Su Sponaugle sewing MOCNESS plankton nets

By: Su Sponaugle

June 14, 2015

Today I applied what I learned in elementary school. The blanket stitch. Yes, back in the dark ages, embroidery skills were something little girls learned in school. I have a B.A, M.S., and Ph.D., but the skill I used today came from something I learned at age 8.

In my British-system school in the 1970s, boys were excused from class (to go out and kick soccer balls, I imagine) while girls brought out their sewing baskets and cross-stitched simple patterns on small squares of fabric. When our embroidered designs were complete, we used blanket stitches to round out the rough edges and finish the doilies. Later in my American system high school, ‘Home Economics’ class taught us (again, mostly girls) how to sew clothes using a sewing machine.

Today, these ‘girly’ activities are frowned upon and training in these types of skills has been eliminated from most school curricula in favor of more academic subjects. It is true that I would not be the scientist I am today without a heavy dose of rigorous math and science training. But these ‘girly’ skills from years ago have actually played a role in shaping my science. As a PhD student I designed a new sampling apparatus to collect young coral fishes as they leave the plankton as larvae and settle to the reef to complete their life cycle. I used your basic run-of-the-mill sewing machine to sew up the mesh nets that would house a light and be anchored to the sea floor to sample fish through the night. This was a central sampling technique in my early research on reef fishes then and remains a key gear in our work today (although the nets are now sewn by a professional net company).

So today I sat on the ship’s deck and blanket-stitched closed nine small holes that had appeared in one of the MOC-4 nets. My blue caterpillar-shaped double-blanket stitched repairs will not win any artistic awards but will allow us to catch more larval fishes, which, in turn, should shed more light on the processes that influence fish growth and survival.