Navigating Virtual 2020 Summer Internships During Pandemic

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Thanks to the creativity and dedication of various internship programs and Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center mentors, students across the country were still able to gain valuable skills and experience crucial to the advancement of their education and journey to becoming a scientist.

Each summer, scientists at the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center (WHCMSC) mentor numerous students through programs such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Summer Student Fellowship (SSF)The Woods Hole Partnership Education Program (PEP)City College of New York (CCNY)/City University of New York (CUNY), and USGS/National Association of Geoscience Teachers Cooperative Field Training Program (NAGT). Through this mentorship, students gain experience, advance skills, and interact socially and scientifically with their cohorts and the Woods Hole community. In the summer of 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, these programs operated in a virtual capacity to keep everyone safe. The students worked by themselves at home in their bedrooms and kitchens, amidst their siblings, pets, and other family members, utilizing the equipment and software provided by their respective programs, and their Woods Hole mentors strived to provide them with a valuable experience, despite the distance and unique circumstances.  

screen shot of teams meeting

Meagan Eagle and Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center Director Rob Thieler in a Teams meeting with Meagan’s summer 2020 interns.  Clockwise from lower right (Hector) are Stephen, Liana, Sophia, Meagan, and Rob. 

(Public domain.)

Meagan Eagle mentored four students, Liana Stachowicz (NAGT), Hector Dominguez (PEP), Stephen Galindo (PEP), and Sophie Kuhl (SSF), with the help of Kevin Kroeger, who co-advised Hector and Sophie, and Sydney Nick, who co-advised Liana. They largely interacted via Teams and Zoom meetings. Meagan met with each intern individually 1-5 times per week and held a weekly intern group meeting where they would discuss topics such as science communication, how to make a good graphic, how to apply to graduate school, and more. Meagan explained that typically, these summer internships are focused on field and lab work, which is most appropriate for the skills and interests of scientists-in-training at this stage of their education and career, but this year, they were given data to analyze from past field and lab work because that was the only option. There was a steep learning curve for data analysis, including how to program in a new language (R) or use ArcGIS for the first time.   

Meagan noted that, “pretty much everyone started outside their comfort zone, however, the students really rose to the challenge. They all made so much progress and it was fun to work on projects that for most of us had been dusty datasets sitting on the proverbial shelf. Scientists always have these datasets – ones that are small chunks of projects that didn't get included in the publication or are just sitting somewhere as a data release, without full interpretation. Thankfully, we were able to use these for intern projects.” Stephen will be presenting at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science National Conference and the Geological Society of America 2021 Annual Meeting and Sophie at the American Geophysical Union 2020 Fall Meeting, so the internships continue to have the desired impact – promoting the careers of young scientists. 

Screen grab from a summer intern presentation

Slide from a presentation given virtually by Stephen Galindo, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center summer intern.  

Screen grab from a summer intern presentation

Slide from a presentation given virtually by Stephen Galindo, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center 2020 summer intern.  

Chris Sherwood mentored two students, Jose Cabrera (PEP) and Jialin Li (SSF). He sent them data on hard drives and collaborated with the students through Slack, Teams, WebEx, Zoom, email, phone, and text. To provide his mentees with a more rich experience and give them a taste of that science 24/7 vibe that permeates the atmosphere on-campus, Chris formed a small research group that included his two students and Alfredo Aretxabaleta and Jin-Si Over of the WHCMSC, Meg Palmsten of the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center, Meg’s summer intern Sharifa Karwandyar, and Shawn Harrison of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Stennis (formerly USGS). This research group met twice per week and discussed progress, debugged Matlab code on screen, gave semi-formal presentations on scientific background, and simply chatted about the weather and other topics. Chris notes that, “the meetings were greatly enriched by Alfredo, Jin-Si, Meg, and Shawn, who brought a fresh perspective to each meeting, did lots of homework demonstrating scripts to analyze data, and lightened the whole interaction.”  

