Global environmental challenges
The oceanographer’s go-to guy
Meet Marshall Swartz. A one-time door-to-door cemetery plot salesman and stage crew member for Grateful Dead and Velvet Underground concerts, he is the go-to guy for oceanographers who rely on the high-tech gear needed to gather and analyze water from the sea.
Swartz, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, lugs pallets of equipment onto research vessels as many as six times a year, at ports around the world, sets it all up and runs it aboard ship for the scientists.
Working for the RUSALCA expedition on the Russian ship Professor Khromov in the Bering Sea, he is responsible for the CTD rosette, a circular array of bottles and other gear attached to a frame the size of a golf cart.
The unit gets lowered into the ocean, where it takes measurements of the water’s conductivity, temperature and depth and relays it to Swartz’s bank of computers. Scientists also use water samples from the bottles, which are filled at various depths, for their own studies.
It’s a task of thousands of details, involving computer data gathering, GPS tracking, electrical engineering and good, old know-how with pliers and wrenches. Swartz, 55, is a details-oriented technician. For this trip he brought 6,700 lbs of gear.
“It’s what I enjoy doing – making things work with practicality and simplicity to the degree possible,” he said while setting up his station in the lab of the Khromov as it idled just off Russia’s easternmost point on a late August afternoon.
His journey here has not been usual.
In his early years he was a marina attendant, sold “prearrangement” plots and worked as a stagehand for concerts at Duke University, where he studied electrical and mechanical engineering. Swartz did his first oceanographic trip in 1976, also on a Russian ship.
Three years later he got an MBA, and then went to work in sales for General Electric and Allied Signal in California, before getting laid off in 1992. Then, he went back to the ocean research world, signing on with Woods Hole, where he’s been ever since.
He’s become known as the iconoclastic technician, jack of all trades and rock n’ roll buff who comes to ocean-going voyages prepared for anything.
“He’s somewhat of a god in oceanographic circles,” said Kevin Wood, a veteran seaman and scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who’s often worked alongside Swartz.
(Photo – Marshall Swartz of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution talks on his satellite phone on the deck of the Russian research ship Professor Khromov in the Bering Sea on August 27, 2009. REUTERS/Jeffrey Jones)