Science at sea

A talent for organisation has taken EMBL’s Steffi Kandels-Lewis across the globe

An image of Tara which was sailed around the world for four years during the Tara Oceans expedition. PHOTO by S Bollet/Tara Expeditions
Tara was sailed around the world for four years during the Tara Oceans expedition. PHOTO: S Bollet/Tara Expeditions

It’s the weekend. You’re sailing in sunlit waters. You moor your boat and take a dinghy to the shore, where you have a beer with your friends. You’re on one of the Marquesas Islands, part of French Polynesia in the South Pacific. You’re here to meet Bernard – a local tattoo artist – who has already tattooed some of your friends, and today will give you a tattoo as well. Your first. You sit on the terrace of Bernard’s home, the jungle all around you, as he inks the design into your foot. Two figures riding a wave.

This is how EMBL’s Steffi Kandels-Lewis spent a Saturday morning in August 2011, when she was a crew member on the schooner Tara as part of the Tara Oceans expedition. She’d arrived a week earlier, joining Tara in the harbour on Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands. “When I got there I was told, ‘Oh, everybody’s off getting a tattoo, and when are you getting yours, Steffi?’” she explains. “I said, ‘I’m not getting a tattoo, no way!’” Her friends kept working away, however, saying they’d buy her a tattoo for her birthday, which was just a few days later. “In the end what convinced me was the feeling that I wanted something to remember this journey by,” she says. “Spending a month on this boat in the South Pacific was a huge challenge for me – I thought, ‘I’ll probably never do something this crazy again in my life!’ And I didn’t want to get a tattoo just in a studio somewhere, so this was a unique place and gave me a story to tell. It’s a very special thing.”

In French Polynesia, local tattoo artist Bernard prepares the design for Steffi’s tattoo. PHOTO: Courtesy of Steffi Kandels-Lewis

Filling in the details

Launched in September 2009, the Tara Oceans expedition was a four-year project that collected around 35,000 seawater samples from various depths and locations around the world. Analysis of these samples, including imaging of the organisms present and sequencing their genomes, has provided an unprecedented insight into ocean biodiversity – particularly at the microscopic level – allowing scientists to better understand the role of plankton in regulating the Earth’s climate, and to observe the effect of climate change on marine ecosystems such as coral reefs. Steffi Kandels-Lewis was the operations manager for the project, a role that involved coordinating the collection of samples from the boat and their subsequent distribution to research labs in Europe and the United States. Every six weeks she travelled to meet the boat in whatever part of the world it was located, collecting the most recent samples and bringing new equipment and consumables.

Trying to manage this process, often in very remote parts of the world, was no easy task. Some of the samples needed to be kept at low temperature, so Kandels-Lewis often had to arrange for several hundred kilos of dry ice to be shipped there with her, since many of the places where the boat stopped had no local supplies. Then there were the challenges of dealing with customs paperwork, which typically had to be completed three weeks in advance. “The people in customs want to know how many millilitres of seawater you’re sending, how many millilitres of ethanol, how many millilitres of formaldehyde, so you need to know all of that,” explains Kandels-Lewis. “And if you tell customs you’re sending 32 boxes and you end up with only 30, you have to create two fake boxes because otherwise they won’t let you send any of it!”

Steffi on board Tara. PHOTO by Sibylle d’Orgeval/Tara Expeditions
Steffi on board Tara. PHOTO: Sibylle d’Orgeval/Tara Expeditions

Dreams and reality

Trained as a molecular biologist, Kandels-Lewis came to EMBL in 2001 to manage the lab of Eric Karsenti, then head of the Cell Biology and Biophysics Unit. “Eric loves sailing,” she explains. “He’d read Charles Darwin’s book about the voyage of the Beagle and he was telling me for eight years that he wanted to do something similar.” Finally, in 2008, Karsenti announced that he’d found a boat: Tara. Kandels-Lewis saw it for the first time that year, in the French port of Villefranche-sur-Mer, where she met some of the team Karsenti was assembling. She recalls the doubts she had about getting involved. “Eric told me, ‘You just need to do what you do for the department.’ Well, the department was not so difficult to run! I knew how to set up a lab, but I’m not a marine biologist and I felt like I had no idea about this project. Then, after a while, I realised that no one had any idea!” she says, laughing. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just keep doing this until someone tells me to stop.’ And no one ever did – I think they were just happy that there was someone there to start organising things. It’s a miracle that we got our act together but everybody was very motivated and we made it work.”