Photograph of Jialin Li

Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center 2020 Summer Intern, Jialin Li 

Photograph of WHCMSC Summer Intern, Jose Cabrera

Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center 2020 Summer Intern, Jose Cabrera 

Screen grab from a summer intern presentation

Figure 1. Head of the Meadow beach, Cape Cod National Seashore. a) 2018 Google Earth image of upper Cape Cod showing the location of the USGS CoastCam station CACO 01 (green square; https://usgs.gov/caco01). Also shown is the location of the acoustic receiver array (white circles) and upward looking ADCP (yellow hexagon) deployed by CCS and DMF in summer 2019). b) Camera installation on the bluff powered by solar panels and connected to USGS Cloud Hosted Solutions by cell-phone modem. c) View looking north from one of the two cameras. 

Debbie Hutchinson mentored one student – Tanjima Alam (PEP). Tanjima analyzed the consistency and spatial distribution of sediment velocities from multichannel seismic reflection data on the Atlantic margin. Her work is a small but important part of the work being conducted by the USGS under the federal Interagency Task Force on the Extended Continental Shelf. Specifically, the velocities will be used to calculate sediment thickness and Tanjima’s analysis will help determine the uncertainty associated with sediment thickness estimates. Debbie explained that as a mentor, she spent significant time early on giving Tanjima background "lessons" in the geophysics of multichannel data (acquisition and processing) so that she could understand the velocities she was analyzing. They worked through "Teams" meetings every morning, for about 60-90 minutes, to discuss the results of the previous day and move forward with next steps. “Part of the success of the internship was the close and frequent communication,” Debbie said. Just as the other mentors noticed though, being 100% virtual possessed unique challenges. Tanjima only had access to QGIS software, on which she had some, but limited experience, whereas Debbie worked with ArcGIS. “QGIS ran very slowly on her laptop, and it sometimes took extra time to figure out how QGIS could produce the kind of map or analysis we wanted. It was a steep learning curve for both of us,” Debbie said. On the bright side, Tanjima said that she learned many new skills – not only QGIS, but reformatting data using python, very much appreciated the daily feedback, and gained a much better feel for a “real-world” research problem. Debbie noted that Tanjima “was nervous but thrilled about giving her presentation at the Center meeting (and did a great job!), and would love to visit our office some day.”  

Photograph of Tanjima Alam

Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center 2020 Summer Intern, Tanjima Alam

 Map of acoustic velocities on the Au stratigraphic horizon

Map of acoustic velocities on the Au stratigraphic horizon along the deep-water Atlantic continental margin.  The color ramp goes from yellow (~1700 m/s) to deep blue (~2600 m/s). 

Thanks to the creativity and dedication of these various internship programs and mentors like Meagan, Chris, and Debbie, students across the country were still able to gain valuable skills and experience crucial to the advancement of their education and journey to becoming a scientist. Meagan emphasized that, “getting practical experience is a critical component of building a science career, and internships such as PEP, NAGT, CCNY/CUNY, and Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) serve that purpose. Without this experience, the students may not get the next opportunity that comes along, they may not experience mentoring at a key time in their education, and they may not see how a career in science will work for them. Missing this type of experience disproportionately impacts groups that are under-represented in science. The pandemic has been very difficult for those at career transitions. Keeping these programs functioning has been one way to try to alleviate that impact. Mentoring takes time. It is an investment in our future colleagues that is critical for building the scientific community that we need to investigate the challenges our society faces. And I definitely won't take for granted the next time I have an intern in person in the field or lab!” 

Learn more about each of the WHCMSC’s 2020 summer students and their interesting work below: 

Sophie Kuhl (WHOI SSF) 

  • Research Mentor: Meagan Eagle 

  • Title: Tidal Exports of Dissolved Organic Carbon from a Coastal Salt Marsh Complex 

