A Day in the Life of a Scientist

The universe is huge, in case you hadn't heard, and even the small planet we live on is rather large-- so large, in fact, that we've only explored a fraction of the ocean's floor (less than 5%, according to NOAA) and we're still discovering thousands of new species of animals every year. It's probably no surprise, then, that when a person decides to become a scientist, it becomes a major part of their identity for the rest of their life.

Meet Dr. Richard Fralick, scientist, scuba diver, explorer.

Meet Dr. Richard Fralick, scientist, scuba diver, explorer.

Meet Richard Fralick, Ph.D, aka Dick. Dick actually didn't actively decide to become a scientist as much as he just fell into it by way of the movie "The Silent World," by Jacques Cousteau (which coincidentally, you can watch here, for free!). After watching the movie, Dick and his friend decided to go learn how to scuba dive--and that decision completely altered the course of Dick's life.

He explained the impact to me from two different angles. From a societal perspective, he has been extremely productive and had a fulfilling life, and he has added greatly to the research and literature about exploring our planet. As a person, he has learned that he can motivate young and old people to not fear scientific knowledge, and to pursue the things that fascinate them. Plus, now he has a ton of cool stories.

After getting his scuba certification, Dick began to assist with some diving courses at the Cambridge Y. There he met Dr. Mackenzie Lamb, a botanist, who invited him to work as a Technical Research Assistant at the Farlow Herbarium. Dick's primary task there was to go diving with Dr. Lamb and collect algae at different depths. Over the next few years, Dick worked on a variety of projects in a variety of locations, improving his diving skills and expanding his knowledge of the ocean and algae.

In no time, he found himself on a ship, headed to Antarctica to continue exploring the ocean floor via scuba diving.

Yes. I did say Antarctica. Scuba diving. In Antarctica. 

Just in case you don't know where Antarctica is. See that little green tail at the top? That's Chile, South America. Seriously though, go on  Google maps  sometime and check out the bottom of the planet. 

Just in case you don't know where Antarctica is. See that little green tail at the top? That's Chile, South America. Seriously though, go on Google maps sometime and check out the bottom of the planet. 

During the Austral summer of 1964 - 1965, Dick lived in Antarctica in a small bunker with several other scientists, divers, and naval officers. In his book, Antarctic Expedition, Dick explores everything from what it was like to plunge into the frigid waters of the Antarctic in nothing but a neoprene suit, to what they did on a day to day basis, to his encounters with the interesting and curious animals that inhabit one of the coldest places on Earth. 

Here he is! In his neoprene wetsuit and scuba gear, collecting algae.

Here he is! In his neoprene wetsuit and scuba gear, collecting algae.

His stories are exciting and intriguing--after all, I would guess that Antarctica isn't even on the list for most people to visit, let alone go there to live for a few months! It's an exciting place, with so many things left there to be learned and discovered. But it is also filled with danger. 

Here is a short excerpt from Dick's book (page 118) in which he and the team encountered a killer whale: 

We arose one morning at 10 AM and had our usual breakfast of fresh rolls, cheese, butter and coffee. We also reviewed our day. The dive plan today was for Lamb and Waterhouse to make a deep dive to 135 feet. The bottom time was not to exceed 15 minutes. The planning and execution of such a deep dive made me nervous. A marked line had been set the day before. 
Lamb, Waterhouse, and I were towed to the dive site by Cueli and Zimmermann in a second small boat. A large canvas collecting bag had also been placed at the bottom of the diving line. I set underwater watch bezels, and the divers grabbed a lead weight ring and mesh collecting bags and headed for the bottom just before 5 pm. 
The divers found a dense covering of red algae and some large Phyllogigas plants, starfish, tunicates, like rugby footballs, and Crinoids with a peduncle and huge logghead sponges. A unique green alga, Derbesia Antarctica was also found. The depth of 41 meters 130 feet was reached. Samples of algae were collected and bagged. The divers stuffed the collecting bags into the large canvas bag. After slowly ascending the dive line they reached the decompression stop at 10 feet below the surface. After taking several breaths of air, the danger signal (four tugs on the line) signaled the divers to surface immediately. 
I described it in my journal as follows: 
“As the divers reached the ladder I grabbed the tanks on their backs and hauled them into the boat. The divers were one on top of the other tangled in a mass of arms, legs and diving equipment. I rowed madly toward shore.” 
Lamb’s journal adds: 
“The sea leopard must be following and trying to upset the boat. When we got close to land and the divers somewhat untangled.” 
This is an orca. (Picture from Morguefile.) An orca can weigh up to 6 tons (that's 12,000 pounds!!!) and be 23 - 32 feet long. That's as big as a school bus.

This is an orca. (Picture from Morguefile.) An orca can weigh up to 6 tons (that's 12,000 pounds!!!) and be 23 - 32 feet long. That's as big as a school bus.

