Veronique Robigou

Part of the Deep Sea Vents Curriculum Collection.

Close-up of scientist Veronique Robigou
Veronique Robigou on the ocean water above the Juan de Fuca Ridge, N.E. Pacific Ocean. Photo by I.S. McCallum.

How is Veronique Robigou involved with deep sea vents?

Veronique Robigou is a marine geologist. As a research scientist at the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington, she studies the rocks that form on the ocean floor, particularly a specific type of rock that is found along volcanic areas in the deep sea. These rocks are formed when hot fluids from underwater hot springs mix with cold seawater and build large chimney-like structures. These rocks are sulfur-rich and contain metals such as iron, copper, and zinc.

What's Veronique's take on kids and deep sea vents? Why should kids know about deep sea vents?

It is important for kids to know about deep sea vents because they provide examples of life (microbes) that might be found some day on other planets. The study of deep sea vents teaches us (both scientists and the public) that there still so much we do not understand about the mechanisms that regulate our planet. Also, since deep sea vents were only discovered when I finished high school, imagine the many discoveries still to be made on Earth—especially in the oceans, which we've hardly explored yet!

How can students everywhere be good stewards of the oceans?

Learn everything they can! I think that kids should learn as much as possible about how our planet works. They should never stop asking questions—you can't protect something if you don't understand how it works.

More About Veronique

Field of Study: Marine geology

Home Country: France

Favorite Middle/High School Subjects English and German as second languages, natural sciences, physics, art, music, French, history, geography

Least Favorite Middle/High School Subjects "My least favorite was probably math, even though I was quite good at it and I knew I had to study math to become a scientist."

Subjects Veronique Needs for Her Work: "The languages I learned helped me move to another country to pursue my dream. Obviously natural sciences were important; but I also use physics and math every day on the job. They enable me to understand my world better. Music was important because I could not live without music! Art gave me the tools to become a geologist; I draw maps in the field. History gave me great insights about the two cultures I have lived in since I was a child. Geography gave me a love of maps and travel."

Thoughts on Middle School: "I wish I had understood better that we all have so many opportunities to contribute to life in general and to science. I wish I had had the intuition that I could combine all my interests in one job. There was a lot of pressure in high school to decide what I wanted to be, and I did not have an answer—but I knew I would feel what was right for me. I also wish I had been told that it is okay to pursue your dream and to keep changing your focus as you grow up."

Interests in Middle School: Playing the piano, collecting rocks and fossils, skiing, playing outside, hiking, reading, and traveling.

Interests Today: Making jewelry, drawing and painting, traveling and exploring places I have never been to, growing flowers, making wine, cooking, teaching languages, and learning about other cultures and people.

Life Lessons from the Field: "It takes an entire crew of sailors and scientists to do anything at sea, and you have to learn to trust others with their duties as they trust you with yours. Each person on board has a role and responsibilities, and we all rely on each other. It is only when all on board work together that cruises are successful."

Recommended Reading: Off to Sea: An Inside Look at a Research Cruise, Deborah Kovacs, 2000. Dive to the Deep Ocean: Voyages of Exploration and Discovery, Deborah Kovacs, 2000. Sea-Fari Deep, Nancy Woodman, 1999.

Major Influences: "My grandmothers and my mother believed that I could do whatever I set my mind to, even when what I wanted—to study geology, to move to the U.S., to dive in a submersible—might have seemed strange to them."

Number of Trips to the Deep Sea So Far: "I have traveled through fields of deep sea vents on 17 different dives. I have mostly used the submersible Alvin, but I also dove in the U.S. Navy submersibles Sea Cliff and Turtle."


What's so important about your field of study?

In 1977, when the first "black smokers" were discovered, nobody believed that there was life so deep in the ocean. The environment at the vents is very dark, the seawater is very cold, and the fluids from volcanic hot springs are very hot. The environment was extreme compared to the environments scientists were familiar with at the time; they didn't expect to find life in an environment like that. Since then, the deep sea vents have become a wonderful example of how there can be an oasis of life in an extreme environment, even environments on other planets.

And what aspect of the deep sea vents do you study?

A lot of my questions are the same questions other geologists are investigating: What kinds of rocks is our planet Earth made of? How do they form? Where do they come from? Where are those specific types of rocks, and why are they in that specific location? How are rocks assembled to form huge mountains? How are they broken down to form tiny grains of sand, or even tinier mud grains.

So you're looking for rocks at the vents?

After my graduate studies I became interested in a specific type of rock that is found along volcanic areas in the deep sea. These rocks are formed when hot fluids from underwater hot springs mix with cold seawater and build large chimney-like structures. These rocks are sulfur-rich and contain metals such as iron, copper, and zinc.

Why are these metals important?

Rocks formed by hydrothermal vents that are rich in metals (such as iron, copper, and zinc) are interesting to geologists because over time, they become deposits that can be mined for copper, zinc, even silver and gold. The rocks we study also probably offer some clues as to how life is possible at the vents.

How so?