  • Coastal wetlands play an important role in carbon cycling at the global scale, with coastal vegetation removing atmospheric CO2 and sequestering carbon into anoxic soils and biomass. Carbon not retained within the wetland system outwells to the coastal ocean with tidal exchange driving lateral fluxes of dissolved carbon between these two reservoirs. This study evaluates lateral fluxes of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) within the Sage Lot Pond salt marsh complex in Waquoit Bay on the southern coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. From November 2012 to December 2016, high-frequency sensor measurements of biogeochemically important parameters were taken in a tidal creek that drains a portion of the marsh, and DOC fluxes were calculated at five-minute intervals based on an emergent power law scaling-based predictive model that utilized creek water temperature, pH, fDOM, and measured water flux. DOC fluxes were quantified for over ~1,000 complete tidal cycles. DOC fluxes increase concurrently with higher tides, due to enhanced flooding of the marsh surface and subsequent flushing of accumulated DOC from marsh porewaters. DOC flux was greatest in the summer (50.2% of total flux), followed by spring (23.1% of total flux), fall (21.6% of total flux) and winter (5.1% of total flux) seasons likely coincident with plant growth and soil respiration. During neap tidal cycles (16.1% of tides), the marsh platform did not flood and flux was close to zero (only 7.8% of total flux). 81.4% of the total flux occurred during frequent, moderate amplitude tidal cycles that were sufficient to flood the marsh surface. Extreme flux events did occur when the water levels were much greater than MHHW (2.5% of tides), accounting for 11.4% of the total flux. In all, we observed a yearly lateral DOC export from the marsh of 84.7 g C m-2 yr-1. Exports of marsh-derived organic material to the adjacent estuary are likely an important source of carbon and other nutrients. 

Liana Stachowicz (NAGT) 

  • Research Mentor: Meagan Eagle 

  • Title: Mapping Managed Wetlands across the Contiguous U.S. 

Stephen Galindo (PEP) 

  • Research Mentor: Meagan Eagle 

  • Title: Nitrogen Cycling in the Yucatan Karst Subterranean Estuary 

  • Highly permeable karst subterranean estuaries (KSE) contain aquifers with high dissolved chemical load, representing a major source of terrestrially-derived nutrient and trace element transport to the coast via groundwater discharge. Our study focuses on nitrogen cycling in the Yucatan KSE, where high amounts of nitrogen in the groundwater are ultimately discharged into the ocean through coastal springs and diffuse discharge. During transport, terrestrial groundwater mixes with recirculated marine groundwater and as a result is subjected to changes in salinity and dissolved oxygen content. This mixing results in chemical gradients that influence nitrogen speciation and concentration. Water samples were collected from cenotes(sinkholes in the limestone), springs, and offshore transects in 2012-2014. Based on previous estimates of groundwater discharge and dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) concentrations, we calculated DIN flux to the Yucatan coast. In addition, we evaluated nitrogen removal during groundwater mixing and discharge at the coast. The biogeochemical processes that alter nitrogen concentrations in oxic/anoxic waters within the KSEs are critical to estimating N-fluxes associated with groundwater discharge. 

Hector Dominguez (PEP) 

  • Research Mentor: Meagan Eagle 

  • Title: Nitrogen Cycling in groundwater mixing zones affected by topography and population density in Long Island, NY 

  • Algal blooms in coastal regions occur when excess nutrients, typically nitrogen, enter the ecosystem. Submarine groundwater discharge into the coastal ocean is one delivery mechanism for anthropogenic nitrogen. The coastal aquifer is a dynamic region, where complex nitrogen cycling may result in both species change as well as net nitrogen removal.  The objective of this study was to determine how anthropogenic drivers (population density and sewering) and hydrologic drivers (topography drive groundwater flow) affected nitrogen species concentrations in the groundwater-marine water mixing zone. Each of the three sites has a unique topographical landscape and population density:Manhasset (population density is 3,411/sq mi, is not sewered, low topography), Northport Harbor (population density is 3,141/sq mi, is swered, high topography), and Patchogue (population density is 5,448 sq mi, is not sewered, low topography), with in the Long Island area. Groundwater samples were collected from the coastal aquifer and include terrestrial fresh water, marine recirculating water, and the mixing zone between these two end members. The samples were then processed to determine their concentrations of Nitrate (NO3), Ammonium (NH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O), Nitrite (NO2), and Nitrogen gas (N2). Preliminary results indicate that samples collected in Manhasset and Northport are in relativity oxic environments, while samples collected in Patchogue seem to be in anoxic environment along with varying concentrations for each nitrogen species from each site. 

