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A Taste of Oceanography

A Taste of Oceanography

Programs give young students ocean science experience


After Genevieve Brett, an undergraduate physics major at Skidmore College, presented her mathematical analysis of coastal water temperature to WHOI scientists and graduate students, someone asked, did three weeks at WHOI seem like enough time for her work?

“It was really only 2½ weeks,” she said, “and I had never worked with real observational data before.” It added up to an intense time—not exactly a break from school.

College breaks between fall and spring terms can last all January, enough time for travel, courses, short internships, or work. For the past four years, a few undergraduate students have combined these at WHOI in the Ocean Research Experience (ORE) program, a pilot program that plunges them into ocean science for three to four weeks.

“In the four years of the program, we have brought 22 science students here from liberal arts colleges, none of whom had much prior exposure to ocean science,” said Jim Yoder, WHOI dean and vice president for academic programs.

The program was supported by a grant from The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, which were interested in providing science majors at liberal arts colleges a way to experience ocean science firsthand at a top-flight oceanographic research institution.

“Funding from The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations was meant to last three years,” said Yoder, “and we managed to extend it to four.” He is now actively seeking private donors to help continue the ORE program.

Yoder recruits students from colleges where he has strong connections, primarily through alumni of the MIT/WHOI Joint Program. This year’s five students were Brett; Akemi Berry and Gail Schwietermanm from Oberlin College; Christopher Elliot from Williams College; and Stephen Hesterberg from DePauw University.

The visiting undergraduates aren’t the only ones to benefit from the midwinter program. They are taught short courses in basic oceanography by advanced Joint Program students—this year by Whitney Bernstein, Kim Popendorf, and Maya Yamato, who relished the opportunity to get teaching experience.

The undergraduates also partner with WHOI scientists and work on short research projects in their labs.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of WHOI scientists willing to host an undergraduate for a few weeks,” Yoder said. Five to seven scientists participate each year.

The ORE program also helps recruit students into other WHOI educational programs. Three of this year’s participants have applied for a Summer Student Fellowship at WHOI, and Brett, a senior, said she is applying to the Joint Program.

Outreach reaches outer space

Four high school students visited the lab of WHOI microbiologist Tracy Mincer in February 2012 to set up an experiment they designed to be performed by astronauts on the International Space Station. This was the second foray into space science for seniors Victoria Holbert (third from left) and Miguel Velez III (fourth from left), whose experiment on a U.S. Space Shuttle mission showed that bacteria that cause tooth decay are more active in space than on Earth. This year they enlisted their siblings, sophomores Russell Holbert and Brittany Velez, to help on a project to determine whether Arthrobacter bacteria decompose plastic faster in the microgravity of space than on Earth. The students and their teacher, Paula deDiego (far right), hail from Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, Mass.

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