Mission & Objectives
Scientists & Crew
Mike Perfit checking
navigation points for the DSL-120 sonar survey lines on the crest
of the East Pacific Rise in the Main Lab of RV Melville.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Older... Actually, I always wanted to be some type of scientist. When I was little,
I got a copy of National Geographic magazine from my aunt and it showed a guy
sitting on the ice cap at the South Pole. Even though it must have been freezing,
the man in the picture didn't have a shirt on, and there he was, doing science
outside at a table on the ice at the end of the Earth. I thought: Cool!
I should be a scientist. As I grew up, I always thought about being an
oceanographer because I grew up near the Atlantic Ocean on the south shore of
Long Island, in New York. In 9th grade, I took an Earth Science class, and the
teacher was really enthusiastic about teaching geology and oceanography and that
got me thinking about being an oceanographer.
Where did you go to college and what got you interested in studying the ocean
I went to St. Lawrence University, in upstate New York and took a introductory
geology course my first semester. I don't really know why I took it, but I was
still interested in earth science and was reluctant to jump right into chemistry
or physics. I must have been interested in the geology class because it was a
7 am. class and it met Tuesday, Thursday and SATURDAY. Well, that class pretty
much sold me. I thought: This is great! The professor was a petrologist
(a geologist who studies different rocks and what they are made of), and he taught
us all about volcanoes and earthquakes which really interested me. I kept taking
more geology courses and graduated in 1971. After I got my undergraduate degree,
I decided that I really wanted to be a full-time scientist and do research. I
went to Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, which is part of Columbia University
in New York, and is where Maya Tolstoy now works. Since the type of geology that
I studied in undergraduate school was mostly about different types of rocks,
I decided that studying the rocks on the bottom of the ocean would be pretty
neat. I also met Dan Fornari when I was in graduate school and we had the same
advisor in marine geology for a while, Dr. Bruce Heezen, one of the discoverers
of the mid-ocean ridge, but I switched to petrology and geochemistry while Dan
continued to study seafloor structure and morphology. We became good friends
and have continued to work together closely on our research of ocean floor volcanic
features and lava flows.
getting ready to launch the rock corer on a recent cruise
to the Juan de Fuca Ridge. The corer gets bashed into
the seafloor lava flows and chips off pieces of volcanic
glass. The glass gets embedded in steel cups that are
filled with surfboard wax on the nose of the corer. Mike
analyzes the glass chips back in his lab. to determine
the chemistry of the lava.
Have you been on lots of research cruises? Do you like it?
Yes. Being in the field, whether it is on land climbing up a volcano, or at sea
dredging up rocks, or diving in Alvin and seeing them first hand and collecting
them with Alvins claw, is what I like best about my work. I have been
on a few dozen research cruises, many of them with the people on this cruise,
Dan and Rachel in particular. Dan and I have been on about 10 expeditions together
over the past 20 years. A lot of my work involves sampling rocks from the seafloor.
When I get back to my lab, I analyze them to determine their chemical composition,
how they came from the Earths mantle, and what chemical changes they have
gone through. It is amazing to me that I can learn from rocks about ancient events
that took place long before there were people on Earth to watch them happen,
or learn about things that happen within the Earth hundreds of kilometers down
in places where no human can see (like inside a magma chamber!). This is the
puzzle-solving part of science and what makes it so much fun.
What are you responsible for doing on this cruise?
I am one of three watch leaders (Maya and Rachel are the other two), so I have
to oversee what all of the students are doing as we collect data. I have to make
sure the data are good, that the navigation on each watch is kept up to date
and that we are towing the sonar system at the right altitude and over the points
on the map that Dan Fornari has picked for us to survey. I make sure all the
interpretations the students are making and entering into the computers in the
Control Van are correct. Finally, and what is the most fun, is exploring and
just finding new lava flows, watching the sonar data show us the volcanic terrain
under the ship. Looking at the DSL-120 sonar data is just like being in an airplane
at about 10,000 feet flying over the East Rift Zone of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii;
seeing fissures, faults, volcanic cones, and lava flows all intertwined and trying
to sort out the puzzle of what it means and how they formed. But standing watch
is pretty intense, so it is important to take a little time and let your brain
relax by going outside and watching the ocean, reading, exercising, or dueling
with an evil caterpillar in a computer game (which I tried the other night- it
was pretty neat!).