Jose Cabral (PEP) 

  • Research Mentor: Chris Sherwood 

  • Title: Tracking the Nearshore Sandbar Morphology using Photogrammetry at Head of the Meadow Beach, Massachusetts 

  • The Cape Cod National Seashore has seen an increase in white shark sightings and attacks. The USGS has teamed with the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies to observe the activity of tagged sharks using beacons and are attempting to relate shark behavior to nearshore bar morphology or oceanographic conditions. To understand the relationship between sharks and sandbars, if any, we need to examine and track bar morphology. Two cameras were mounted at Head of the Meadow Beach and the imagery collected by these cameras were used to observe sandbar morphology, water level change, and beach erosion and accretion. The intrinsic calibration (lens model) was done using checkerboard images and a Matlab toolbox. The extrinsic calibration (location and view angle) was done with GPS and geolocated targets on the beach. With the camera calibration coefficients, an aerial map view of the beach was created. We animated maps and were able to observe the sandbars evolve. We used wave data from buoy 44018 and predicted tides, as waves and tides affect the bar shape. We noticed the biggest change in the sandbars occur in the winter when the tides and waves are more energetic. 

Jialin Li (WHOI SSF) 

  • Research Mentor: Chris Sherwood 

  • Title: Spatial And Temporal Nearshore Bar Dynamics Associated With White Shark Habitat 

  • Over the past decade white shark populations in the ocean around Cape Cod National Seashore (CACO) have rebounded due to increased protections and a rebounding gray seal population. The nearshore environment along the Outer Cape is unlike other coastal areas frequented by white sharks. A better understanding of the nearshore, coastal dynamics in the turbulent “white zone” becomes increasingly important as this is the primary zone of overlap between humans and white shark predators. In order to understand the habitat ecology and behavior of white sharks and possibly manage the public safety risk of recreating in the water, CACO requires more information about the sea floor morphology, dynamics, and drivers in and around public beaches at the park. Therefore, our research focus on what is the nature of evolution of these coastline system by using photogrammetry at Head of the Meadow Beach, Massachusetts. The images record the change of shoreline position over time at head of the Meadow Beach, Cape Cod National Park, MA . From those images we observe that: 1)The coastline erosion occur during high water level time; 2) The beach build back when the water level is low; and 3) Those phenomenon supports our photogrammetry method on coastline dynamic observation and future modeling. 

Tanjima Alam (CCNY) 

  • Research Mentor: Debbie Hutchinson 

  • Title: Sedimentary velocities and depth conversion of seismic reflection data from the deep-water Atlantic margin 

  • Description of work conducted 

  • Tanjima's work was a small but important part of work being conducted by USGS under the federal Interagency Task Force on the Extended Continental Shelf.  The goal of the task force is to define the outer limits of the deep-water area beyond 200 nautical miles, i.e., the extended continental shelf beyond the EEZ, where coastal States (nations) can manage, protect, or exploit, seafloor and sub-seafloor resources, according to criteria set forth in Article 76 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Along with NOAA and Department of State, USGS is a key player in this effort, with a primary responsibility for integrating geology and sediment thickness with morphologic (NOAA) and legal (DOS) considerations. Tanjima's work was analyzing the consistency and spatial distribution of sediment velocities from multichannel seismic reflection data on the Atlantic margin. These velocities will be used to calculate sediment thickness and her analysis will help determine the uncertainty associated with sediment thickness estimates. The Atlantic margin data set represents not only a major investment by USGS in two 3-week deep-water multichannel field programs, but a unique processing challenge in that the velocities determined from the multichannel data were not manually picked, as traditionally done at widely spaced intervals (~5 km). With careful determination of processing parameters, velocities in the Atlantic data set were automatically estimated by the software to provide nearly two orders of magnitude greater spatial resolution. One of the purposes of Tanjima's work was to evaluate how effective this processing strategy was by looking at the consistency of the velocities and depths across the study area and evaluating line-crossing differences. After mapping five horizons that had previously been interpreted by a graduate student from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Tanjima showed that the velocities and associated depths of these horizons had realistic trends consistent with previous studies (i.e., the results were believable) and the differences at line crossings were within 5 % (i.e., acceptable). Her work has helped confirm that the processing strategy was sound and that the resulting velocities (and thicknesses) can be used with reasonable confidence in their validity.