“They were passing out preserved giant tube-worm tubes,” Alysia Cox said.
The evidence was right there on the desk in her Montana Tech office: two Ziploc bags fitted over a long, white, dried-out tube-worm tube.
The tube was plucked from the deep sea by one of the two mechanical arms of Alvin, the human-occupied submersible that conducted the first exploration of the Titanic’s wreckage in 1986 and that brought Cox down 2,522 meters in December to conduct her own exploration of the ocean floor.
What Cox was seeking during her nearly nine-hour stint in the pitch-black darkness far off the coast of Central America were clues about “how the interactions of water and rock create the conditions that life can use.”
Her search for answers has already taken her to some pretty far-flung places, including Ecuador, Iceland and Yellowstone National Park.
“I walk up to hydrothermal systems on land on different continents all the time,” Cox said.
But dropping down to the East Pacific Rise was something new.
There, some 8,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean’s surface, she was able to get within eyeshot of hydrothermal vents sending heat from inside the Earth, along a divergent seam in the planet’s tectonic plates. These are places where Cox and other scientists “think life may have arisen on Earth,” she said.
And understanding those places is key to cracking Cox's big, long-term goal: “We want to be able to predict life on Earth and other planets based on what rocks are there.”
That ambition contributes to Cox's promise as a scientist, according to Dan Fornari, emeritus research scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which houses Alvin at its National Deep Submergence Facility.
Fornari helped select Cox as one of 11 scientists who participated in what is known as an early-career scientist training cruise, which gathered promising young researchers from places like Yale University, the University of Wisconsin and, yes, Montana Tech and gave them the rare opportunity to use Alvin to further their work on oceanographic issues.
“We got lots of really good people applying,” said Fornari, who served as one of the mentors to the early-career scientists on the cruise. “And we had to pick the best ones, and we had to pick ones that were doing innovative work. … Alysia really had a great proposal and great experience.”
Her selection allowed Cox to fulfill one of her long-held dreams of diving to the ocean floor — and she says it didn’t disappoint.
“It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do in my life,” said Cox, who earned her Ph.D. at MIT and Woods Hole. “It lived up to all my expectations.”
And she says the dividends of the trip will continue to pay off, not only for her but also for her students in Butte.
She already has a master’s student who plans to study samples gathered during the December cruise for his own research. And now that she’s “on the record as having done this training” to use Alvin, it could open doors to conducting future research using the submersible, Cox said.
“Now, basically all of us can write a proposal to use Alvin,” Cox said of herself and her fellow early-career scientists. “And we have plans to submit proposals.”
Eventually, she said, that could mean taking Tech students out to do deep-sea research of their own.
But for now, she is hoping the information she gathered aboard Alvin will help her publish new papers related to her ongoing interest in hydrothermal processes and how water-rock reactions help create microbial life.
And on Thursday afternoon, she will share her experience in a talk at Tech. That will be hard to do, she acknowledged, due to the “surreal” nature of spending hours at the dark and silent sea floor, but Cox will do her best.
Using footage filmed with cameras mounted on Alvin’s titanium shell as well photographs and a short movie made by an artist who accompanied the scientists on their voyage, Cox said, “I'll take people through what it's like.”