Around the Pier: UC Ship Funds Program Makes 2014 Awards to Young Scientists


            From a daylong cruise that will show undergraduate marine science students the basics of at-sea research to a trial run for a sensor that measures dissolved inorganic carbon, eight novel research projects were awarded valuable ship time aboard Scripps-operated ships by the UC Ship Funds Program for 2014.

            As in previous years, competition for these awards was fierce. This year's review panel was forced to turn away several other high-quality proposals, which illustrates both the popularity of the program based at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, and the pressing need for ship time by students and early-career scientists.

            Scripps Associate Director Bruce Appelgate noted that demand for the UC Ship Funds Program has increased over the years as other sources of funding for sea time have dried up.

            "This year, we received requests for more than 58 sea days, from a broad range of outstanding students and young researchers at Scripps.  With only 13 days available, our review board was faced with the very difficult task of selecting who would go," Appelgate said.  "Answers to some of society's most pressing problems can only be found at sea, and access to the ocean is critical for enterprising young scientists – perhaps now more than ever." 

            Shipboard experience is also an important element in undergraduate and graduate classroom instruction at Scripps. Professors use field trips aboard Scripps research vessels to underscore the content of their curricula, to demonstrate field methods, and to introduce students to practical aspects of the science.

             Awards are made through a competitive internal peer-reviewed proposal process, which itself exposes students to the important process of developing strong research proposals. Since 1995, UC Ship Funds have supported an average of 57 days at sea per year. Made possible by support from the University of California and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the program provides support to enable graduate and undergraduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and early career faculty to pursue independent research and instruction at sea aboard Scripps ships.

              Recent UC Ship Funds cruises have spanned many corners and depths of the Pacific Ocean. Just off San Diego, a team of graduate students discovered methane deposits below the ocean floor while another explored the dimensions of an area of concentrated waste at the ocean surface known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

            “The program provides a host of benefits for an early career ocean scientist,” said Christina Frieder, a recent Scripps alumna who was chief scientist on a UC Ship Funds cruise in 2012. “The at-sea experience resulted in a set of colleagues that I will continue to lean on for years to come. And, this wasn’t just about being at sea together; we designed, planned, implemented and are interpreting the research as a single unit. I have left this experience with the confidence and expertise to put together and lead future scientific expeditions aboard research vessels.”

            This year, marine biologist Brice Semmens is one of the award winners. He will use his ship time to lead a group of marine biology majors aboard Scripps research vessel New Horizon through an overview of at-sea research methods.

“Scripps recently began offering an undergraduate program in marine biology. The UC Ship Funds award allows us to offer these undergraduates a unique and critically important at-sea experience,” said Semmens. “Essentially we can train future oceanographers through experience rather than relying only on lectures and dead animals.”

            Paleoceanographer Richard Norris will lead students on a summer cruise to practice standard techniques such as coring seafloor sediment to study past history through fossilized remains of microorganisms such as foraminifera.

             “These cruises are valuable because there is no better way to learn about oceanography than by doing it – getting muddy, handling the ropes, experiencing the thrill of finding out what came up in the net or the core barrel, and watching deep sea fish with glittering bronze sides and dagger teeth swimming in the aquarium in front of you,” said Norris. “Our cruises show off the essence of discovery of how the ocean works and who inhabits it- – things that are rarely seen by most of us. There is magic in that and it captures the imagination of nearly everyone I have ever met.”

            Another winning proposal came from the laboratory of researcher Todd Martz, whose graduate student Phil Bresnahan will use his time on board to deploy and field test a sensor of dissolved inorganic carbon, essentially dissolved carbon dioxide – a variable key to understanding the chemistry of seawater and the impacts humans are having on it.

             Martz is developing instruments that measure ocean acidification, a phenomenon that scientists have only begun to appreciate in recent decades. Despite the fact that ocean acidification can potentially damage a wide variety of marine organisms on a global scale, scientists have been hamstrung in assessing it by their inability to make high frequency, direct observations of it. Hence, said Bresnahan, a fifth-year student, there is no match for the opportunity to conduct this kind of field research.

             "We are inventing a device that is designed to measure dissolved carbon dioxide concentrations from the surface to over a mile below the surface, across the world's oceans,” said Bresnahan. Without the fantastic chance we've been given to test our sensor from a research vessel, it would be remarkably difficult to make the leap from laboratory tests to global ocean deployments. We're very excited to take this step in evaluating our sensor and grateful for the opportunity that the UC Ship Funds program has offered us." 


– Robert Monroe



Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.