URI undergrads get their first experience at sea during research expedition to George’s Bank

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – April 3, 2015 – High seas and rough weather made the spring break trip aboard the University of Rhode Island research vessel Endeavor a bit harrowing for a group of URI undergraduates. But all agreed that their first experience conducting research at sea ended up being a tremendous learning experience and an exciting adventure.

Led by Susanne Menden-Deuer, associate professor at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, the five-day expedition to George’s Bank in the Gulf of Maine was aimed at studying the relationship between the productivity of plankton and the physics of the ocean.

“Some people think there should be a relationship between the mixing of the water column and how much plankton production occurs,” said Menden-Deuer. “The more mixing takes place, the more nutrients are brought up to the surface. But that mixing might also carry the plankton down deep where they don’t have access to sunlight for photosynthesis.”

Menden-Deuer and Assistant Professor Melissa Omand guided the nine URI undergraduates, three graduate students, and two post-doctoral fellows as they collected plankton samples at various depths at six sites around George’s Bank and conducted experiments in an on-board incubator.

“There’s no better way to test your skills as a marine scientist than to go to sea,” said Emily Bishop, a senior marine biology major from Groton, Mass. “Basic laboratory skills, like looking through a microscope without getting nauseous, become 10 times harder on a ship.”

Bishop said her experience aboard the Endeavor provided her first opportunity to learn what it’s like to be an oceanographer.

“There are so many aspects to the marine environment worth investigating, and so many techniques to access crucial information about what is happening in the oceans,” she said. “I now have a better understanding of how these pieces fit together and how we can use these data moving forward.”

Providence resident Spike Stone, a senior marine biology major, said he enjoyed the simplicity of living aboard ship, where the distraction-free environment allowed him to focus on the science.

“There were always things to be done at all hours of the night, so the days seemed to blend together,” he said. “We’d get up at 3:30 a.m. to retrieve samples from the incubator, then filter them, eat breakfast, and deploy our instruments again. After a quick nap, we’d go on to more chlorophyll readings, all while breaking through 15-foot swells.”

Junior microbiology major Victoria Fulfer of Carlisle, Penn., said her favorite part of the expedition was simply standing on deck while deploying instruments and seeing nothing but the vast ocean.

“I learned that I love being out in the ocean on a ship, even with the rough seas we had for much of the trip,” she said. “There’s nothing better than sleeping with the swaying of the ship. And I gained so much experience with techniques and instruments that I could never get from a normal lecture or lab course.”

Menden-Deuer said the students “were real troopers and highly motivated” throughout the physically demanding and very cold conditions, noting that on the morning of their return the ship was entirely frozen on the outside.

The expedition was funded by the Rhode Island Endeavor Program, which provides URI researchers and local educators with access to the scientific research and educational capabilities of an ocean-going research vessel. “After the science party was assembled for this cruise, I chose to fill the remaining berths with undergraduates to give them an experience that isn’t often available,” she said. “For many this can be life-changing.”

“It was exhausting,” Bishop said, “but seeing how passionate the grad students were has fueled my desire to find my own niche in the marine science world.”

Pictured above

Emily Bishop: URI senior Emily Bishop (left) prepares to deploy a device to collect plankton samples in the ocean.

Spike Stone: URI senior Spike Stone conducts experiments in a ship-board laboratory.

Victoria Fulfer: URI junior Victoria Fulfer poses with the life ring aboard the research vessel Endeavor.

Photos by Susanne Menden-Deuer