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The Scientists-at-Sea program was established to provide students with the opportunity to participate in their first oceanographic research cruise—and USGS was on board to assist.

people in life vests taking water samples from a large cylindrical piece of scientific equipment on board a research vessel
Eckerd College students taking water samples from a CTD-rosette on board the R/V Weatherbird.

USGS scientists joined collaborators from Eckerd College and the University of South Florida College of Marine Science in this year’s Scientists-at-Sea Program, which was designed to engage undergraduate students in real-world scientific research—including an oceanographic cruise out to the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. The cruise, which took place in May 2022, offered undergraduate students the opportunity to investigate topics related to climate change and the lingering effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The students were able to explore multiple disciplines as part of the cruise including sedimentology, ecology and fisheries, geochemistry, as well as communications and outreach. 

The USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center has maintained long-standing relationships with these local organizations, so working together for Scientists-at-Sea was a natural fit. USGS works regularly with the Eckerd College, a known hub for the marine sciences, to facilitate collaboration and recruitment of students into the geosciences. The Florida Institute of Oceanography owns and operates the Research Vessel (R/V) Weatherbird II, the vessel on which the cruise occurred. The ship is equipped with advanced laboratories and technology and offered a perfect platform for the experience. Professors and support staff from the University of South Florida College of Marine Science were also on board to lead scientific efforts for the students.

One of the tasks accomplished on the cruise involved the collection of data to support a long-term climate study in the northern Gulf of Mexico, led by researchers at the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. The students assisted with retrieving samples from USGS sediment traps suspended in the water column and collecting sediment cores from the bottom of the Gulf. Studying these sediments can help USGS scientists better understand natural climate variability so that we can be better prepared for future changes in climate. The scientists and students also used common oceanographic equipment such as Conductivity-Depth-Temperature (CTD) sensors, and devices to collect water samples from different depths between the surface and seafloor.

People in hard hats operate scientific equipment on the deck of a research vessel at sea. One holds a large yellow funnel.
Caitlin Reynolds retrieving one of the sediment traps used by USGS to study sediment flux in the Gulf of Mexico on board the Research Vessel (R/V) Weatherbird II (Florida Institute of Oceanography).
A green research vessel loaded with scientific equipment, labeled "R/V Weatherbird II, St. Petersburg, FL"
The R/V Weatherbird II docked at the Florida Institute of Oceanography at University of South Florida (USF) College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

This kind of practical experience is very rare for undergraduate students, as research cruises can be quite expensive and space-limited. Having a cruise dedicated to these students provides them with a unique opportunity to explore new fields, and gain experience that can guide them closer to their professional goals. Some students were even interviewed for an article by WUSF Public Media about their experience. For some, it was their first time interacting with media outlets.  

Caitlin Reynolds, a Geologist at the USGS who participated in the cruise said, "I had a great experience working with the students from Eckerd. They were all very engaging and took the initiative to help in any way possible in the field. It was so fun and encouraging to hear all the questions they had wanting to dive deeper into the 'why' behind the science. I'm excited to work with them in the future as a peer and mentor and they start their 'post-expedition' professional products." 

“This program is especially valuable because we get to work with students for the semester before and after the research cruise,” said Julie Richey, the Principal Investigator leading the USGS component of the research. “It offers an opportunity for students to be involved in the products that come out of this field campaign, and USGS gets to work with interns who are really invested in the science.” 

Although the program is still in its infancy, the program leads hope to get more women and people of color interested in geoscience. The National Science Foundation funded the project for the first three years, but partners have agreed to continue this effort on their own. 

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