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Career Profile: Mairi Best, PHD’00

Alumna channels a lifelong love of oceans into career in oceanic research and monitoring

After completing her PhD in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago---specifically in taphonomy, the study of how organisms decay over time and become part of the fossil record--- Mairi Best, PhD’00, started on the faculty at McGill University in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. Back then, she was running a research program with 25 experiment sites around the world where she and her students were placing materials such as mussel and quahog shells into the ocean and monitoring how and when these items became fossilized. Best and her team became innovators in this research method by leaving these items in the ocean over long periods of time and collecting them at different intervals in order to put together a time-series that demonstrated how these objects degrade, under what conditions, and at what rates. At that time, she and team could visit their study sites twice a year at most, leaving what was happening to their decaying materials between visits to be a bit of a mystery. This critical gap in information during the research process motivated Best’s future involvement with projects that aim to monitor underwater research sites in near real-time, an area in which she continues to work today.

Around the time that Best and her team were pondering how to monitor their research sites between visits, she received word of a project starting on the west coast of Canada called VENUS. The goal of this program was to place instruments in the ocean that could monitor what happens in the depths at a near constant rate via fiber optic cable connections and the internet. In addition to trying to solve for the gaps of time between visits at oceanic research sites, VENUS’ system would monitor the environmental factors that she was trying to understand in relation to the decay of material underwater, such as temperature and oxygen.

Best and her team’s experiments were therefore included in the first deployment of VENUS in 2006. VENUS’ monitoring devices are situated in the coastal Salish Sea. The “brother” of VENUS, NEPTUNE, was in the planning stages at this time, and that team was looking for a Director of Science. The scope of the NEPTUNE project was to install an 800 kilometer loop of fiber optic cable that would allow for near real-time monitoring of the ocean floor using images and data taken from experiments sites situated between the west side of Vancouver Island out to the mid-ocean ridge in the Pacific. Best decided to put herself forth as a candidate for the Director of Science position, noting that, “for someone like me, passionate about studying the ocean, this opportunity was building the Inner Space Station.” She got the position.

As the Director of Science for NEPTUNE, Best led installation cruises for a month or so at a time in order to install and test equipment creating a system to monitor the ocean. Using her background in Ocean Science, Best worked with scientists to gather requirements for what the instruments would record once installed underwater. Best then worked with the IT and Engineering groups of NEPTUNE to ensure that the capabilities of the technology aligned with the needs of the scientific community. Additionally, Best managed the website for the project, where the data received from NEPTUNE’s research sites is housed and is available for viewing. Best explained that NEPTUNE is the first ocean observatory of its kind and scale in the world, currently utilizing over 45 different instrument types (cameras, hydrophones, temperature probes) and over 350 instruments (with multiple sensors) in order to monitor oceanic study sites in near real-time via an Internet connection.

When Best came to the end of her contract on the NEPTUNE project in 2011, she made the decision to seek out a role that would keep her closer to home, because in her role as the Director of Science, she found herself traveling on construction expeditions for months at a time. Additionally, now that NEPTUNE was up and running, Best saw that her role would transform into a maintenance and management-focused position, limiting her ability to be involved with getting other research initiatives off the ground.

After visiting the European Multidisciplinary Seafloor and water-column Observatory (EMSO)--the entity that has been tasked with unifying ocean observatories in Europe--Best negotiated a virtual working relationship with the organization and continues to serve as a consultant to them. What she has been tasked with in this role is to help EMSO become a legal entity on a European scale, or a European Research Infrastructure Consortium. This process has thus far taken around three years, and Best’s experience in serving as a “jack of all trades” for VENUS and NEPTUNE has served her well as she works as a Senior Consultant to EMSO, leading their efforts to become a formalized research consortium. Her work has included liaising with governments, developing a business plan, representing EMSO at international meetings, writing journal articles based on the work of various EMSO members, and developing a communications department.

Looking back on her studies before she became involved with VENUS, NEPTUNE, and then EMSO, Best said that her interest in taphonomy started while she was an undergraduate student at Laurentian University in Sudbury. When she finished her degree, she decided to backpack through Australia and Asia, dive to various reefs, and conduct research in the field. Through an internship at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Best was encouraged to pursue a graduate degree. In prospecting for graduate degree programs, Best started by writing researchers who had written journal articles that had influenced her work to that point. One of these authors was S.M. Kidwell, and, given that the vast majority of geologists at the time were men, Best assumed that she would receive a response back from someone named Steve Kidwell. Instead, she got a letter back from Sue, the William Rainey Harper Professor in the Geophysical Sciences Department at the University of Chicago. The letter encouraged Best to pursue a degree at UChicago.

Best’s experience at UChicago had a great influence on her in terms of the amount of independence she and fellow students were granted by faculty. For example, while completing her PhD at UChicago, Best wrote her own prospectus, led her own dive team, managed research projects, and won a scholarship from the Smithsonian that funded fieldwork in Panama. Best said that, “it was a fabulous experience because we were treated like junior colleagues rather than students [...] I really appreciated that, in our group, the professors--who are superstars--had no problem saying when they didn’t understand something, and that was a lesson that I took away from UChicago. It’s hugely important for a real discussion to go on.” Best cited that the experience during which this dynamic was most present was during “Wild Card” seminars, a workshop series proposed by Best and fellow students that focused on an area that the students felt they needed additional study in. “I was always impressed by the faculty for participating in this and setting the tone that there wasn’t to be any grandstanding. It was an honest, ‘trying to figure stuff out.’ I’ve kept that with me today. If you’re trying to really understanding something, I think it’s important to have a lot of humility.”