I don’t just have a Plan B, but often a Plan C, D, E, F, and G

Alongside her work on the logistics of collecting and distributing samples, Kandels-Lewis ended up organising many other aspects of the project, including meetings, contracts, finances, team rotations, and flight bookings. “I would get phone calls in the middle of the night,” she says. “So-and-so is not at the airport or not on the boat. I arranged the flights, I knew where everybody had to be and when.” Though she insists that she’s not a qualified project manager, it’s clear that Kandels-Lewis is a formidably organised person. “I don’t just have a Plan B, but often a Plan C, D, E, F, and G,” she says. “I don’t want to end up in a situation where I’m confronted with a problem and I don’t have a solution, so I always have at least three – just in case.”

As she discusses the challenges of coordinating the project, it becomes clear what a good pairing she and Karsenti make. “Eric had been talking to me about this for many years. I just thought, ‘Oh yeah, let him talk!’” she says with a smile. “But, to be honest, you have to be a dreamer. You need to have someone crazy like Eric, because if you’re organised and structured like me you just think, ‘We can’t do this – there’s no money, we don’t have the right people, we don’t have a boat, we don’t have this, we don’t have that.’ Eric was always over-optimistic – he’d just say, ‘OK, let’s go!’ You need people like that to move forward. Everybody trusted him and believed in him and somehow it all worked.”

Psychological depths

For Kandels-Lewis, the most fascinating thing about Tara Oceans was not finding out what was hidden in the deep sea, but rather what was going on beneath the surface of the project’s human relationships. “Of course I’m interested in the discoveries we’ve made, and I’ve learned a lot – I know that if you jump into the water you’re entering this soup of viruses and bacteria and other creatures,” she says. “But for me the real curiosity is the relationships between people, and how they work together. I’ve learned a lot about psychology – it’s not something I have any training in, but I’ve gained a lot of life experience, let’s say.”

For me the real curiosity is the relationships between people, and how they work together

When she visited the boat, people would often see her as someone to whom they could vent their frustrations. “They weren’t really connected to people on land – they received orders and often didn’t understand the context because the communication was all by email,” she explains. “Every time I went there, people wanted to know what’s going on, or there were problems because not everybody liked each other on the boat. It was a community with its own dynamics, confined in a very small space.”

Unexpected turns

This was a significant concern for Kandels-Lewis when she herself spent time as a crew member: once for four weeks in the South Pacific, sailing from Nuku Hiva to Papeete, and another time for three weeks sailing from Savannah, Georgia, to New York City. “I was worried about being with so many people in this small space,” she says, “but actually I really liked the sense of community on board. I made some good friends I never would have met otherwise. But it’s very difficult to explain – it’s something you have to experience.” When they sailed the boat to Manhattan it was New York Fashion Week, and everyone on board was invited because the expedition was sponsored by the French fashion designer agnès b. “It’s like you’ve been completely isolated, and then suddenly everybody’s looking at you, everybody’s talking to you,” explains Kandels-Lewis. “We’d all grown together as a community on the boat and then all of a sudden we were mingling with these fashion types and photographers, feeling totally exposed. It was very strange.”

Despite these occasional problems in adapting to life on and off the boat, Kandels-Lewis makes clear how much the experience of working on Tara Oceans means to her. “It’s left me with so many incredible memories. I never would have imagined getting involved in something like this because I’m not an adventurous person – this is really not me at all. I’m not someone who takes a backpack and hikes through the Andes or something. I need to be pushed, and I’m very happy that I got certain pushes because this project has given me enough experiences for three lifetimes and I’m so grateful for that.”

Curiosity is a profoundly human trait. We start asking questions almost as soon as we learn to speak and continuously redefine our understanding of the world by questioning it. This is the driving force behind science, technology, engineering and maths. As part of our curiosity editorial theme, we are exploring what EMBL is curious about.

Read more articles about curiosity and where it can take you.

Tags: alumni, biodiversity, curiosity, heidelberg, ocean, tara, tara oceans


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