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Oh the Places You’ll Go

posted Jun 29, 2012, 8:59 AM by Shannon Casey   [ updated Jul 7, 2012, 9:23 AM ]

How the UC Ship Funds Program has shaped my graduate school experience  

Learning to do field research is an integral part of becoming an oceanographer. However, accessing different parts of the world’s oceans in order to study them is not a trivial matter. It not only takes a large collaborative effort to plan a successful scientific expedition, but it is also a very expensive endeavor. Scripps operates four ocean-going research vessels, which are used by many researchers worldwide. The UC Ship Funds Program enables Scripps graduate students access to these ships in order to obtain hands-on research training and pursue independent research projects.

My graduate school experience and the development of my dissertation have been greatly influenced by this unique program. So I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself, my experiences at Scripps, how I became a deep-sea microbiologist and of course to recognize and express my gratitude to all of those who have helped support my science and my journey.

Photo: Not afraid to play in the mud, Alexis Pasulka helps prepare a
sediment core collected during the San Diego Coastal Expedition for sampling.

During my visit to Scripps as a potential graduate student, it became very apparent that Scripps was a highly collaborative environment with supportive faculty, had motivated graduate students who were enthusiastic about their science, and there seemed to be a lot of access to field work. While I knew that choosing Scripps would be a wise decision, my experiences thus far have exceeded my wildest expectations. I certainly never could have developed the same dissertation project anywhere else - the Scripps faculty, my fellow graduate students, and the UC Ship Funds Program have made it all possible.

During my first year in graduate school, I took a deep-sea biology course and became fascinated with the deep ocean and in particular chemically supported ecosystems. We call these chemosynthetic ecosystems. These environments are dark, have very low oxygen concentrations, but high concentrations of toxic chemicals such as methane and sulfide. It amazed me that organisms were not only able to withstand these extreme conditions, but in fact thrived on this chemical energy.

Unfortunately, these environments are difficult to get access to and obtain samples from. But in my third year at Scripps a group of fellow students and I were funded through the UC Ship Funds Program to go in search of new chemosynthetic environments off the coast of Chile aboard the R/V Melville. This became my chance to try doing some deep-sea science. In addition to having access to ship time, I was awarded the Michael Mullin Fellowship which enabled me to purchase supplies for the cruise as well as run some analyses on my samples after the cruise. This cruise was instrumental in my research progress. It was because of this cruise that I not only learned how to plan and prepare for a sea-going project entirely on my own, but also was given the opportunity to take a chance and try something new. I gained experience that would prove invaluable on future deep-sea cruises. Plus, I was sold on deep-sea science.

Photo: Sampling mud from the Chilean margin aboard the R/V Melville with fellow 
Scripps graduate students Rosa Leon and Ben Grupe. Photo credit: Noah Brookoff.

Today, I find myself going out again on the R/V Melville, but this time off the coast of San Diego. This cruise is also a UC Ship Funded cruise completely organized by graduate students. I am part of the Seep Exploration Team. We will start our explorations by using acoustical instruments mounted on the ship to survey the seafloor for signals of disturbance or gas plumes. We will then be the first group of students to deploy the new Scripps Remotely Operated Vehicle in order to get visual confirmation of and samples from these seep environments. You can continue to check this webpage or our Facebook page for updates on our findings.

When I started my Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography at Scripps five years ago, I never could have anticipated the adventures I would have, the scientist I would become, or the fun I would have doing it all. I certainly never imagined that I would have the opportunity to be part of a research team exploring what I now consider to be some of the coolest ecosystems on our planet. It’s opportunities like this cruise that have enabled me to become an independent scientist and that continue to challenge me to think creatively about my research. Hopefully this cruise and many future cruises will lead to new discoveries and contribute to a better understanding of our oceans. Thank you to those who have made my journey possible and to those who will continue to support the adventures of future graduate students at Scripps.

--Alexis Pasulka, Scripps Graduate Student