ST. PETERSBURG, FL – Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) is a mentored research program for students in the middle of completing their undergraduate degree. The Weather, Climate and Society REU is hosted by USF this year where students will spend an intensive 9-week summer course conducting research on topics related to climate change threats, such as hurricanes and sea level rise (SLR).
As one of their excursions from the Tampa campus, students were brought to the College of Marine Science (CMS) for a remote seminar and tour led by two of the research mentors, Dr. Mya Breitbart and Dr. Mark Luther. The afternoon of activities included a wax-demonstration of tectonic plate motion, a tour of CMS facilities and equipment, a seminar about the use of social media, and a graduate student-led panel on science communication.
In a research office next to the wax-demo lab in the CMS Marine Science Laboratory (MSL) building, Dr. David Naar introduced the group of 10 visiting undergrads to continental and oceanic crust. Using two globes with the “water removed,” he described how scientists in the 1960’s had finally found the key evidence to explain mountain building, earthquakes and a number of geophysical mysteries that had puzzled scientists of the time, resulting in the unifying theory of plate tectonics. Overturning centuries of pre-conceived notions, the theory created conflict among circles of geophysicists around the world.
Dr. Breitbart chimed in with a question, “Do you think the proponents of this theory faced a lot of deniers the way many climate scientists face deniers these days?”
Naar responded with an explanation of how the authors of the original work indeed faced skeptical opponents as well as those who flat-out denied the existence of this now well-understood planetary process. Magnetic anomalies due to the Earth’s pole reversals are perfectly recorded in oceanic crust on either side of spreading centers, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and precise GPS devices stationed on opposing sides of ocean basins record movement of the continents that was accurately predicted by the theory of plate tectonics several decades ago.
Next door, a large, deep metal tray fixed to a table with two motors controlling a mechanized arm sat waiting with a vat of wax melted at 140 °F. Here Naar demonstrated continental drift and spreading centers. The students were intrigued and posed some precocious queries when Naar opened the floor to questions. One of the questions led Naar to explain a fairly recent revelation in the field of geophysics – and one that still evades many textbooks. The heavy subducting head of an oceanic plate is what actually drives the rifting that occurs at the mid-ocean ridge. It’s a pull rather than the push described by previous theories that assumed rising magma at the mid-ocean ridges forced the plates into motion. The thinner trailing edge (or tail) of the oceanic plates–or in this case, floating wax crust–was spotted by one of the REU students as they observed patterns in the surface of the wax. Another student noticed the wax analog of a microplate, small sections of crust that spin, like cogs in the Earth’s surface, until they attach to one of the surrounding larger plates and become fixed.
Students filed out of the corridor of geological oceanography offices and across the hallway through another corridor to the ‘Paleo Lab,’ a shared facility that conducts paleoceanographic work on sediment cores, including isotopic measurements of the shells of tiny marine organisms (Foraminifera) using an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (ICP-MS). Read more about Foraminifera.
At the request of Dr. Breitbart, Paleo Lab technician Bryan “Brain” O’Malley delivered an excellent impromptu 3-minute presentation of sediment cores and how they can help us understand what is happening to the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout of 2010.
Turning to leave, Breitbart noticed a young technician immersed in processing a sediment core. Duke Thornburgh, an undergraduate entering his senior year at Eckerd College, obliged the group with a short explanation and demonstration of how he removes sediment from the top of the core, one thin layer at a time. Moving from the top down, this method allows researchers to study the layers in sequence.
Exiting into the hallway, the students were met by Dr. Mark Luther who was waiting to greet them and continue the tour of CMS. Luther, a physical oceanographer, curator of the new Marine Exploration Center, and head of the Center for Maritime and Port Studies, is adept at guiding visitors through the oceanographic equipment rooms, boat docks and laboratory spaces of MSL.
In a small office belonging to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), ocean-sensing devices crowded the shelves and floor space where the tour of 10 students and one chaperon huddled around Luther for a brief lesson. Tampa Bay P.O.R.T.S. uses this room to store Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers, used to measure water current speeds throughout the depth range of the water column, and other devices that are moored to the seafloor or attached to towers in coastal waters.
After viewing some Bottom Stationed Ocean Profilers and gliders (think bright yellow torpedo with scientific instruments inside instead of payload) in the workshop and lab space of the Center for Ocean Technology, the visiting students took a short walk under the hot midday sun to look at a new tower that will be anchored off the mouth of Tampa Bay using a 40,000 pound concrete block and outfitted with an extremely precise GPS instrument. The Gulf Coast of Florida, with its lack of seismic activity and seafloor movement, is the perfect location to test the sensitivity of the instrument. Here, with a non-moving seafloor, scientists can verify the stability of the instrument’s measurements, so they can later use the device at its final destination, the California coast, where the seafloor is in constant motion.
Back inside the life-sustaining air-conditioned confines of MSL, the group of students headed to the main conference room for a round-table discussion with current CMS graduate students led by Dr. Breitbart, during which she used insights from her own life story, of being thrust from the role of student to professor almost literally overnight, to caution students on how to handle the pressures of taking the lead on research projects and managing a team of scientists.
Getting to the theme of her 30-minute seminar, she implored the students to choose a social media outlet that best suits their communication style as a way to share their research and network with other social and physical scientists. A whiteboard at the front of the room had these three categories written: Sites, Benefits, and Risks. Eliciting answers from the group, Breitbart grabbed a dry-erase marker and jotted down all of the social media sites that any of the students had experience with. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn… even Snapchat has its time and place for sharing science highlights, as attested to by one of the CMS grad students. Benefits… Open data/Open access to your work, Networking, Learning from others, Teaching others. And Risks… Exposing personal information, Fallout from an unprofessional post, and worst of all… Trolls!
The CMS grad students took the stage for the final activity of the day and provided a ten-member panel on science communication to the ten visiting undergrads. 10-on-10. Whether the numbers were planned or by coincidence, this was an incredible opportunity for the undergrads and a very raw look into the minds of students just a few years their senior as they relayed story after story about choosing a school, choosing a major advisor, self-assessing what type of advisor they needed: strict or laid back, and most importantly, figuring out what captivates their interest and motivates them to succeed.
Hearing of the trials, tribulations, and exhilarations of graduate school, the REU students asked the grad students, quite simply, “What do you want to do [next]?”
“Work in academia.”
“Anything but academia.”
“Work with undergrads to help them figure out what they will do in life.”
“Work with kids and do science outreach.”
“I’m interested in applied science, specifically the application of science to conservation, so I can see myself working for an agency.”
“Work for NASA or the Navy.”
A wide range of answers from a wide range of talent. The CMS graduate student panel gave the visiting undergrads just what they needed to hear: the unabashed truth.
Written By: Sean Beckwith