Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Getting their Sea Legs


In gale-force conditions, three CEOAS REU students tough it out on board R/V Oceanus

Within days of arriving at Oregon State University in mid-June, a trio of intrepid summer undergraduate students plunged headfirst into the literal ups and downs of ship-board oceanographic research on a three-day research cruise off the Oregon coast. It would probably be insensitive to say that the experience taught them to "sink or swim," given that the "sink" option didn't seem so far-fetched.

The three young women embarked on the cruise aboard Oceanus, a research vessel of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS). Alongside graduate students and other researchers, they braved gale-force winds and high seas to collect sediment cores for their summer research projects. As the ship pitched and rolled, so did their stomachs, but they helped with all aspects of core collection while learning about the challenges of life at sea.

The three, Alyson Churchill, Iris Romo and Angelica Robles, are NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) students. REU is a paid ten-week internship program in which students conduct original research under the tutelage of faculty advisors at research facilities around the country. Oregon State University is hosting 29 marine sciences REU students this summer, split between campus CEOAS labs and the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

"These ladies did a fantastic job. They dove into the deep end and were super-productive even through the rough conditions. They were ready to work," said Maureen Walczak, CEOAS post-doc and organizer of the cruise.

Cruise Success

The cruise was designed specifically to give the REU students the opportunity to participate in the entire process of collecting sediment cores for use in their independent research projects. With only ten weeks to complete a project, it is sometimes more efficient to provide these summer students with previously collected samples, but it is much more instructive for them to participate in field collections when possible.

"We were there from start to finish, from labeling the empty coring tube to seeing them get sent down to slicing them open," explained Churchill, a rising senior studying geology at Colby College in Maine. In addition to gaining an understanding of the process of collecting marine sediment cores, Churchill learned that an important aspect of this work is that "you really have to work together and trust each other" on the ship.

The objective of the cruise was to collect cores containing sediments deposited during the window of time when the Missoula Floods occurred – cataclysmic deluges that tore through the Columbia Gorge at the end of the last ice age, between approximately 15,000-20,000 years ago. The sheer force of those careening waters carried huge volumes of terrestrial sediments down the Columbia and deposited them in the ocean.

Despite the sea state, the cruise was a success, bringing back 11 cores, 5 of which were jumbo piston cores ranging in length from around 8 to 11 meters, probably among the longest cores of that type ever taken from Oceanus, according to Walczak.

Angelica Robles aboard Oceanus REU student Angelica Robles, left, works with CEOAS Associate Professor Joe Stoner on a research cruise aboard Oceanus in June.

Stellar Students Studying Sediments

Preliminary examination of the cores suggests that the Missoula Floods window was captured, providing ample fodder for all three student projects. Churchill will work with Walczak, Associate Professor Anders Carlson, and CEOAS graduate student Heather Bervid to use OSU's state-of-the-art x-ray fluorescence scanner to examine the chemistry of the sediments in the cores in order to determine where, exactly, they came from. They are hoping to find evidence of the Missoula Floods by comparing these chemical signatures to the well-documented signatures of the rocks of the Columbia Basin. Churchill may do a little road-tripping this summer as well, collecting rock samples from the region for provenance analysis.

Portland State University geology student Iris Romo will be using a different approach to search for evidence of the Missoula Floods in the cores: she will look for high concentrations of freshwater diatoms, a type of phytoplankton that would only show up in the cores in high numbers if the massive floods flushed them downriver and out to sea. Romo is being trained in this technique by Cristina Lopes, a former student of CEOAS's Alan Mix and now a post-doc at the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere.

Angelica Robles will be a senior at the University of Puerto Rico in the fall; she is studying environmental sciences with a minor in geography. This summer she will search for evidence in the cores of shifts in regional wave climate. Higher wave and current energy can move sediments with larger grain sizes, which might be reflected in the grain sizes in the cores. Her project builds on prior research by CEOAS researchers using NOAA buoy data demonstrating that wave heights in the region have been increasing since the mid 1970's. She will work with Walczak and Associate Professor Joseph Stoner to try and determine if this recent increase in wave energy is an unusual feature of modern climate or part of a longer cycle or trend.

Pulling the Cruise Together

The Oceanus cruise was Walczak's brainchild: with support from co-PIs Stoner, Mix, and Carlson she obtained a grant well over a year ago from a state fund to support research vessel time for projects with a strong educational component. To support the core collection piece of the cruise, she obtained discretionary funding from CEOAS Dean Roberta Marinelli and a grant from the Barrow Foundation, a long-time supporter of student research at OSU.

The cores collected will drive research for years to come. "The research questions raised by these cores go far beyond what these students can do in ten weeks," Walczak stated. "There are a number of doctoral projects' worth of work to be done on them."

Perhaps some of that work will be done in the future by these three ambitious undergraduates if they return to OSU as graduate students.

See more Feature Stories