Students embark on research trip at sea

Budding scientists got their feet wet conducting research at sea.

Undergraduates in FIU’s Biodiversity and Oceanography at Sea course deployed oceanographic equipment; collected specimens with tucker trawlsand nets; snorkeled; photographed and examined specimens under microscopes; and learned how to describe, identify and classify marine organisms.

The research trip was the culmination of projects developed throughout the spring semester to be carried out at sea. The marine sciences students also organized the research cruise that took them out to the Dry Tortugas and Florida Keys aboard the Research Vessel W.T. Hogarth, the Florida Institute of Oceanography’s newest state-of-the-art vessel, earlier this month.

Offered by the Marine Sciences Program in the Department of Biological Sciences, the course was taught by Heather Bracken-Grissomand Danielle DeLeo.

Some of the students wrote blog entries for the Crustacean Genomics and Systematics Lab’s website and shared them with FIU News. What follows is a snapshot of each student’s experience told in their own words.

Ally Mayhew
Senior, Marine biology

For my first research cruise, I was supposed to end up in the Dry Tortugas working nonstop to  address my research question: How does biodiversity vary between different habitats based on substrate type, depth and distance from shore? The funny thing is, I didn’t end up doing any of those things. One word: science. Nothing may have gone as planned. Every plan A, B, C or D may have been scratched just to be replaced with “We’re winging it,” yet I had more fun and learned more than I ever thought I would.

After exploring Key West, we ended up at a place we deemed HOBO Island. It created skepticism at first, but HOBO Island resulted in lots of laughs and surprisingly diverse samples! We found gravid sea urchins, sea stars, sea cucumbers, and many species of crabs, mantis shrimp, rays, queen conchs and more. We were so lucky to have professors I would describe as bomb or cool, but scholars would describe as dedicated, creative, down-to-earth and incredibly intellectual. I found it so much easier to learn and remember while being exposed to the material firsthand. Students should be given more opportunities like this, especially young women in the science field. It was so empowering to be out there with females only, mostly due to the fact our professors are completely bad***.

This was such a privileged opportunity and, even though nothing went as planned, the girls and I were so grateful to be there. We subconsciously made the best of every situation. Spending a few days with driven, independent women led by their fearless leaders — the women we aspire to become someday — helped me remember why I chose marine biology and exposed me to opportunities I forgot even existed.

From left to right: Tasha Noveletsky, Alexandra Mayhew, Katrina Abel, Natalia Padillo-Anthemides, Heather Bracken-Grissom (center), Monica Castillo, Sarah Sisco, Maria Sabando and Danielle DeLeo aboard the Research Vessel W.T. Hogarth. Photo by Heather Bracken-Grissom.

Yamilla Samara
Senior, Marine biology

Having the opportunity to participate in a research cruise for undergraduate students was an unique experience. Even though Mother Nature was not on our side this time, and we could not achieve our goals, we were able to perform a few trawls and collect a few samples in Key West.

The first day was amazing, we could be at open waters and perform one trucker trawl and two plankton tows. The currents were very strong and, as a consequence, I got sea sick for like two hours. Due to the bad weather, the captain took us back to Key West on our second day. The last two days, we stayed in Key West and explored a little island where we collected different species of invertebrates, including worms, sea cucumbers, sea stars and ctenophores. We also collected crustaceans, including shrimps and crabs.

Besides the field work experience, something that marked this trip was being surrounded by smart girls. As an international student who comes from a country [Nicaragua] where getting a marine biology degree is not an option, having the pleasure of meeting other girls who share the same love I have for the ocean and science was amazing. It gave me the strength I needed to keep fighting and to not give up on my dreams.

I am glad I was selected to be part of the group. This trip is something I will never forget!

FIU students spent a week aboard the Research Vessel W.T. Hogarth conducting research off the Florida Keys. Photo by Heather Bracken-Grissom.

Sarah Sisco
Senior, Marine biology

Despite bad weather, we embarked on our expedition uncertain of what to expect. Dr. Bracken-Grissom and Dr. DeLeo were encouraging and realistic, making every effort to overcome every obstacle. Our first day of sampling eventually allowed us to utilize a deep-water tucker trawl. After it was deployed, excitement and nausea hung in the air as the boat swayed side to side under the weight of the trawl. Finally, the moment of truth came. We pulled the trawl up, looked in the collection net and… nothing. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed all the effort and waiting had left us empty handed. The keen eye of our professors knew otherwise, however. They quickly gave us the task of sorting the “catch.” I quickly realized my miscalculation, as these dishes were teeming with life and inspired fascination for hours.

Reinvigorated by this experience, there was fresh hope we would be able to continue sampling, however this was not the case. During our down time, I got to interact with my shipmates. I was pleased to discover I was surrounded by a fun, accomplished group of ladies that were excellent company and inspiring to talk to. Our conversations will help guide my future decisions and likely make me a more successful woman for it. The following days, Dr. Bracken-Grissom’s and Dr. DeLeo’s creativity saved us from the confines of the ship by taking us to snorkel in small islands. We spent the remaining time classifying numerous organisms, coming to truly appreciate the work that goes in to proper taxonomy.

I feel that each experience on this cruise, while they were not what I anticipated, has made me a better scientist and coworker. I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

FIU students examined crab species they sampled off Wisteria Island. Photo by Heather Bracken-Grissom.