These metals are not really used in chemosynthesis, but some of the chemical elements found in these rocks are also found in the hydrothermal fluids which bacteria and microbes rely on to survive in this environment. For example, many of the bacteria we have found in these fluids, and in the rocks themselves, are sulfur-reducing bacteria. They require the presence of sulfur in their environment.

So the bacteria that live at the vents actually use this sulfur to live.

This is a complicated process; but to try to put it simply, sulfur in its reduced form (when it exists at a lower oxidation state) is present in the hydrothermal fluids. It is also needed to produce the energy necessary for bacteria to produce organic carbon. The bacteria require sulfur in their environment; without it, they can't produce the carbon. And we've found that sulfur exists both in the hot fluids, where it appears as the gas H2S, and in the rocks, along with other metals such as iron and zinc. Chalcopyrite, or "fool's gold," is an example of a sulfide mineral rich in iron and copper. Microbiologists (who study microbes and bacteria) and petrologists (who study how minerals are formed) are still working on figuring out exactly how life is possible in this environment.

When you're at sea, what do you do to study the role of sulfur in vent communities?

I carefully explore, observe, and describe the landscape to see if it has changed from year to year. I also look at the variations in the biological communities that inhabit the surface of these structures. Sometimes we collect rock samples to bring back to the surface, as we did in 1998 when we recovered the large sulfide chimneys that are now on display at the American Museum of Natural History. But most of my work involves collecting video, images, sonar data, and navigation data to construct maps. The types of discoveries we make depend on what we are looking for. For me, a discovery might be finding a new area that we had never been through before, or discovering hot springs on the seafloor. In 1991 we discovered the tallest sulfide chimney complex that had ever been described anywhere on the seafloor; it was called "Godzilla." Often the discoveries are more subtle; we might come back to an active black smoker that spewed out fluids at 350°C and find that now it only spews out fluids at 300°C. Or I might find that an area I had mapped a few years ago has changed; for example, the shape and size of chimneys may have changed since my last dive in that area. A discovery like that might seem less spectacular than discovering Godzilla, but those kinds of discoveries actually have more scientific meaning because they help me understand how rocks change through time.

What causes these changes?

There are many factors that influence the changes that we see, and we don't understand many of them yet. Some of the most obvious changes are caused by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which disrupt the landscape. For example, in 1996 I revisited the Godzilla structure to see what changes had occurred since the summer of 1995. We discovered that the upper two-thirds of this structure had fallen. Huge chunks of sulfide-rich rocks, as large as Volkswagon Bugs, were lying at the base of Godzilla, which was now only one-third as large. We suspect that an earthquake toppled the sulfide structure sometime between our 1995 and 1996 visits.

Describe a typical workday out at sea.

During my dives I describe what I see, and I keep a record of what we do that tracks things down to the minute—and I take a lot of notes! As a map maker, I like to visualize things in three dimensions, so in my notes I draw to better remember the objects I study. My notebooks are filled with drawings, sketches, and even anecdotes about what happens on board. We also have many computers on board. They keep track of the ship and sub's positions, the time, the temperature of the water, the weather, the dive number, who dove on what day, how fast and in which direction the ship was going, etc. I do a lot of the analysis back on land, at the lab; but I need to do some analysis at sea to figure out if the discoveries I'm making mean that I need to change the direction of my research.

Can you tell us a little bit about what it's like to live at sea?

During the first few days at sea, I have to adapt. I have learned that it takes my body about three days to adapt and acquire what we call "sea legs." So I know I'm going to feel uncomfortable for about three days, and then I can function nearly as efficiently as on land. To help, I make sure I keep my stomach full, I drink a lot of water so I won't get dehydrated and have headaches, and I avoid standing in areas when I can smell the fuel fumes of the ship. I favor Skittles to keep my mind off my uneasy stomach! After that, I'm used to a typical workday in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by water everywhere, on board a 300- to 400-foot-long research vessel.

Are there a lot of people on board? And what about privacy?

The team includes 35 scientists and a ship crew of about 20 people. I share a cabin with another scientist for the duration of the research cruise. The room has bunk beds, and sets of drawers and cabinets to store our personal gear. We share a bathroom-shower with another cabin of two people. Sometimes it can be hard not to have privacy, but we know that cruises are intense experiences, and they do not last forever. You do have some privacy since we all work at different hours; you can always find a few hours alone in your cabin when your roommate is away. I also find privacy in practicing yoga.

Does everyone eat together, too?

The meals are cafeteria-style meals in the mess, and we usually have wonderful cooks and a chef to take care of all our needs. Sometimes meals are very elaborate and even include vegetarian dishes for those who do not eat meat. We always have fresh fruits and vegetables because the cooks are very experienced, plan well, and have enough cool storage for several weeks. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served at regular hours in the mess hall. At dinner, there's always competition to sit by the pilot and the divers; everyone wants to hear what they discovered and what they saw on the seafloor. But eventually everyone gets to hear what happened during the dive; after dinner we have a dive debriefing session.

