Raquel Bryant, Mentor/Instructor

Raquel, pictured on the left, with the August 2016 STEM SEAS cohort in Seattle, Washington.

STEM Student Experiences Aboard Ships (STEM SEAS)

Last summer I got the opportunity to sail on two research vessels through the new NSF funded program STEM Student Experiences Aboard Ships or STEM SEAS. I served as a graduate student mentor on the very first transit aboard the R/V Oceanus in May and as an instructor on the August transit aboard the R/V Siquliak. As an aspiring paleoceanographer, I was excited about the opportunity to experience life on a ship as sailing as a biostratigrapher aboard the JR is something I hope to accomplish during my graduate career. As an aspiring teacher and mentor, I was excited about the opportunity to get to know a promising group of undergraduates and share my passion for geoscience.

So, what exactly is STEM SEAS? STEM SEAS is an NSF funded program that takes advantage of empty berths on UNOLS research vessels during transits. UNOLS ships are operated out of universities across the country and sometimes when the ships travel from port to port in between scientific expeditions there is no science party on board. Our program brings undergraduates aboard the ships for a 6-10 day mobile classroom experience. The students received mini-lectures on topics like oceanography, climate change and micropaleontology and were able to participate in shipboard science like coring and the collection of plankton. The program works to address the low retention rates in STEM disciplines, the lack of diversity in the geoscience community, and the predicted workforce shortage in geosciences.

STEM SEAS targeted groups of students in times of transition to address the issue of low retention in STEM fields. Circumstances of transition include declaring or switching a major or advancing from a 2-year college to a 4-year college. At these times students may be without guidance or strong mentorship and are vulnerable to attrition, in other words dropping out of science majors. Aboard the ships we addressed these issues by talking about the best way to find mentors and reflecting on the types of support systems the students already had in place. Not to mention, being on a ship for the first-time fosters quality bonding time and the students made lasting relationships with each other that are sure to help them feel supported through the next phases in their academic careers.

Our program is dedicated to a broad view of diversity to include students with many identities currently underrepresented in STEM including race, gender, geographic location, institution type, ability and veteran/military status. STEM SEAS gives a diverse group of students the opportunity to explore geoscience in a hands-on fashion with close faculty mentors. It is not our hope that every student will switch their major to geoscience (although some do!) but that our students are empowered to see themselves incorporating science into their lives and careers in some way.

It’s unfortunate that while we live in a time where geoscience is in the news daily, in the form of discussions about climate change, sea level rise, floods, or earthquakes, many high school and college students will not take a geoscience class in their academic career. With a looming geoscience workforce shortage and the pressing issue of climate change, it is imperative that we empower our youth to engage with issues of climate and environment. Once our students return home or to their campuses, they must present some aspect of their STEM SEAS experience to their community. This ensures that STEM SEAS is not only introducing the students, but also their communities to geoscience.

What is next for STEM SEAS? After a very successful pilot year, STEM SEAS continued into summer 2017 on a transit down the east coast of the US. This transit will be open to undergraduates from an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Partnering with an HBCU is in line with the mission of STEM SEAS and we are excited to add another cohort of STEM SEAS students to our alumni community. To stay up to date, follow us on Facebook!

To follow Raquel’s updates please check out her Twitter here. Check out the STEM SEAS webpage here, to keep up to date with new projects.

International School on Foraminifera, Urbino, Italy

Raquel here-

Ciao! Greetings from beautiful and sunny Urbino, Italy! For two weeks earlier this summer, I participated in the 10th International School on Foraminifera at ESRU Urbino. This workshop covers all aspects of foraminifera, from their modern ecology to their evolution since the Cambrian. The school is truly international as we not only have expert lecturers from all over the world, but also students representing more than 12 countries.

Raquel (front, 6th from right) and the other students and teachers that ran the 10th International School on Foraminifera in beautiful Urbino, Italy.

I was only 1 of 4 students from the U.S. I have made friends with fellow micropaleontologists from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Israel and Russia and have enjoyed getting to hear what life is like as a scientist and micrpaleontologist in other parts of the world. This also means that for the most part, instead of learning any Italian I have been helping other students improve their English, something I am happy to do since English is the most prominent language of science. Each day we have lectures in the morning and in the afternoon, we look at samples and specimens under the microscope. This is great because everything we learn from lecture is reinforced with real forams and slides! As I am a Cretaceous and planktic person, my favorite lecture was biostratigraphy with Maria Rose Petrizzo. During lecture, we went through the important evolutionary changes in the planktic record and in the afternoon for our lab exercises we had just 10 minutes to pick different morphotypes from residue. Instead of speaking in terms of species, for foraminifera we speak in terms of ‘morphotypes’ this simply means we use shape (morphology) to define them. I had a lot of fun with this!

My microscope, notes, and a tray full of slides, each with different species of foraminifera.

I also really enjoyed the lectures on modern planktic forams. The coolest thing I have learned is that although there is a lot we don’t know about forams in the past, biologists studying modern forams are still puzzled by these amazing protists. There are many questions surrounding their reproductive cycle, feeding habits and general ecology that biologists are still working out.

I learned a lot, but I must say the best part of the trip is the other scientists and foram enthusiasts I am meeting and getting to know. We live, work, and eat together and are forming relationships and networks that I’m sure will last through our careers. We already have plans to meet up at the big forams meeting next year in Scotland!

Bye for now!