Visions from nature

A Look at Deep Sea Exploration and Biodiversity at NTNU with Master’s Graduate Emil Paulsen

By Sam Perrin

When we think of biodiversity, places like the Amazon, the boreal forests, maybe coral reefs come to mind. But NTNU Master’s student Emil Paulsen decided to go a bit deeper – 2,700m deeper – when writing his thesis. I caught up with Emil last week, a few days after he had successfully defended his thesis, to talk about how he came to be studying geothermal vents almost 3km under the sea.

Emil didn’t see land for three weeks while collecting samples (Photo Credit: Lars Vassenden Tumyr)


You defended your thesis recently. How does it feel to be done?

It feels good. I wasn’t too nervous going in. When you’re so involved in something it’s easy to talk about it. I’ve been so focused on this for the last year that the defense was easy. Also since my course is a teacher’s Master course, talking in front of people comes naturally.

Tell me about your thesis.

It’s part of the MarMine project, a huge project that is looking at possible mineral deposits on the sea floor around Norway. NTNU is interested in finding out which minerals are present and how expensive it would be to potentially mine them. As a part of that examination, a small biology team is trying to get a picture of what’s actually living down there. In Norway, the oil industry put up platforms decades ago and started offshore drilling, but it took 20 years or so before anybody looked at the biology of these sites. So we had no idea what was there before they started taking up the oil. The idea now is to get in there before the mining starts.

Sounds like an interesting project.

Definitely, and the work was the most interesting part. Being part of such a big and diverse research team was great. We spent 3 weeks out at sea on a huge research vessel, the CSV Polar King. There were approximately 60 of us including the crew. There were about 30 biologists, mostly professors and researchers, but we had postdocs, PhDs and a couple of Masters students too.

“[M]any of the species we saw haven’t even been described yet!”

What sort of technology was used to get samples?

We used a remotely operated vehicle, which was lowered down to the sea floor at 2,700 metres. It took photo transects at different distinct sites at our research site, which is a vent site called Mohn’s treasure.

It’s a geologically inactive vent site. They are very interesting because no-one has looked at them yet. This is, as far as I know, the first study of an inactive vent site anywhere, at least in the arctic area. There has been a lot of research on active sites, but inactive sites have not received much attention yet.

Collecting samples on the deck of the Polar King (Photo Credit: Lars Vassenden Tumyr)

What did you find?

A lot of sponges! Deep sea sponges. Areas with hard substratum, you had total dominance by different species of sponges. Some we were able to identify from photos, but others couldn’t be identified, partly because many of the species we saw haven’t even been described yet! In areas with soft substratum, crinoids were dominant. So they’re the two main animal phyla.

We also found cnidarians and arthropods, and a few fish. The most interesting species was the stalked crinoid, Bathycrinus carpenterii; what was so interesting about it was the sheer abundance. You could have up to 30 individuals per square meter in the soft sediment.

“I got onto Torkild in May and 2-3 months later I was walking onto the boat.”

How did the thesis come about?

My supervisor Torkild Bakken, I had him as a professor for a couple of subjects, and I liked him, thought he would be a very straightforward and helpful supervisor. I contacted him in May last year. I was lucky, because a couple of days before that he’d had contact with the MarMine team. I came along at quite a late stage in the process. I got onto Torkild in May and 2-3 months later I was walking onto the boat.

Tell me about your time at sea.

It was a great experience. I hadn’t met any of the team, but it was easy to get to know different people. I’ve grown up by the sea, but I’ve never been so far out that I couldn’t see land. I’d also never been out that long before. It was really unique. On one hand the scenery is very monotonous, it’s just flat sea wherever you look, but at the same time it’s fascinating. And when you do the lab work, you’re standing out on deck. Lab work might not be the most fascinating thing, but I’d look up, and 1.5 metres away there would be this vast ocean. It was the best lab view ever.

You mentioned that you’re doing a teacher’s master degree. What led you toward teaching?

Well I like to talk about things that I know and am interested in, and I like to get other people interested in them. I’ve spent 2 and a half months teaching science to 12-13 year olds during this program. Then 2 months teaching 18-19 year olds biology.

“Lab work might not be the most fascinating thing, but I’d look up, and 1.5 metres away there would be this vast ocean.”

How is the Master course structured?

It’s an integrated Master course, so you don’t do a Bachelor’s degree. You just apply for this Master program straight away. It’s a 5-year course.

When you started working on your thesis, I’m assuming you got workspace down at the museum? How have you enjoyed working here?

Very good. Most of my courses have been up at Gl​øshaugen. Down here it’s much more relaxed, there’s a nicer atmosphere, I felt welcome right from the start. I feel more equal to the PhDs and professors, we all work here together, we all go to seminars, different lectures, cake lunches. You would barely ever see the professors up at Gløshaugen. I would only have had contact with my supervisor. Down here there’s a very diverse group of professors and researchers, and they’re genuinely interested, they ask questions about your project, they give input.

What’s next?

Applying for jobs! Hopefully high school, but I’m open to working as a biologist as well, that would also be fun. I’m open for both fields.

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