A Student’s Contribution to Understanding Tiny Marine Life

REU intern, Quinn Montgomery, on the research vessel Atlantic Explorer this fall.

Quinn Montgomery, 23, a senior at the University of San Diego, is one of eight students at BIOS this semester participating in the Institute’s annual Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. During their 12-week stay on Bermuda, students conduct independent projects under the supervision of BIOS faculty and staff, with the support of National Science Foundation funding.

Since September, Montgomery has been focused on a project looking at seasonal variations in phytoplankton, tiny plants important for carbon storage in the ocean, major producers of oxygen on Earth, and a fundamental food source for marine life. For the last year, his mentor, BIOS researcher Julia Matheson, has collected samples of seawater during monthly trips to a site in the Sargasso Sea used for long-term ocean monitoring, the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS).  Montgomery’s job is to analyze the samples by filtering the seawater and dying the phytoplankton cells with fluorescent dye that—when viewed under an epifluorescence microscope— highlights the differences in the phytoplankton’s cellular structures.

Montgomery then captures 20 photographs of each sample to classify the group and size of each cell in each picture. “In total, I’ve processed 2,200 pictures!” he wrote in an email while completing a research cruise off Bermuda this month.

REU student deploys the CTD

Montgomery works on the research vessel Atlantic Explorer to recover a CTD (used to measure conductivity, temperature and depth in the water column). The instrument gathers water samples in the attached bottles from a variety of depths, which helps scientists precisely determine the essential physical properties of water.

Looking at the phytoplankton types and population sizes across different seasons is important “to get an idea of which species are there, how many, and how much carbon they represent,” Matheson said. “These are some of the missing puzzle pieces that we didn't have before that we can now use, with other BATS data, to understand the carbon budget in the Sargasso Sea,” necessary information for better understanding global warming and climate change.

Montgomery, who hails from Los Angeles, has spent nearly two weeks at sea on a variety of research expeditions offshore Bermuda and as far afield as Puerto Rico. “One of my most memorable moments was when a waterspout formed within 300 feet (100 meters) of the ship while (research specialist) Natasha McDonald and I were deploying some very expensive scientific equipment off the back of the boat,” he said. “Everyone was running for cover while we had to carefully pull the equipment back on board quickly so the ship would be able to get away.”