Cindy Lee Van Dover

Part of the Deep Sea Vents Curriculum Collection.

Cindy Lee Van Dover

How is Cindy Lee Van Dover involved with deep sea vents?

Cindy Lee Van Dover is an oceanographer and explorer with a strong background in ecology and invertebrate zoology. Her work deals with the ecology of deep sea vent communities. Cindy was Alvin's first femal pilot. She has led many Alvin expeditions to study deep sea vents and collect specimens for further study.

What's Cindy's take on kids and deep sea vents?

Why should kids know about deep sea vents?

If we are to understand very basic properties of our planet, we need to understand how seawater and rock interact to form hot springs, a process that helps to create the chemistry of our deep oceans. There are also many reasons to think that life might have evolved at deep sea vents; our very origins may be linked to these primeval-looking habitats!

How can students everywhere be good stewards of the oceans?

One should study vents for all the same reasons that we study coral reefs and coastal waters, rain forests, and Arctic ice. We want to know how they work, how they compare; and that way we can protect them. It's about having a sense of "place," of understanding all of our planet. And, if for no other reason, one should know about vents because they are stunningly beautiful. The geological formations rival the grandeur of any of the fabulous national parks. The animal communities are as vibrant and beautiful as any tropical coral reef. The vents are truly part of Earth's wilderness.

More on Cindy Van Dover the Person
Field of Study Oceanography, with an emphasis on the ecology of deep sea chemosynthetic communities.
Hometown Eatontown, New Jersey (Exit 105 on the Garden State Parkway), which is about five miles from where Bruce Springsteen grew up and about five miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
Favorite Middle/High School Subjects "I loved all the sciences, especially biology when I was in high school."
Least Favorite Middle/High School Subjects "I disliked math and English."
Thoughts on Middle "I wish I had known how interesting and dynamic the Earth sciences are. When I was in high school, Earth science was for the non-college track of students. I wish I had known that if I went to college as a geology major, I would be required to go to geology field camp out west."
Interests in Middle "I was a reader when I was young and still am. I traveled as much as I was allowed then, and still do."
Interests Today "Writing is a hobby now. I love to dance."
Life Lessons from the Field "I am not a complacent person. I don¹t like to think that I might be ordinary. Yet I think I am very ordinary and so continually pursue the exceptional."
Major Influences "My parents were very influential, instilling a strong work ethic. My mom taught me to love nature; my dad taught me to love technology. My biology teachers taught me well, and I had the privilege of working in a marine research lab during two of my high school summers. The scientists who worked there were wonderful, and I wanted to grow up to be like them. Professors in college and graduate school had a great deal of influence on me as an individual and a scientist; the tempo and tenor of my work aspire to meet theirs."
Kids "I have no children. I did just adopt a two-year-old, intrepid Yorkshire terrier named Annie, who, I have discovered, demands as much attention as a child must. I don¹t think she is impressed by my work. She is not going to like it the next time I have to leave town for a month to go on a research cruise!"
Number of Trips to the Deep Sea So Far "I have made more than 100 dives to the seafloor, almost all of them to hydrothermal vents."

AMNH: What's so important about your field of study?

Cindy: Our knowledge of deep sea hydrothermal vents began to accumulate just 25 years ago—in other words, Mickey Mouse predates the discovery of hot springs on the seafloor! But even if we didn't know about them, deep sea vents have been around since the oceans first formed, since long before life began on Earth; and life itself may have evolved in deep sea vent environments. The living environment at the vents is based on chemical energy rather than on energy from the Sun; we want to find out if the rules of photosynthetically-based systems apply to chemically-based systems as well. And we also want to understand how the chemistry of the oceans is determined, at least in part, by the cycling of seawater through the ocean crust and its exhalation at deep sea vents. Finally, vent science has changed how we explore other planets; we now look for evidence of hydrothermal systems and of microorganisms using chemical energy. In fact, NASA is supporting our search for phototrophic microorganisms, which may use the light emitted from black smokers as a source of energy. If we find them, they may even have retained attributes of Earth's earliest phototrophs.

AMNH: How do you study deep sea vent ecosystems? What are you looking for?

Cindy: I investigate many kinds of issues at vents, including patterns of distributions of vent species (which species occur where and why), food web relationships (who eats whom), and functional anatomy (how particular structures of a species are adapted to the environment). Vents are very different from terrestrial and shallow-water ecosystems because they are fueled by chemical energy and chemosynthesis rather than by photosynthesis. When we study vent ecology and compare it to other ecosystems, we can discover which ecological "rules" are universal, and which might be specific to chemically-powered ecosystems.

AMNH: In other words, you're trying to figure out if this system, which is based on chemicals instead of sunlight, follows some of the same rules as systems closer to the surface and on land, where the food chain starts with plants converting sunlight to energy?

