Dr. Paty Matrai

Senior Research Scientist Emerita at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Boothbay Harbor, Maine. 

Air-Sea Exchange Laboratory

Biological Oceanographer Paty Matrai from Bigelow Lab, Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Dr. Paty Matrai is a Senior Research Scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in beautiful mid-coast Maine. Trained as a biological oceanographer, she became interested in biological-chemical interactions at the air-sea interface and, in polar regions, at the seawater-ice-snow-air interface. Her group focuses on biological production of gases and aerosols that are exchanged with the overlying atmosphere, both in the lab and in the field. The hardship of frequent sampling in and over the Arctic Ocean has led to build and/or deploy automated and autonomous systems that can sample the atmosphere and the ocean for chemical and/or biological processes; this is essential in a changing Arctic.  Dr. Matrai is now retired.

Other Videos Related to Paty’s Research

Interviews

2009

Dr. Patty Matrai, a biological oceanographer originally from Chile, shares her journey into the field of Arctic research since the early 90’s. Her first experiences in the Arctic were in the Beaufort Sea, around 72 degrees North, but it was her voyage to the North Pole, deep within the pack ice, that truly revealed the essence of the Arctic to her. As a biologist, Dr. Matrai studies microscopic algae, specifically marine phytoplankton and ice algae, which release compounds that influence climate, cloud formation, and ozone destruction. These algae play a crucial role in the ecosystem and are interconnected with the air, water, and ice. Dr. Matrai collaborates with atmospheric and marine chemists to understand the production and effects of these compounds. Her research aims to account for the sources and sinks of these compounds, contributing to a deeper understanding of climate change. The Arctic, with its short and intense period of ice melt and limited light availability, becomes a concentrated and productive region during late spring and summer. This productivity supports a complex food chain, from plants to fish and seals, and ultimately humans who rely on hunting for their sustenance. Dr. Matrai’s work sheds light on the intricate dynamics of the Arctic ecosystem and the interplay between its various components.

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According to Dr. Patty Matrai, there are noticeable changes occurring in the Arctic due to climate change. The growth season for phytoplankton and ice algae is extending in both the spring and fall. The snow is melting earlier and faster, allowing light to penetrate through the ice and promoting growth. Additionally, freeze-up is happening later in the fall, providing an extended period of activity. However, the availability of nutrients plays a crucial role in controlling this growth. The controversy lies in determining whether to focus solely on areas of open water that receive illumination or to consider nutrient inputs through winter mixing. Researchers are working on modeling and understanding these dynamics since sampling becomes challenging when there is ice present. To overcome this, automated systems such as the Ice Tethered Profiler (ITP) and underwater floats have been developed to measure meteorology, CO2 concentrations, bromine oxide, ozone, and other variables. These advancements are crucial to gaining a comprehensive understanding of the Arctic ecosystem throughout the year, rather than just during the accessible summer months.

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Dr. Paty Matrai, a Chilean-born biological oceanographer specializing in Arctic research, studies phytoplankton and ice algae, their impact on climate and atmospheric processes, and the effects of climate change in the Arctic. Dr. Matrai has conducted multiple Arctic expeditions and highlights the challenges posed by the changing Arctic environment, including extended growth seasons, thinner ice cover, and shifts in fish species. She also emphasizes the importance of sustainable tourism practices in the region. Overall, Dr. Matrai’s work sheds light on the intricate connections between the atmosphere, ocean, and ecosystems in the Arctic.

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Dr. Paty Matrai emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in Arctic research. She shares her experiences as a biologist in atmospheric chemistry and Arctic sciences, often being the only female in the field. Dr. Matrai discusses her collaborative projects with atmospheric chemists, glaciologists, oceanographers, and geologists, highlighting the diverse expertise needed to understand the Arctic ecosystem. She acknowledges the challenges of integrating molecular biology with biogeochemistry and the need to consider the heterogeneity of the Arctic region. Despite the complexities, Dr. Matrai finds the Arctic a fascinating and opportune environment to study.

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Dr. Paty Matrai discusses the size of organisms in polar regions, particularly in the Arctic. She explains that colder waters and a lack of predators contribute to larger sizes of species like sea stars. In the Arctic, there is a discontinuity in the timing of prime production by ice algae. When the ice melts, the fallen algae reaches the sediments, creating a food source for benthic fauna such as clams and seals. Dr. Matrai highlights the benthic-pelagic communication and self-basing interactions that occur in this ecosystem. She raises questions about the impact of earlier warming and the arrival of zooplankton from the south on the availability of food sources. Additionally, she mentions the discovery of green floc on the Arctic seafloor, which were observed by German scientists using cameras. These flocs are believed to be related to the thinning ice, early snowmelt, and increased light availability for growth. The scientists plan to conduct further research on this phenomenon to understand its implications for biological connections between ice and sediments in the Arctic.

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Dr. Paty Matrai emphasizes the vital role of the atmosphere in sustaining life and its interconnectedness with the ocean and ice. She explains that air-sea interactions are tightly coupled, with nutrients transferring from the air to the water and sea spray containing organic compounds affecting atmospheric chemistry. In the high Arctic, aerosols, which are particles in the air, have predominantly organic compositions derived from the ocean’s surface. These aerosols play a significant role in cloud formation, as cloud droplets require particles on which to condense. Changes in the organic composition can impact the number, size, and chemistry of aerosol particles, influencing cloud properties and sunlight reflection. This, in turn, affects the ocean’s temperature, ice melting, and broader climate dynamics. Dr. Matrai’s research focuses on connecting the biology of the ocean surface to cloud formation, radiation, and the global climate system, highlighting the significance of her work in a broader context.

