Researcher Profile: Dr Jo Whittaker

By August 28th, 2019

By Olivia Belshaw

Meet Dr Jo Whittaker, Chief Scientist on Voyage IN2019_V04.

Despite an extensive delay caused by a broken winch cable, Jo still maintains her sense of humour.

Despite an extensive delay caused by a broken winch cable, Jo still maintains her sense of humour. Photo credit: Aki Suganuma (University of Edinburgh).

What is Jo’s role on RV Investigator?

Jo has several roles with regards to her position as the Chief Scientist on board the RV Investigator.

Before the voyage can even begin, Jo had to develop a proposal outlining the research that she and her team wished to conduct. When planning the proposal for this voyage and applying for “time” on the ship, Jo worked closely with fellow scientists Maria Seton and Simon Williams. This team lead the development of the original research proposal, including articulating the rationale and importance of the research they wished to undertake. When developing the proposal, Jo had to also ensure she addressed the feasibility of the voyage – in other words, how much “science” could efficiently be conducted throughout the duration of the voyage.

Once the voyage was approved, an extensive part of Jo’s job involved planning the voyage itself. The voyage must be cost effective, so Jo had to plan to ensure there was minimal time wastage whilst at sea. Consequently, she also had to plan strategies to overcome for foreseeable problems that the team might encounter whilst at sea. Jo had to do lots of paperwork before the voyage– this included health and safety paperwork, recording medical information, designing the voyage plan and regularly liaising with the Voyage Manager. Jo also had to coordinate the entire team of science researchers (who came from different countries) both prior to boarding and once on board the ship, and disseminate information to team members as needed.

On board the ship, in addition to the ongoing organisational components and ongoing sharing of information, Jo must lead the team of expert scientists in selecting sensible dredge sites at appropriate locations. When considering each dredge site, Jo must work closely with the Master of the ship and his team to plan the approach to the dredge, determine how much cable needs to be released to ensure the dredge can sink to the ocean floor, and plan strategies to implement if the dredge gets stuck.

What are Jo’s qualifications and experience?

Jo has extensive qualifications in science. She received a Bachelor of Science and Commerce before obtaining her Honours Degree in Geophysics. Jo went on to study at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and obtained her Masters in Geophysics. For her PhD, she studied Geophysics at the University of Sydney, with a focus on spreading ridges in the sea floor.

Jo is now an Associate Professor at the University of Tasmania – this means she is a full time academic. Her job is split as 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% administration time.

Why is Jo’s research important?

Jo’s research and the work of her team on the Investigator helps us understand how the Earth works. The mapping of the sea floor, undertaken by Jo and the Science team, allows scientists to discover the geological features of the landscape under the ocean – this is an area of science where we have very limited knowledge. Once these features have been identified, such as seamounts and large igneous provinces, scientists can collect rock evidence to determine how they were formed, specifically, how deep earth processes interact with the crust of the Earth to form these features.

This research, coupled with Jo’s research on ocean currents and the glaciation of Antarctica, is important as it allows scientists to make predictions about how deep mantle processes may change the surface of the Earth in the future, including relative short-term changes (between 40 000 and 100 000 years). These earth processes can impact on climate and our understanding of future climate variation and oceanographic changes, which can affect future generations.

In addition to increasing our understanding about Earth’s processes, Jo’s research is also relevant to the mining industry – studying the rocks taken from the sea floor can inform scientists about the earth processes that affect mineralisation, which can be important information for locating off-shore mineral deposits and ores of economic value.

Jo Whittaker (right) and Simon Williams discuss a dredge on the back deck of the Investigator

Jo Whittaker (right) and Simon Williams discuss a dredge on the back deck of the Investigator

What’s the most amazing thing Jo has seen so far on this voyage?

Jo believes the most amazing object discovered so far on this voyage was the “deep sea” coconut! Last week, a coconut was dredged up alongside deep sea sediment and rocks, from a depth of 4000m. The coconut was highly preserved, but very smelly. The coconut was also water logged, which explains why it sank to the sea floor, rather than floating along the top of the ocean.

On a previous voyage this year (December 2018 to January 2019), Jo’s team also discovered a whale ear bone, off the east coast of Tasmania. This was a particularly rare find. It is the first time Jo has ever seen something like this dredged and counts this as one of her most interesting discoveries.

What skills does Jo believe people need to thrive on a research voyage such as this one?

In order to thrive on a research vessel, Jo believes the most important factor is to not get sea sick! Being susceptible to sea sickness can impact on a person’s capacity to perform their job and interact with others. In addition, people need to be flexible, able to entertain themselves and resilient – sometimes they have to do the same tasks every day, and you can’t leave the ship. Jo also believes that that key interpersonal skills such as the ability to communicate, compromise and be considerate are essential.

According to Jo, this job is perfect for someone who…

Likes solving problems or puzzles! Being a research scientist involves solving complex problems, and thus requires some creativity and imagination. Plus, you have to be prepared to work collaboratively with others in order to get the job done.