Two orcas had probably, out of curiosity, came very close to us. So close, in fact, that I could have easily reached out and touched them. When the orcas blew air and my face got wet, I knew it was a close call.
While the divers were down at the decompression stop, Zimmermann suddenly heard the expulsive hissing blast of the two killer whales close by. The whales cruised over the marked line where Lamb and Waterhouse had been only two minutes earlier. Zimmermann said, “That was really a close call,” his face very pale.
Zimmermann’s journal gives by far the most detailed account:
“ORCA! GET THEM OUT QUICK! I have heard this sound before. The sequence of events that follows takes a mere 4 1/2 minutes, however it seems to us like a long time, and we shall certainly never forget it. It is absolutely clear to me that we have no chance to reach the shore in time. Killer whales are very much faster than our ridiculous little row boats. Furthermore, nothing would be easier for them than to tip over our boats; they have been observed to break 75 cm thick ice floes to get seals. 
I turn our boat (I happen to be on oars today) in order to throw Dick the line. But he has already pulled the divers (who came to the surface with the four-tug emergency signal) into the boat. He first grabbed Mack, yanked him in, face down, then Richard on top of Mack. Before I have made the full turn and am ready to throw the line, Dick grabs the oars. I therefore turn again and we both row madly toward the shore. Cueli begs me to let him row, we change places and I keep an eye on the water surface. I expect the orcas any moment, maybe we’ll all spill in a few seconds. 
Cueli, the hardy Navy officer, is very pale. When we have moved some 50 meters toward the shore I see the orcas again, there are two of them. They are evidently not interested in us, they have made a sharp turn and travel now parallel to our shore from right to left. The divers’ breathing and our rumbles with the oars on the boats, must have been conspicuous to them, they were so near. The scare still sits within our bones, and we continue to row toward a shallow cove. 
Dick’s boat, that had the divers, was ahead of my boat with Cueli. Four flippered feet can be seen sticking over the edge of the boat. The poor divers have no idea what happened, they lie in the most uncomfortable position at the bottom of the boat on top of each other, face down. With every pull of the oars, Dick’s feet dig into Mack’s body.
When we reach the little cove inside Gallows Point we feel relatively safe again, we rest and relieve the divers. Now we can tell them what happened. Dick looks at his stop watch and makes the comment that exactly 4 and a half minutes have passed since we heard the breathing sound of the orcas. We row back to the station. Cueli, Dick and I are still in a state of shock, the divers, on the other hand, are rather cheerful, this annoys us. This psychological tension, which we begin to understand only gradually, remains with us for several days.”
In Antarctica, the potential for dangerous situations is ever present. We could never be complacent with any situation nor were we fully cognizant of the potential for problems. All of us had to be ready to expect “glitches” every day and prepare in our own minds how we would cope with any adversity. All of us had read and admired Shackleton and knew that our problems with weather, animals, and navigation were negligible compared with his. 
But, in retrospect, we did become a little overconfident toward the end of our expedition. For example, we did not wear life jackets every single time, nor did we always sign out for excursions outside our living quarters.  Nonetheless, we were able to finish our fieldwork safely and efficiently.

It hasn't always been easy for Dick. Aside from the dangers of swimming with orcas or leopard seals, traveling on a boat in 25 foot high waves, or wandering around in the freezing temperatures of Antarctica, Dick has faced more normal challenges as well. For example, as a kid, Dick lacked academic discipline, and didn't receive much inspiration or support from his home. In addition, his family didn't have the money to send him to school. He had to figure all of that out on his own. But now, based on his own personal experiences, Dick believes strongly that a kid from poor circumstances can really succeed. They could build a spaceship or feed the world or swim to the deepest part of the ocean. Challenges are there to be overcome. 

Dick isn't only a scientist. He labels himself as a husband, father, and grandfather, as well as a mentor to students and colleagues throughout the world, including places such as Portugal, the Azores, the Philippines, Greece, and China. I would argue that words like explorer, researcher, and teacher also apply. But being a scientist is an extremely important part of his identity. He has a lot of confidence in his knowledge about algae and about the world, and knows he has inspired many students to pursue science as their passion as well.

This is just a really cute Weddell seal, also from Dick's book.

This is just a really cute Weddell seal, also from Dick's book.

Though Dick's trip to Antarctica was an exciting part of his life of a scientist, it didn't end there. Far from it. Throughout his life he worked on a wide variety of projects, including spending time on a submarine and living in underwater habitats. He then became a teacher and taught at a prep school, UNH, and Plymouth University, spending nearly 40 years of his life encouraging students to pursue science. He lists his work with marine algae as his favorite thing about being a scientist. He explains, "the algae are complicated, different, and incredibly interesting. They play an important role in food cycles in the ocean and oxygen production and climate change." It's crazy to think that algae, such a small and largely unnoticed (by the general population) part of the ecosystem could be that interesting. But did you know that between 70-80% of the oxygen that we breath is produced by algae? And all of science is like that: there's always something, waiting to be learned.

I asked him if he had any advice for aspiring scientists. He said: 

"If you are interested in science, find a way to do it. Get highly motivated, don’t give up, share your knowledge, meet scientists, become an intern or volunteer, and get involved... Discover what you really like, develop your skill sets, and really make a difference." 

To learn more about Dick and his trip to Antarctica, check out his book, Antarctic Expedition, available on Amazon. It's got tons of great pictures, and even better stories. You can also learn more about Dick by visiting his website. In addition, if you're in NH, come to his launch party! It's happening Thursday, April 20th. He will be giving a talk at 10:00 AM, and the book launch will follow across the hall, starting at 11:30 AM, where he will give a short signing and have books available for sale. I'll be there, and we hope to see you there, too!

To learn more about oceans, biology, and all kinds of science, check out FindLectures.com, a website which curates free lectures and talks from around the web. (Paid for by the friends of nothing--it's my brother's site and I think you'll like it. ;) <3)

For more blog posts like this, you can subscribe! Click here to get blog posts (about humans, the universe, and everything) delivered to your inbox weekly!

Keep Antarctica Cool!