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Members research spotlight: My research stay at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

by Marta Santos García, first-year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh

From 2nd January to 1st May 2023, I was funded by the E4 DTP Overseas Research Visit Fund, the Scottish Arctic Network (ScAN) and the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society (SAGES) to work with Dr Olivier Marchal at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Massachusetts, USA.  WHOI is a world-leading institution in marine science with state-of-the-art facilities renowned for its community of experts. During this stay, I had the privilege to work hand-in-hand with one of such experts in the field of numerical modelling. The purpose of my visit was to develop a model that could identify and quantify the key processes that govern the nutrient inventory of the Arctic Ocean using isotopic data as a constrain.

Significantly, the inventory and cycling of nutrients in the Arctic Ocean is undergoing severe alterations due to increased ice and permafrost melt, riverine discharge and sea ice thinning and retreat among other factors. Quantifying these alterations with a focus on nitrate, the limiting nutrient in the Arctic, will shed a light on what the net change in marine primary productivity will be in the future. This is important as primary producers are at the base of the food chain and thus exert a key control on ecosystem health, and are also an essential component of the biological carbon pump, which allows the capturing and long-term storage of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide.

For the successful completion of the model, I received daily support from Olivier with emphasis placed on methods appropriate for the solution of time-independent inverse problems. Such hands-on computer coding experience built my confidence in applying such methods to oceanic state estimation and greatly improved my programming skills. It was a very enriching (as well as challenging) first-time incursion to the field of modelling – a field that I now want to continue pursuing in greater depth.

Onboard R/V Tioga during a 1-day Biological Oceanography training course

This stay was particularly invaluable thanks to all the networking opportunities that it allowed me to take part in. I sat through weekly seminars on cutting-edge science which also fostered me to have post-talk 1:1 discussions with the invited speakers. I participated in thought-provoking reading groups which developed my critical thinking and sparked new research direction ideas for my work. I also visited the nitrogen isotope analysis facilities and learnt from their new method developments. It was particularly inspiring to see how they are adapting their methods to cope with the helium shortage crisis, which is applicable to my PhD lab work. I also learnt about subjects outside of my field of knowledge by interacting with students and postdocs from both within and outside WHOI. This ranged from visits to paleo-oceanography and geochemistry labs, listening to dolphin recordings used for bioacoustics research to even visiting a cephalopods lab at the nearby Marine Biological Laboratory. A highlight of my stay was a 1-day fieldwork training course that I was lucky to audit. It was a great taster for my upcoming participation in an oceanographic cruise this summer.

It was very enlightening to be part of such a welcoming and tight-knit community of marine researchers. Their enthusiasm for collaboration across research groups and departments was contagious, and I was amazed by how valued early career researchers are in the institution. I especially learnt so much– both academically and personally- from the most informal of chats, such as during our sunny lunchtime breaks on the top floor balcony of Clark building. I loved hearing about my colleague’s passions, success stories and life lessons. I found the bond between PhD students and postdocs to be surprisingly strong and special; I looked up to them and learnt from their wise tips regarding future steps in academia – and in life overall. I will undoubtedly continue nurturing these connections into the future.

So, what’s next? The developed model will serve as the foundation for my PhD. I will now continue to work remotely with Olivier to develop a more involved 2-D or potentially a back-trajectory model to tackle some of the more specific questions that have raised from our work to date. I cannot wait to see what future results hold! Thank you, E4 DTP, ScAN and SAGES for facilitating this highly successful exchange.

Top left. Woods Hole harbour. Top right: Vineyeard Sound viewed from Quissett campus after a snowy day. Bottom left.Me at WHOI village campus . Bottom right: Cycling back home from work on the Shinning Sea bikeway.


In the ‘Members research spotlight’ series, we are bringing you updates from research projects of ScAN members. If you have a publication/expedition report/exhibition/podcast/workshop or any other relevant news to share, please send it to with ‘ScAN Members research spotlight for website’ in the title.

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