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Dr. Paty Matrai discusses the challenges of communication during Arctic expeditions. She explains that when researchers venture above 60 degrees north, traditional means of communication like cell phones and emails become unreliable. To address this, they carry iridium satellite phones to stay connected with their teams and families. Dr. Matrai emphasizes the importance of maintaining communication with schools, especially during the Arctic summer when Northern Hemisphere schools are on vacation while Southern Hemisphere schools are in session. She actively engages with schools from countries like Chile and Argentina, establishing relationships with teachers and conducting outreach activities. Dr. Matrai recounts a personal anecdote where she communicated with her family from 89 degrees north using a satellite phone while they were camping in Canada. The immediacy of hearing her voice had a profound impact on her children, highlighting the challenges of being away for extended periods. She also reflects on the luxury of focusing solely on their research while in the field, uninterrupted by other responsibilities. Dr. Matrai appreciates the gift of working on a single project without distractions and how it can be a valuable lesson for her children and young professionals learning to balance multiple tasks. Despite missing their families, researchers in the field find joy in the opportunity to solely focus on their work. Dr. Matrai highlights the rigorous schedule and long working hours during expeditions, emphasizing the need for her team to get sufficient rest. She clarifies that fieldwork is not a leisurely cruise but rather an intense period of dedicated work.

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Arctic researcher Dr. Paty Matrai reflects on her time in the Arctic, where 24-hour daylight and the breathtaking colors of the ice captivated her. She shares anecdotes of encountering polar bears, emphasizing the need for caution in the awe-inspiring presence of this protected species. Dr. Matrai also discusses her attempts through public outreach to convey the Arctic’s sensory experience, acknowledging the challenge of fully capturing its beauty and immensity in words and visuals.

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Dr. Paty Matrai discusses the delicate balance between personal fulfillment and the urgency to communicate the fragility of nature in the Arctic. She emphasizes that changes in the Arctic have far-reaching effects, influencing not only the region itself but also global systems. Dr. Matrai highlights the importance of studying the Arctic’s physical and biological processes, such as circulation patterns, nutrient dynamics, and the impact of wind and waves. Collaboration among scientists and modelers becomes crucial in understanding and predicting these complex interactions. She mentions the challenges faced in modeling and the need for more comprehensive data to improve simulations and make accurate predictions. Dr. Matrai also emphasizes the significance of long-term observatories to gather consistent and extensive data on chemical, physical, and biological variables.

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2022

Dr. Paty Matrai, an emerita research scientist associated with Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Mid Coast Maine, reflects on her research over the past 15 years, focusing on the changes in Arctic ice cover. With shifts in ice conditions, field research has become both easier and more challenging. Deploying equipment and autonomous vehicles in the Arctic has increased significantly, pushing her research towards modeling and connectivity with remote sensing. While the biggest changes are occurring in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall), she still co-led an expedition to the North Pole in 2018. The evolving Arctic presents new opportunities for data collection during the polar night, and it is evident that the region’s ecosystem remains active even in darkness and winter. The research now encompasses understanding what happens during these dark periods and includes studying the Land-Ocean interface, which is essential as the ice and the people residing there are profoundly affected by these changes.

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Dr. Paty Matrai shares insights on how immigration, development, shipping, and tourism are affecting the Arctic. There’s a growing awareness among researchers and funding agencies about the necessity to collaborate with local communities and obtain proper permits for research. As interest in the Arctic rises, inexperienced individuals entering the region raise safety concerns. Dr. Matrai emphasizes the critical role of basic science and ice quality in addressing these challenges. Her experience aboard a research vessel highlights the changing conditions and the importance of considering safety and environmental impacts.

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Dr. Paty Matrai discusses her modeling work in the Arctic, focusing on autotrophic and heterotrophic processes. Initially, many Earth models underestimated the activity of the polar regions, especially during the winter. Dr. Matrai collected data to validate Arctic-specific models. Her research examines the transition zone between the North Atlantic and the Arctic, studying the movement of warm waters, productivity, and fish migration. Incorporating ocean biology and chemistry into models remains a challenge, particularly in the complex coastal regions affected by thawing permafrost. Remotely sensed data is limited due to ice and cloud cover, necessitating technological advancements on the ice and in the water itself for accurate data collection. The need for battery-powered devices hinders some research, but efforts like MOSAiC showed promise for conducting year-round work. (The goal of the MOSAiC expedition, 389 days on one Arctic expedition, was to take the closest look ever at the Arctic as the epicenter of global warming and to gain fundamental insights that are key to better understand global climate change. Hundreds of researchers from 20 countries were involved in this exceptional endeavour.)

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Dr. Paty Matrai discusses the increasing presence of women in ocean biology and scientific collaborations. In her recent cruise on the Icebreaker Oden, both chief scientists were women, and about half of the senior scientists were also women. She highlights these positive changes in science, with more female graduate students joining in fieldwork. One project she’s involved in, two younger women, Amanda Grannis and Kerrie Pratt (see interviews on this website) lead as Principal Investigators. She acknowledges that the challenge for young women remains reaching full professor positions while maintaining a balanced life with families. Institutional factors heavily influence gender equality, with smaller institutions showing more potential for positive change.

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Dr. Paty Matrai’s research continues despite disappearing Arctic ice. She is involved in a project studying the interactions between fresh and salt water around Greenland. Microorganisms, especially mixotrophs, play a crucial role in the Arctic’s ecology, switching between autotrophic and heterotrophic modes depending on conditions. Understanding these processes is essential for comprehending the region’s changing dynamics.

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