Cindy: Yes. And to discover how organisms thrive in such an extreme environment.

AMNH: How extreme is it?

Cindy: The deep sea is itself an extreme environment; organisms that live there must be able to tolerate pressures high enough to squeeze the air out of a styrofoam cup! But deep sea vents are even more extreme. Microorganisms live in environments that are extremely acid and hot; animals are bathed in fluids that are so full of metals and other noxious chemicals that they would be considered very polluted were the vents not natural ecosystems. We study the adaptations that organisms have to these extremes, and in doing so find new and useful types of enzymes that can be applied to everyday kinds of problems. We also learn how very different biological systems can be, and how different the "design" of animals in those systems can be.

AMNH: Describe a typical workday out at sea. How does it begin?

Cindy: If I'm going to dive in Alvin, my day starts with a shower at 7 a.m. and breakfast. Breakfast is on the mess deck, served buffet-style, with a selection of fruits and cereals, eggs made to order, bacon or sausage. When we are in exotic ports, the fruit selection is especially compelling, with fresh mangoes and guavas, or cherries, berries, melons of all descriptions. The food is all prepared by the steward and the cook, and our dishes are washed by the mess attendant. All we have to do is choose what to eat and enjoy it.

AMNH: Wow. Sounds almost luxurious!

Cindy: Well, I usually just have a piece of fruit and toast for breakfast. Then I head down to the fantail, where the Alvin pilots and technicians are making the final preparations for the launch. I look over the work basket to make sure all is in order. Then, when word comes at about 8 a.m. to get in the sphere, I climb the ladder to the bridge, leave my shoes in a bag, and climb down a short ladder to curl up on the port side of the sphere. I am followed by a second scientist who sits on the starboard side. The pilot has the center seat. As we go over the side, I watch out through the viewport for the splash. The starboard observer and I sit quietly while the pilot works through the final checks and communicates with the ship. When we begin to descend, I will watch the colors change through the viewport. Then begins the long descent—it can take an hour and a half to reach the seafloor if one is diving to 2,500 meters or more. There is not much to do. I talk over the dive objectives with the pilot, and then often take advantage of the quiet time to take a quick nap. Of course, this is my routine as an experienced diver. When I was new at diving, I was wide-awake the whole time, pestering the pilot with questions, wanting to learn everything about everything.

AMNH: But is it still exciting to make the trip?

Cindy: Absolutely. And there's a lot of hard work to do. As we approach the seafloor, I work with the pilot to make sure we know where we are and then, once on the bottom, we set to work. Usually I am working a vent site, which means I am intent on getting to the site and collecting a variety of samples. The pilot actually makes the collections using the submersible's manipulators, and I often rely on his judgment for the most effective means of accomplishing the tasks on our list. As he samples, I watch the sampling on a video screen. I can't actually look out the viewports to watch what he is doing because my view does not overlap his work area. I also take detailed notes about the samples—where they were taken, at what depth, what organisms were associated with the samples, etc.

AMNH: What kinds of samples are you collecting?

Cindy: For much of my recent fieldwork, we have been collecting samples of mussels and studying the animals that live among them. On a typical dive, we come up with seven or eight samples to be processed.

AMNH: And then it's back to the top.

Cindy: We have to leave the seafloor in time for the sub to be on the surface at 5 p.m. The ride up is a chance to check notes, to eat lunch (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a candy bar, a piece of fruit), and to get ready for the evening's work processing samples.

AMNH: Who does the processing?

Cindy: It is a job for a team of eight, with pairs of individuals doing different tasks. My team is mostly made up of my students. They are talented, and I leave them with most of the responsibility of working through the samples. As team leader, my job is to make sure the dive plan is ready for the next day's dive, and that I brief the divers. I help where I can with sample processing, sometimes measuring lengths of mussels, or helping to pick through samples for particular types of organisms.

AMNH: Do you get to relax on board?

Cindy: When all is finally finished, I might go up to the galley for a cup of tea and conversation with anyone hanging about, or watch a movie in the lounge. When I am the chief scientist on a cruise, I might get a spacious room to myself, with a private bath; but if the ship is full, even the chief scientist shares a room with someone. But I'm usually assured of a porthole in my room—a real luxury. The students all live down below the waterline where there is no natural light.

AMNH: How does your work at sea compare with your work at home?

Cindy: The work done at sea is just the beginning. Back on shore, all of the animals need to be sorted to species and counted, a process that can take a student months to complete for any given site. In this kind of study, the real discoveries are made as we begin to piece together the patterns of distributions of species in different regions. Sometimes, though, my research takes me to places on the seafloor where no one has been before. Then we have the chance to discover new types of organisms, new behaviors, new habitats, while we are in the field. Those are the most exciting cruises.

AMNH: So would you say you're making these discoveries at sea or in the lab?