Is the research vessel just for eating and sleeping, or does it have places to work and participate in activities when you're not part of a dive?

There is an exercise room on board, and a TV room in which to relax and watch videos; but since we only get the chance to conduct research at sea at most once a year, we tend to work as many hours as possible. I usually get up around 6 a.m., and the day is packed with activities. On a non-diving day, I look at some of the data I collected on previous dives, discuss future plans with other scientists and submersible pilots, sometimes analyze data that was collected the previous night while I was sleeping, and read e-mail. After a 30- to 35-minute lunch, I continue working on my data, analyzing videotapes. Sometimes we have lectures on board to learn about what the other scientists are doing; we also have to prepare the people who will dive in the sub the next day. We discuss the dive with them, talk about where they should go and what samples are needed, things like that. Just before dinner, the divers who went down that day are back on board, and the samples are distributed to the various scientists. Some people will start working on the samples right away and will continue working throughout the night. Others will prepare for the next day's dive.

There are people collecting data while you are asleep?

Yes, some people work all night. In addition to the people working to examine, collect, inventory, and freeze samples as soon as the sub is back on board, there are others who work at night using the sonar and bathymetric systems under the ship's hull to map the area. Someone else might be spending the night conducting a water column survey to track the plumes of hydrothermal vent fields before scientists dive in the area with the submersible.

It seems hard to work all night.

Work in the field is very exciting but very intense. The work schedule is established to maximize the time at sea, and most scientists work very long hours day and night because it's their only chance to gather data and work without interruption for several days. But working such long hours can become very tiring. I learned to trust experienced seamen, who encouraged me to be aware of the need for sleep and feelings of fatigue; accidents can happen very fast when you are tired! And it's not only yourself that you are putting at risk, but also others on board.

Who plans the timing of all the projects?

At sea, ultimately, the chief scientist decides what gets done. But he or she has input from everybody on board because each scientist has different goals to accomplish. I have never seen one scientist not get to do what he or she had planned because another needed more time. First, all the planned, scheduled experiments have to be done; then, the entire science party will discuss how to reallocate the extra time if more time is needed for one experiment. When the cruise is originally scheduled, all participants have goals; they need to be able to meet their research goals during the time they have at sea. Everybody works together to accomplish these goals. But sometimes it's beyond anyone's control; sometimes because of bad weather we can't dive or even collect data from the ship. Sometimes a piece of equipment does not work and has to be repaired. Other times we make a discovery that we did not anticipate, and we need to know more to understand what we have found. We have to be very flexible at sea, ready to change plans.

It must feel totally different to work back at home.

Teamwork is still really important. Back at home, I work with another team of colleagues; our research group includes professors, students, technicians, engineers, and researchers. We continue to work together to analyze our data, share our results, change our ideas and hypotheses, and ask new questions; and we rely on each other to make progress. That collaborative aspect is the same as what we encounter at sea. But we do spend a lot more time alone in our offices, using computers to analyze data and write.

Writing is a really important part of scientific research, right?

Yes! We write a lot. Before a cruise, we write proposals to get money to do the research that we are interested in, and after the cruise we write our results in scientific papers. We also write and deliver presentations at national and international meetings to share our results, and to share new ideas with the scientific community. I enjoy sharing my experiences and science with all audiences, not just other scientists. I go to classrooms to talk about my dives, and I work with science teachers so that they can teach their students about our work in the oceans.

Not many people will ever get to see what you see down on the ocean floor. How did you ever end up with such an interesting and unusual career?

I grew up in France. I came to the U.S. after my bachelor's degree to continue studying geology in graduate school. At that time, I wanted to do fieldwork and see the San Andreas fault. I was pursuing the dream I had had ever since I was nine years old: I wanted to do scientific research and I wanted to come to the U.S.

You always knew you wanted to be a scientist? Who encouraged you?

Well, my father gave me a love for nature by taking me on nature walks long before the word "nature walk" even existed! Then my uncle gave me mice from his lab to take care of; he also taught me how to recognize cancerous cells in a pig's skin. I was only 10 years old when he gave me that responsibility. That was when I realized I could do science. I had also read about Marie Curie when I was growing up; that taught me that a woman could be a scientist. Reading George Sand also taught me that a woman could do anything—she was a woman writer who became famous in France in the 19th century. That was a time when women did not get published at all! My grandmother also helped by sending me to the U.S. when I was 10 years old to learn English. And my grandfather encouraged me to study at the college and graduate school level.

 But I didn't always know exactly what I would end up doing. It was actually a struggle, and I wish I had understood better that we all have so many opportunities to contribute to life in general and to science. I wish I had had the intuition that I could combine all my interests in one job. There was a lot of pressure in high school to decide what I wanted to be, and I did not have an answer—but I knew I would feel what was right for me. I also wish I had been told that it is okay to pursue your dream and to keep changing your focus as you grow up. In a way, I feel like it is only now, 15 years into my career, that everything is falling into place. Now I know that what I do will keep changing with technology, and that I will continue to change—and it is great!