Inside USD

Ocean, RV Sproul Serve as USD’s Science ‘Classroom’

Monday, September 19, 2011

University of San Diego Professors Ron Kaufmann, Sarah Gray and Drew Talley firmly believe their students in marine science, environmental studies and affiliated science courses should always take advantage of all academic opportunities in San Diego. That’s especially true when there’s easy access to the Pacific Ocean.

The body of water’s close proximity enabled dozens of undergraduate and graduate students to do coursework aboard the Research Vessel (RV) Robert Gordon Sproul from sun up to sundown this past Saturday and into the wee hours on Sunday.

“What we do is give students an authentic oceanography experience,” said Kaufmann during the first shift aboard the UC San Diego-owned, Scripps Institution of Oceanography-operated, ship. “We use the same equipment that ocean researchers use, we’re aboard a real ocean research vessel and the students do the bulk of the work. This is real oceanography.”

Joined on the early morning shift by City Heights’ Hoover High School students who are in an Ocean Leaders program through local nonprofit Ocean Discovery Institute, a hands-on oceanography class was in session.

Students collected sediment samples that, after recovery, examination and processing aboard the ship, were taken back to USD’s Donald P. Shiley Center for Science and Technology where students will examine and monitor them for the rest of this semester.

“By collecting the samples and creating the data ourselves, it integrates this whole idea of science from start to finish,” said Faye Mankowske, one of several first-time students onboard from USD Biology Professor Sue Lowery’s upper-division biological oceanography class. “I think this is a great way to apply science directly instead of reading about it in a textbook.”

The ship departed from the Nimitz Marine Facility at 7 a.m. and it wasn’t long before Talley and the assigned student team cast the first plankton net into the water to gather samples. The net was one of three recovery methods employed.

The second recovery was through a large yellow and gray contraption called a CTD (pictured, top left), an acronym for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth. It was submerged 100 meters deep and was used to determine how the ocean water in the area was affecting life. Students performed water sampling and processing.

The third method was a particularly impressive piece of equipment called a Benthic Grab. It had large “jaws” that opened and scooped out a significant chunk of muddy sediments on the deep ocean floor. Several living organisms were found within the recovery.

“Most of the gear that’s deployed gets what are called ‘disturbed’ sediment samples, but the Benthic Grab gives us a great chance for an undisturbed sample from the deepest part of the ocean,” Kaufman said.

The two student groups that followed Saturday (3-11 p.m. and 11 p.m.-7 a.m. Sunday) also gathered samples through plankton nets and CTD methods, but used a Multicorer instead of the Benthic Grab.

The diverse methods and times of recovery for the samples could provide some variety when students examine them more closely. The key, though, has been to give USD students a chance to do hands-on research locally since 1999.

“This research cruise is a one-of-a-kind experience and we’ve structured it to maximize the benefits for students, scientists and the broader community,” Talley said. “Thanks to generous support from the National Science Foundation, we use our time at sea not only collecting data for scientific research, but also give students the unique experience of working with state-of-the-art oceanographic gear. It’s also an opportunity to engage underrepresented students from City Heights community in authentic scientific research and work side-by-side with scientists and USD students.”

Gray said access to a local research vessel helps both students and faculty.

“It’s an opportunity to interact with the students in a unique way outside of class,” she said. “It really helps faculty because we’re asked to write recommendations for jobs and graduate school and this is one way we’re able to comment on a student’s ability in the field by talk about their experience as a ship scientist.”

Saturday’s early ship group included a few RV Sproul veterans. Marine Science graduate student Dani Garcia, who is doing graduate research on icebergs in Antartica, was on her third trip, this time as a student leader.

“It’s a really good learning experience,” said Garcia (pictured, right), whose 2008 undergraduate trip on the RV Sproul resulted in a presentation poster for Creative Collaborations, a USD spring faculty-student research event. Subsequent trips, she said, have enhanced her experiences as an ocean scientist. “I’m confident in my abilities to do this work without having anyone looking over my shoulder.”

Ximena Plata, a senior marine biology major, was in good spirits, even after getting her hands dirty from the muddy sediments of the Benthic Grab.

“I felt there were more opportunities for me to work with the equipment and samples this time, more of everything, than last year,” she said. Plata appreciated being on a trip with others with a common passion.

“This field trip lets you interact with people that have the same interest in marine science and you’re able to create friendships and form a bond,” she said. ” You also get to spend time with the professors. When you’re in class, they’re teachers, but here you get to see them as researchers and we’re co-workers.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

View a photo slideshow: 2011 Trip Aboard the RV Sproul.

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