Researchers on RV Sikuliaq deck

By Abby Metzger

Posted May 15, 2019

Samantha Lonie huddles over a long tube of mud sampled from the ocean floor, its color a deep ash. She examines flecks of shells and faint striations in the sediment, indicating deposition of different materials. Layers of mud build up year after year, even century after century, stacking like pancakes, all the while trapping dead diatoms and shell-building organisms called foraminifera (forams for short). The stuff inside this mud – both chemical and physical – will help scientists understand our ancient ocean and Earth. Lonie is helping to process, describe and archive the sediment core for further analysis.

Lonie is not a tenure-track professor or research assistant. She is an undergraduate at Oregon State University in the Ocean Science program. Housed in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, the Ocean Science program offers a field oceanography course (called OC295) aboard a research vessel. Every year, thanks to a generous donor gift, undergraduate students sail on the open ocean and conduct a full spectrum of oceanographic research.

Lonie has recently returned from her own five-day cruise aboard the RV Sikuliaq, during which she and 19 other students deployed a gravity corer to obtain the sediment sample she is now helping to process.

“I learned about this stuff in a classroom setting, but it’s completely different than actually going out and seeing where this sample comes from. We get to be involved in every step, down to processing cores,” she says. “Aboard the ship we did centimeter slices of multi-core cores, actually cutting into the mud. Getting all dirty was really fun. Then we looked under the microscope and saw all the forams and diatoms in detail, which was pretty cool.”

Mud wasn’t the only thing students got their hands on. The undergraduates helped to sample the water column and ocean life at two deep locations (3,000 m and 600 m water depth) off the Oregon continental shelf, in addition to conducting a hydrographic survey along the Newport Hydrographic Line, a series of sampling stations that have been active for nearly 60 years.

Throughout the five days, students deployed a CTD instrument that measures salinity, temperature and depth – key variables that gave students a general snapshot of ocean conditions. They took water samples and deployed nets to recover plankton. Onboard labs allowed students to examine krill, larval fish and other zooplankton under microscopes. Students learned about oxygen minimum zones, places in the water column where oxygen saturation is at its lowest and that influence carbon and nitrogen cycling.

Chief scientist and course instructor Miguel Goñi says a key benefit of learning at sea is that students appreciate what it takes to collect samples. “You get to see how involved it is to do this work. You might take a class where you describe a core or you have some data on that core, but it’s hard to realize what it takes to get the data,” he says.

Overall, the cruise was smooth sailing, some rough seas notwithstanding. Equipment functioned, and the professionalism of the crew, from the cooks to the techs, played a big part in the trip’s success. As a result, students were able to develop oceanographic research skills in real-time.

For Ocean Science major Mikayla Reuter, the experience encouraged her to think about how climate change may impact the coastal ocean ecosystem.

“Learning about the different physical and chemical processes of the ocean inspires me to look for hope for the future and try to find ways to reduce processes that are already happening world-wide (like ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and rising sea levels),” she says. “I would like to use this information to research ways to reduce the effects of climate change on both marine ecosystems and coastal communities.”

Cruise participant John Canez is a sophomore in Ocean Science and a participant in the Degree Partnership Program, which allows students to be jointly admitted at Oregon State and a community college partner school. Encouraged by the cruise, he is already pursing further oceanographic research.

“I’ve always been interested in the ocean and decided that Oregon State had the best undergraduate program on the West Coast. I wanted to finally get out and do some real research in my undergraduate degree,” he says. “The cruise felt empowering and inspiring. I finally got the courage to talk to the cruise’s professor and have just submitted my first proposal for CTD-based research using the data we collected!”

Given the cost of going to sea and the complicated logistics involved, students felt fortunate for the experience.

“Not every school can do this,” says Ocean Science student Korrina Wirfs. “Here we don’t just stand here and watch. We get our hands dirty. We get our hands on it. We all know this opportunity is so rare to come by, and we’re all just ever so grateful that we get to come out here.”

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