30 a.m. I was outside ready to let go of my first balloon of the day.  

Most of the day was spent taking measurements, looking at data, coordinating plans between the groups, looking forward to the next meal, checking out the cloud conditions, and of course, email. The day really felt over after dinner when I would hear a ping pong match going or get in an occasional movie to really unwind.  

Elizabeth Thompson: I was a scientist aboard the Brown for both legs of the cruise. We started planning for this experiment back in 2017, so it was really satisfying to finally arrive, see all our gear working, and get it in the water or strapped to the ship for the real event. I was grateful to find that everyone worked well together onboard in a proactive, community way — the lines between each team quickly got blurred such that everyone was helping everyone; we were one big team. 

I often got up early to work my 5 a.m. shift lowering the underway CTD (a tool that gathers data on ocean conductivity, temperature and depth). I communicated regularly with other US and international scientists in Barbados, and with my team back in the U.S. at NOAA and University of Washington. We’d share results and plan ideas — I learned so much from working alongside fellow scientists aboard the ship that I usually only get to email with. Throughout the day, I would do several other shifts of the ocean profiling, try data analysis activities, think about how best to use our shipboard and autonomous platform data, communicate with the NOAA P-3 aircraft and Saildrones, and much more depending on the day. I also tried to fit in a workout each day in the ship’s gym below deck before heading to bed around 8 p.m. With 100% certainty — all this hard work paid off! For each day that folks on board were excelling, learning, having fun, and feeling accomplished for their hard work, I felt accomplished too.  

Outreach team

Outreach team

Members of the The ATOMIC outreach planning team pose together in Barbados. Back Row: Monica Allen, Jonathan Shannon, Sandy Lucas, Rachel Pryor; Front row: Cindy Sandoval, Meredith Kurz.

Rachel Pryor: I am the Operations Officer on the Ronald H. Brown. While on the project, I began my day with a four-hour Officer of the Deck bridge watch where I maintained the position of the ship for atmospheric sampling. Every day at noon, the science and ship leads and I would meet to ensure science needs were being met, operations were being conducted safely, and the quality of life for the participants was in good order. My day ended when overnight operations were communicated to the bridge watch standers and a “Plan of the Day” was posted around the ship. 

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced, and successes you achieved?

Sandy:  In addition to the programmatic lead, I was also the overall lead for two NOAA outreach events, which took place in Barbados and were a huge success! The two events were: 1) the ATOMIC/EUREC4A Aircraft Event, which included speeches from NOAA and Barbados leadership, a press conference, and  tours of the research aircraft, and 2) Tours of the NOAA Ship Ronald Brown for Barbados students, which included more than 80 participants and engaged many high school-aged young adults. I am really proud of the enormous effort that all of the ATOMIC groups (mostly led by women!) put forward during our field work. From science to service, this was a cross-NOAA team effort. 

Trish: As Chief Scientist, the biggest challenge is trying to accommodate all of the different projects’ needs — for example, maneuvering the ship to gather data for one project that compromised sampling for another project. Despite the continual balancing act between different needs, I think we were able to achieve all of our goals which made ATOMIC a huge success.

Ron Brown Tours

Ron Brown Tours

Elizabeth Thompson talks about launching weather balloons with Barbados high school students during the NOAA ATOMIC Barbados Outreach Event, which took place in between each of the two ATOMIC cruises. Credit: Monica Allen, NOAA

Janet: Obtaining high-quality measurements on the ocean, atmosphere and clouds was such a major success!  We had reduced staff on the second leg, and folks were tired from having been at sea for 3 weeks already, but I felt that the energy we had on Leg 2 was amazing. We really had a team spirit that kept it all hard work AND fun.

Elizabeth: Even when I was tired from irregular, long work schedules and feeling off physically because I was being sloshed around by the big waves, the group on board pushed me in a supportive environment to better understand our data as it was coming out, and answer science questions we had as the story unraveled in real time. Though it was challenging to put together results so fast, I learned so much from the group science meetings we held on board. Distilling our science and my projects into media-worthy soundbites, interviews, tours, and public features was also challenging but worthwhile — it is important to share our experience widely and communicate the value of our civil-servant work.

Mission goals

Mission goals

Sandy Lucas discussing science goals of ATOMICwith (from the left): Bjorn Stevens, Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, RDML Tim Gallaudet, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and David Farrell, Director, Caribbean Institute of Hydrology and Meteorology.

Would you like to share any advice for young women considering a career like yours in a STEM field?

Trish: I have found that doing research at sea as opposed to in a lab is unique because no one can go home at the end of day. That environment encourages interacting and sharing science continually throughout the day. It has provided opportunities for me to collaborate during a cruise and afterwards through data sharing and preparing publications. I would encourage any young woman interested in a STEM career to build collaborations and share data, because it makes your work so much more impactful.

Janet: I agree with Trish!  For me, it was like being at Science Camp.  All of the interactions, adventure, curiosity, and interchanges were so much more unique and rewarding given we were all focused on a common goal and “onboard” with each other.  

Sandy: My best piece of advice on STEM careers is to let you know that the best career paths are not always a straight line, and may require major changes in your direction over your career. When I started college, I could not have imagined that my career path would move from science to policy. After years as a scientist and now as a science administrator, I enjoy working to set the science priorities for a major federal agency, seeing those priorities being achieved in a global setting like the ATOMIC field campaign.

Elizabeth: Being an observational scientist is challenging and humbling. We go out to sea with a certain set of questions; we always come back with more. This is surprisingly more motivating and sustainable than it is exhausting! 

But it’s not just about the science on board, it’s about the community and lifestyle that gets created while you are all out there together. This social and outdoor environment involves constant human interaction and tough schedules that push you in a way that is hard to mirror anywhere on land. It pushes the creative side of your brain and your personality, and fosters teamwork. This combination produces better and more fun results than you could ever plan for on your own. It is now internationally recognized that diverse teams make better decisions and produce more valuable, equitable, long-lasting, creative results. It’s our earth, so in terms of studying it, everyone is invited!



A perk of being on the ATOMIC mission? Beautiful sunsets!

Rachel: When I was in school, I knew I wanted a career in science but never found a focus in a particular field. I learned I loved field work, being outside and sampling, but not analyzing and writing papers. Being a part of the command in the NOAA Fleet is the best because we are operational, logistically savvy, and a critical component to completing oceanographic missions underway. My advice to a woman interested in a STEM career is to be aware of the diverse career paths available in STEM, from communications to logistics, financial planning to execution, there is a career out there for every woman! 

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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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