Crowds gather for Ocean Discovery Day at UNH

By Catie Hall
On September 24, 2013

  • UNH senior Sarah Turney’s salt marsh display helps people understand the effects of climate change on salt marshes. Turney, with the help of professor Dave Burdick, has been studying these effects as part of an independent research project. Catie Hall/Staff

Families, students and staff disappeared into billowing white tents as they toured the inside of the Chase Engineering Lab to discover new technologies, sea-floor mapping and the curriculum that students are studying as part of Ocean Discovery Day. 

On Saturday, Sept. 21, people were scattered about the Chase Ocean Engineering Lab on the UNH campus, as well as the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory five miles from campus.

While children could engage in fish printing, experience 3-D sandbox topography or look at horseshoe crabs in the Chase Ocean Engineering Lab, Lesley Gardener, marine docent, saw an even bigger picture.

"We try to do a lot of education with real fish," Gardener said. 

Gardener stood at the fish printing station, helping small children paint fish and then apply their prints to T-shirts. The children could use molds or use real flounder for their prints. 

"Education with real fish" is exactly what Ocean Discovery Day gave its audience. Guests were allowed to tour inside the lab, look at WindVis2 weather viewer screens, see a 20-foot-deep water tank for testing engineered machines, and experience a telepresence room.

"We host Ocean Discovery Day so that, not only does it give us a chance to show off and celebrate all of the exciting research that we're doing here at UNH, but also to introduce the students to all of the ocean-related careers that may await them," Tara Hicks-Johnson, outreach specialist, said. "There's a lot going on in the ocean sciences, and we're excited to share it with everyone."

Undergraduate students, doctorate students and staff set up informational booths outside of the lab and answered questions from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Sarah Tierney is a senior environmental conservation and sustainability major. She sat next to a poster and what appeared to be a clear container of a lump of soil with yellow sticks jutting into it.

"I'm doing an independent research project with professor Dave Burdick through the Jackson lab at Adam's Point," Tierney said. "I'm studying salt marshes and how climate change is affecting them. I monitored various long-term monitoring sites throughout New Hampshire and Maine and measure them either with a SET [Surface Elevation Table model] or by putting a marker horizon in using Feldspar."

Graduate student Matt Coyle is interested in an entirely different topic: bacteria.

Coyle sat at his table with a small 3-D diagram of glowing bacteria with gold plastic beads and a stuffed-animal squid for his younger audience members. But when it came to his older audiences, Coyle was able to eloquently explain his research, as he just finished his first year towards his doctorate degree.

"When these bacteria get together, they make light in the same way that a firefly would make light," Coyle said. 

Together, the bacteria find a home on the underside of a squid to form a symbiotic - or mutually beneficial - relationship. Consequently, the nocturnal squid is protected from predators that look for its shadow because the light-forming bacteria effectively remove said shadow.

 "I'm specifically interested in the evolutionary process of the symbiosis," Coyle said. "Most of the time we associate bacteria as problems and causes of disease and that's usually not the case. ... I'm really interested in why certain bacteria partner up and what limits them in partnerships, how they could potentially develop new partnerships."

If one ventured inside the lab on Ocean Discovery Day, he or she would find signs that guided him or her to different stations, including a station with weather mapping. 

At the end of one hallway, there was what appeared to be an average classroom, save for the monitors and computers covering the walls. 

According to Adam Skarke, a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, the purpose of the telepresence room is to connect to ships at sea. It provides an opportunity to get live feed from the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) on the ship and to speak to people on board. In essence, it's like being on the ship.

At NOAA, Skarke coordinates ship expeditions and works on seafloor mapping. 

"The mission of these ships is to go out where no one's been before and find out what's there," Skarke said. 

On an expedition, the crew might stop the ship if they think they've found something interesting. Then, they can send down a ROV that has movie-quality cameras and mechanical arms to pick things up. From there, the ship receives live feed from the ROV camera, Skarke said. 

The feed gets transmitted from the bottom of the ocean, to the ship, to a satellite and then to the telepresence room. 

"When I go out to sea and lead an expedition, I've got 19 bunks, and that's all I've got," Skarke said. "... So the problem is, if we're going somewhere we've never been before, we don't know what we're going to find. We don't have enough bunks to bring an expert for everything we find."

Therefore, the telepresence room can pick up the feed from the bottom of the ocean, and when the ship calls in and asks for an expert in a certain field - physics, for example - the expert can enter the telepresence room and explain the significance of the footage. 

The feed can also be accessed by the public. Skarke claimed that scientists in space, on trains and on airplanes have been able to log on and give their feedback as they watched the ROV's live camera feed.

The room is also used to allow researchers who are not able to board the ship to remain connected. 

"As a woman, I was not allowed to go on an expedition because I was pregnant," Hicks-Johnson said. "So, that was a way for me to still stay connected."

Over 1,000 students and homeschool families attended a similar event on Friday. Hicks-Johnson got good feedback from teachers. 

"It really makes the kids realize how cool it is to get to do this type of work for a living, and that the people who do this type of work actually live here in their neighborhood," Hicks-Johnson said. "It certainly makes the whole field of marine science much more attainable when you can see it happen and be a part of it."

Daniel Tauriello is a UNH undergraduate student who attended the event on Saturday. Tauriello studies ocean engineering and explored multiple stations at Ocean Discovery Day. He said there is a huge disconnect between the scientific community and the general public. 

"I think the cool part about ocean discovery is to tell the community what we're doing," Tauriello said. "It validates the everyday work."


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