Scientists at Sea / Project Team  

Project Personnel

  Project Director
     – James Cowen (UH)
  • Project Co-I
     – Brian Glazer (UH)
  • Co-Investigators
     – Michael Rappe (UH)
     – Fabien Kenig (U.I, at Chicago)
     – Stephen Giovannoni (OSU)
     – Craig Taylor (WHOI)
  • Engineering Support
     – Dave Copson (UH)
     – Dave Harris (UH)
     – Don Nuzzio
     – Jim Jolley (UH)
     – Mike Cole (UH)
     – Jim Babinec (UH)
     – Paul Buxton(UH, student)
     – Bill Doi (UH)
  • Science Technical Support
     – Jamie Becker (UH)
     – Students Assistants
     – Kristen Mailheau (UH)
     – Paul Buxton (UH-engineering
  • Educational Outreach
     – Minghui Chen (UH-NAI)
     – Mary Kadooka (UH-NAI)
  • Other indispensable

     – Andy Fisher (UCSC)
     – Keir Becker (RSMAS)
     – Earl Davis (GS Canada)
     – Michael Mottl (UH)
     – Geoff Wheat (UA, MBARI)
     – Hans Jannasch (MBARI)


1. Who are you, where are you from, what is your role in the project?
I am a Research Professor in the Department of Oceanography, at the University of Hawaii at Mano’a. I am the Project Director of this project.

2. What questions/problems are you addressing/trying to answer, & why?
Overall, we are exploring the virtually unknown biosphere of the vast environment within the ocean basement, that part of the ocean crust that is buried under thick sediments. We know that fluids circulate within this environment, that temperatures vary from <2°C to over 100°C, and that there are chemical (redox) gradients, all essential ingredients for microbial life. We also have intriguing preliminary evidence that the basement environment hosts a diverse array of thermophilic (high temperature loving) microorganisms that utilize diverse metabolic strategies—my colleagues and I have been working on related studies since 1996. But until now we have been hampered by problems related to the accessibility to this extremely remote environment and by issues of contamination. Recent deployments of advanced deep-sea borehole CORK observatories have opened up new opportunities for recovering fluids from deep within this basement environment that should closely reflect the in situ conditions there.

For the Hawaii team, the center of this expedition is the testing of a new seafloor instrument sled. The sled is designed to simultaneously measure key chemical (redox) parameters (using voltammetry-electrochemical methods) and filter particles (including microorganisms) from small to large volumes of fluids onto one of 24 filters; the key is that this will happen at the seafloor while directly connected to the borehole’s CORK observatory’s special (PVDF plastic with titanium fittings) fluid delivery line—or ‘Biosampling line’. The instrument package will allow us to isolate both genetic information and culturable strains of the microbes while simultaneously measuring the in situ chemical conditions of the very fluids that naturally bath organisms living there. This instrument package will allow us to rigorously attach the questions of “Is there an active microbial community in the deep-sea, sediment-buried basement rock environment?”; “What is the genetic diversity of this community?”, What is the diversity of metabolic strategies utilized by the microbes?”; “How does the microbial community vary with different basement temperature and fluid chemistry?”. One of the most rewarding aspects of this project has been bringing the science together with the engineering. Working with our gifted and hard working engineering team at UH opens up whole new directions for scientific discovery. The engineers, technicians and machinists not only design and build the instruments to do what we scientists say we need, but their creative minds are frequently posing questions or suggesting technical modifications that force us to think outside of our traditional scientific boxes.

3. What brought you to your current career position (how'd you come to be in marine sciences-related field?)?
Like many of my Oceanography colleagues, I’ve always loved the ocean. I also grew up enjoying science and through my father met a lot of engineers (space program). When I was nearing my college graduation time, I was starting to wonder what I should do with the next phase of my life. An extended surfing trip to Hawaii and the southern hemisphere was looking pretty attractive (still does). Then one day I was reading a story in a surfing maganzine about big wave surfing great, Ricky Grigg; the article said that Rick was completing his PhD in Oceanography. Well talk about the proverbial idea light bulb lighting up; I distinctly remember thinking “I can do that—if Rick Grigg was happy with that compromise, then I know I could be too.” All I can say now is “Thanks for the inspiration, Ricky”. So I earned a Masters of Science in Biology from U. of California at Santa Barbara studying environmental radioactivity and a PhD in (Biogeochemical) Oceanography at U.C. Santa Cruz studying the role of bacteria in the marine geochemistry of manganese. From UCSC I went on to do a National Research Council post-doc at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Labs in Seattle, where I got my first taste of deep-sea hydrothermal vent research; I’ve been hooked ever since. I moved to the University of Hawaii in 1986. Hawaii is truly a wonderful place to live and work


Project director
Research professor

Jim Cowen