The other main responsibility I have on this cruise is to work with Dan and Maya
to decide where we want to collect samples of the lava flows that we image with
the DSL-120 sonar and Argo II systems. We will be scooping up seafloor lava using
dredges which are big steel chain bags that bash along the bottom and collect
rocks. Dredging is lots of fun, except when you get the dredge hung up and it
gets stuck to the bottom. It is not fun being anchored to the ocean floor; sometimes
it can take hours or even days to get unstuck. We will also use a rock corer
to sample lava. A rock corer is basically a large, heavy steel dart that bashes
into the lava flows and collects chips of the volcanic glass in wax. We actually
use a type of surfboard wax that comes from California on the tip of the corer
that slams into the seafloor. The wax has just the right stickiness to keep the
glass chips embedded in it as they are hauled back to the surface. Because there
are so few rock samples that have been collected from the East Pacific Rise axis
in the area between 1°N and 8°N latitude where we are looking for new
eruptions, every rock we find will tell us something new about the chemistry
of the magma that produces lava on the seafloor and the processes going on in
the Earths mantle. Don't get me started on talking about geochemistry
or Ill miss my watch!
and Paul Johnson in the Control Van studying the latest sonar images
of the volcanic seafloor we have been surveying the past few days.
What do you like most about your job and being at sea?
I think, first and foremost, I like to be outside, exploring and using my brain
to solve science puzzles. There arent many jobs where you get paid to
do all the things that you like to do - be in the outdoors, travel to exotic
places, go out to sea and make discoveries. Also, I like teaching a lot. I think
the combination of doing two really different things - teaching and research-
is good, it keeps you on your toes. A big part of scientific research is done
totally on your own, interpreting your own ideas and evaluating what other scientists
are doing - synthesizing information. You use this in your own research, but
you also have to distill it down to where students can understand it and get
excited about the science - that is often a real challenge but also a lot of
It sounds like you love everything about what you do. Is there anything you dont
like about your job?
Well, I dont like how much I have to do sometimes, especially the non-science
parts of my job. Being a college professor, you are expected to be an administrator,
a bureaucrat, a committee member, a teacher, a researcher; each one of those
jobs takes half of your time - you can see that it adds up to too many full-time
jobs. Another thing I find frustrating about how much we have to do as scientists
is that sometimes you feel that you cant get everything done as well as
you would like to. We are trained to be perfectionists... to do good experiments,
carefully, record the data and analyze it correctly. When you start applying
those same criteria to the administrative and non-science parts of the job you
can get frazzled quickly and sometimes it takes time away from your family. That
is not good. But, despite all of the frustrations (and all jobs have things that
are not fun to do), being a scientist gives you lots of freedom. You are your
own boss, so you work at your own rate, doing whatever you think needs to be
done. Sometimes, though, you can be your own worst boss, always pushing yourself
to do too much.
Do you ever get seasick?
Yes., though fortunately the weather on this cruise has been terrific so Ive
felt fine. Over the years Ive gotten better and better about how prone
I am to seasickness. My first few times at sea I was hanging off the rail
feeding the fish as they call it, quite a lot. And then 4 or 5 years ago
I seemed to have reached some type of plateau where the rocking motion didnt
bother me as much. But when it gets rough and the ship really starts to pitch,
and you feel like there is no gravity, I don't care how much of an old salt you
are, most folks feel the effects of a rough sea and get sick; it's miserable.
But, despite the rolling around, where else can you go out and see all the wonderful
creatures that live in the ocean every day, and each evening see a sky full of
bright stars, AND get to actually see and make discoveries about the bottom of
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