Cindy: With these kinds of discoveries, there's usually no single time that can be precisely identified as "the moment." I had the romantic idea that one shouted "Eureka," cracked open the bottle of champagne, and said "I've discovered such and so!" The discovery of novel eyes in a deep sea vent shrimp that lives on black smoker chimneys is a good example. I knew from being a student of invertebrate zoology that the shrimp I was dissecting had an unusual pair of organs, and I deduced that they were eyes because of their morphology. But my calling them eyes did not make them so. I had to first learn what characteristics define an eye, and then I sought colleagues who could help me determine if the odd organs were indeed eyes. This work took us more than a year to complete. As the work was taking place, my colleagues and I thought about what it would mean if the organs were indeed eyes, leading to the idea that black smokers may be hot enough to glow. A true "moment" of discovery came when we documented light at deep sea vents on a digital image. But pioneering moments, while they are addictive and thrilling, are also roller coasters, full of ups and downs; the peer review of our description of the light called it "dusty physics," and the manuscript was rejected.

AMNH: Your career as a scientist has included a lot of pioneering moments. Do you have any particular advice for young women interested in a career in science?

Cindy: I make no distinction between making a discovery as a scientist or as a woman scientist, and prefer that others do not single me out for recognition because I am female. I don't make distinctions in giving advice to young women who are interested in a career in science; I give the same advice to them as I would to a young man.

From my own experience, my advice is to seek opportunity. Don't expect opportunity to come to you, though it may. Before seeking any opportunity, do your homework, know something about what you want to do, find out who does it well, and seek advice. I imagine all scientists love to give advice to students, and it is delivered earnestly and with good will. It is not enough to take the requisite coursework in college. One learns more from working in a field than from any class or textbook. Follow your passion.

AMNH: Was the deep ocean always your passion?

Cindy: I became interested in invertebrates early on, while I was still in grade school, because they can be so weird and wonderful, with multiple pairs of eyes or no eyes at all, with dozens of legs or no legs at all—with wings, with antennae, with an unimaginable array of sensors and organs and anatomies! My love of invertebrates led to my specific work on the ecology of marine invertebrates. Some of the most extraordinary invertebrates live at deep sea vents, with adaptations to a very extreme environment, one that most other invertebrates would find noxious and inhospitable. In studying ecology, my interests focus on relationships among organisms, and between organisms and their environment; but it will take many scientists' lifetimes to understand the ecology of invertebrates at the hydrothermal vents.

AMNH: Part of your work involves training the next generation of scientists.

Cindy: Every fall semester, I teach an invertebrate zoology course for undergraduates, with an hour and 20 minutes of lecture every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Then there's a long lab on Thursday afternoons. I keep the class small so we can go into the field. We mostly visit the York River, but I also take the class for a weekend trip to our small field station in Wachapreague, Virginia, on the eastern shore. Wachapreague is an utterly beautiful place that lost itself in the 1950's and hasn't caught up with modern times. In addition to the field trips, we do some pretty interesting experimental labs. I have a teaching assistant who helps me set up the labs, but I am in the lab the whole time and get to know the students well; they are all delightful and eager to learn. On days when I am not teaching, I supervise a lab full of graduate and undergraduate research students. During spring semesters, I teach a graduate course on some subject of interest to me; this year it is a course on how to measure diversity.

AMNH: Your students must benefit from your experience in the field.

Cindy: For the past several summers I have had field programs, so I have gone to sea, bringing with me members of my lab. I also bring a lot of my research into my invertebrate course. My students are among a very small group in the world that gets to dissect a giant tube worm as part of their curriculum! I show them videos of the vents and of what it is like to be on the ship—they're like my "home movies"!

AMNH: When do you find time to write?

Cindy: On days when I'm not teaching, I sneak in some time to write manuscripts. On those days I spend a lot of time writing and responding to e-mails. I save the grading for an at-home job, often in front of the fire.

AMNH: You didn't like writing in high school. Do you have any advice for young science writers?

Cindy: Keep writing—writing is what scientists do! I didn't like English [in middle and high school] because I often had to write in a classroom setting. I love to write now, but only when I am in control of when I write. We write proposals to get grant money; we write technical articles so that we can write proposals to get grant money. I have not completed any research until I have written and published the results. Of course, my writing style for scientists—versus lay audiences—must have a different level and kind of vocabulary, but I always strive to write as clearly and as simply as possible. My goal is to make the writing as easy as possible for the reader to understand. All too often I find that scientific prose is written by sloppy writers who make the writing convenient for themselves and difficult to follow for the reader. Sinful.

AMNH: And you learned to write by doing it, as part of your working life?

Cindy: My undergraduate mentor taught me a great deal about how to write. My editor made me believe I actually could write. I am grateful for the glimpses of the writing life I have had.