Oceans Away


Bigelow collaboration takes students out of the classroom and out to sea

By Ruth Jacobs
Photography by Joaquim Goes

Environmental science major Courtney Beaulieu ’11 (left) and University of Maryland Research Associate Professor Victoria Coles guide the Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) probes used to collect water samples.

Five weeks cruising the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil with barbecue dinners on the deck. Or floating through the eastern Pacific and catching squid for the cooks to make into calamari that night.

A tropical vacation? Not for Ali Brandeis ’10 and Courtney Beaulieu ’11.

They spent part of their summer as interns on research expeditions through the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, where the demands were high and time to relax was limited. “It’s a very, very tiring experience since we work like twenty hours a day with not much sleep,” said researcher Helga do Rosario Gomes. “Sometimes we don’t have day or night, depending on when the ship stops, so we work for the night.”

For Beaulieu and Brandeis the Bigelow cruises offered an uncommon opportunity for an undergraduate to conduct hands-on oceanographic research to help them determine their future plans in the scientific world. “It just really opened my eyes to actually how many opportunities there are in environmental science,” said Beaulieu.

Both expeditions—Beaulieu’s in the Amazon River plume, an area of low-salinity water off the coast of Brazil, and Brandeis’s in the Costa Rica Dome, an area where cold water rises from the ocean’s depths to the warmer tropical surface—included interdisciplinary teams funded by the National Science Foundation. “Courtney got to meet so many new people from like six or seven schools, and you know that was a big eye-opener for her—what they were doing, what they wanted to do with their lives, how they were managing their Ph.D. programs,” said Gomes.

This is all part of the plan.

In July Colby announced the establishment of a strategic partnership with Bigelow Labs that would facilitate teaching and research collaboration. While the work that Beaulieu and Brandeis participated in took place pre-partnership, it exemplifies the kinds of opportunities Colby students will have more access to in the future, according to Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Donihue ’79. These include increasing academic collaboration during Jan Plan both in courses and through independent research, introducing a semester study-in-residence at Bigelow, increasing collaboration between Colby faculty and Bigelow’s senior research scientists, and more.

And the future is now. In January Angela Warner ’11 is the next to take part in a Bigelow cruise, sailing from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Cape Town, South Africa. “A lot of students are interested in this, and it gives us a way to deepen a very strong niche that we already have with respect to the environment,” said President William D. Adams in announcing the partnership.

Beaulieu is an environmental science major with an independent focus in public health, and Brandeis was a chemistry major. Both say the experience at sea exposed them to a scientific arena they were unfamiliar with but that related to their coursework at Colby. “It’s really nice to learn about everything in the courses here,” said Beaulieu, “but it’s completely different to go and experience and try to put everything that you’ve learned to use.”

But how does collecting water samples in the Amazon relate to public health? Beaulieu collected seawater, filtered out particles, and incubated it to study changes in the composition of organic matter flowing from the Amazon River. “Courtney’s research is very important in the sense it will tell us how much material—CDOM [Color Dissolved Organic Matter]—is released by the Amazon and how much of it enters the carbon cycle and is lost to the sea,” said researcher Joaquim Goés, who worked with Gomes and Beaulieu. “CDOM will tell you how climate change is affecting that region.”
“It really is related to pretty much every course that I have taken in the environmental science area,” said Beaulieu. “Climate change is related to public health and human health as well. So it really is all tied in together.”

Both budding scientists were enlightened and inspired by their work at sea, they said. While neither has committed to pursuing ocean science at this point, they’re both considering it. “It was an amazing opportunity,” said Brandeis. “It definitely was something that I loved and would be interested in gearing future research to.”

At Colby Brandeis got her first taste of this kind of research with Miselis Professor of Chemistry D. Whitney King, studying iron concentrations in fresh water. On her research cruise, about 350 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, she collected water samples to study the effect of trace metals (iron and zinc) and silica on phytoplankton growth. “It’s really just trying to get an understanding of what is limiting populations, what helps them grow, you know, why is one area different than another area,” she said. “The ocean is a really big place, and we really have so little knowledge about it.”

As Brandeis pursues a Ph.D. in chemistry at Tufts University, Beaulieu is considering a graduate program in oceanography, among other things, following graduation in May. “It might also end up being something that is not tied into my plans for the future—but either way it really was a good experience,” she said.

It was successful for researchers Gomes and Goés, as well. “They are highly motivated, very focused, they enjoy working. They’re there for a purpose, they work hard, and they’re grateful for the opportunity,” said Goés, who, with Gomes, left Bigelow this summer for positions at Columbia University. “They immediately grasped what the whole project was about, and they would come up with their own questions—and you need to have an analytical mind to do that. I think the kind of education that they’re provided [at Colby] is very good.”

The Bigelow researchers weren’t the only ones impressed by the Colby students. On board both ships were researchers and graduate students from around the world, some of whom raved about Beaulieu. “We had these four Brazilians on the cruise and they said, ‘I cannot believe she’s twenty.’ She is so, so, so responsible,’” recalled Gomes. “One of the ladies who was a chemist said, ‘When I get the money, I’m taking Courtney with me.’”

Blogging from the Atlantic

Two Colby scientists, Whitney King, Miselis Professor of Chemistry, and Annie Warner ’11 will join a group of scientists on the Great Belt Cruise, a research voyage that will traverse more than 7,000 miles of the southern Atlantic Ocean in January. The cruise aboard the research vessel Melville is led by William “Barney” Balch of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Departing from Punta Arenas, Chile, and ending in Cape Town, South Africa, the Colby scientists will be blogging throughout the voyage. Their reports will be posted at web.colby.edu/colbyatsea/

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