Quarterdeck Volume 5, Number 3, December 1997
Cruise opportunities for undergraduates through the MARS program in Galveston
Ernest Estes and Mead Allison
A unique opportunity is available to Aggie undergraduates who pursue the Marine Science degree offered through Texas A&M's coastal campus in Galveston. This program is one of few in the nation to offer undergraduates significant research experience at sea and in the field in addition to providing a thorough grounding in classroom aspects of the science.
A diverse flotilla of boats is available for students to use in the bays and coastal areas of Texas pursuing class assignments and research. Our fleet includes the 14-meter R/V Milan, the 13-meter R/V Roamin' Empire, four seven-meter bateaus, six 6.0-8.5meter cabin boats, two whalers, and a dozen skiffs. Students also have been involved in cruises into the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere on two major oceanographic research vessels with a home port in Galveston; the 47-meter R/V Gyre operated by Texas A&M and the 18-meter R/V Lone Star operated by Rice University.
All students in the MARS program are exposed to research methodology in required classes. In their junior year, students typically enroll in Field Methods in Marine Sciences, where they spend a minimum of six hours each week in the coastal environment learning to collect, document, and analyze information from that environment. A typical class consists of 14 to 16 students and two instructors. In this "hands-on" course, students learn about the basics of small boat handling and safety, the use of global positioning equipment, remote sensing imagery, and the sampling and analysis of water and sediment with standard oceanographic equipment such as remote samplers and electromagnetic current meters. Students work in small groups, and produce biweekly research reports on their projects.
For a recent class project, students journeyed to Chocolate Bayou off West Galveston Bay in two bateaus to sample the waters in several locations and depths for salinity, oxygen, pH, turbidity, currents, and temperature. Later they made plots to show how these variables had changed as they moved farther from the bay. They could, for example, tell how far inland the "salt wedge" extended.
The Electrical and Physical Measurements course introduces research from a different angle. Students learn to operate sophisticated laboratory instruments used in the research laboratories on campus. Students use equipment such as atomic absorption spectrometers, intercoupled plasma mass spectrometers, x-ray particle analyzers, and diffractometers to analyze samples collected on recent Gyre research cruises.
Not all fieldwork is done from boats. In the Sedimentation and Stratigraphy course, for example, students spend three weeks producing a "mini-thesis" that involves fieldwork, laboratory analysis, presentation, and production of a research report based on samples collected in the marshes, beaches, and shallow bayous of the Galveston area.
Perhaps the most innovative and student-intensive research experience available to undergraduate students is the "Problems" course. This required course pairs a student with an individual faculty member to design a program of research that fits the student's interests in marine sciences. Many students use this opportunity to become involved in the research laboratories on campus including the Laboratory for Oceanographic and Environmental Research (LOER) and the Coastal Zone Laboratory (CZL).
In the process of conducting the research study of their own design, students gain valuable experience working alongside faculty, graduate students, and technicians conducting cutting edge oceanographic research. Students working in these laboratories have participated in oceanographic research cruises in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and even overseas. Recently a marine sciences senior, Britt Eek, participated in a LOER study of contaminated sediments on the Palo Verdes shelf off California aboard the 20-meter R/V Sea Watch. This type of research often leads to publication of students' results in major scientific journals.
Armed with the extensive experience in research, at sea, and in the field in addition to the classroom, marine sciences graduates have gone on to exciting careers in a wide variety of scientific venues including the environmental and petroleum industries and government agencies. Others, attracted by their exposure as undergraduates, pursue graduate research in marine and earth sciences at some of the nation's finest universities including Texas A&M University, Florida State University, University of Delaware, Duke University, Yale University, Notre Dame University, and University of Hawaii. Recent MARS graduate Leah Bellamy ('94), now a field geophysicist aboard a ship that specializes in seismic exploration, had this to say about her experience in the Marine Sciences Program: "Many of the courses that I took gave me the strong background that I needed to compete in the offshore environment. I was really glad for the hands-on approach that is used at Texas A&M-Galveston, without which I might not have toughed it out on my first sea tour. So many of the things that I learned in school have helped me be successful in my job."
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Last updated December 9, 1997