Science students get an in-depth introduction to field research beside the experts

Imagine your first chance to do research on the Chesapeake Bay is with internationally recognized faculty for a week with a different topic each day. Just before the beginning of the fall semester, 10 Old Dominion University undergraduates did just that at a research station on the Eastern Shore. This summer the Department of Ocean and Earth Sciences (OES) started a new pilot program funded by the College of Sciences undergraduate research program (COSURP) to allow students to explore coastal sciences before they hit the books.

The weeklong research program was led by OES Assistant Professor Victoria Hill. Nearly a dozen OES undergraduates used the Anheuser-Busch/University of Virginia coastal research laboratory as their base camp for their residential experience near Oyster, Virginia. The program was designed to introduce the students to varied coastal marine environments, practical fieldwork skills, introductory-level data analysis, and the breadth of research in OES, with each individual research projects under the mentorship of OES faculty. ODU students worked side by side with a different ODU OES faculty member each day. Faculty took the students out to the nearby coastal bay and marshes where they learned fieldwork techniques and did sample analysis.

"We believe that introducing our students to field and research experiences early in their studies could provide the skills, and motivation to be successful in their degree," said Hill. "By covering the full costs of the program for all students, no-one was excluded based on their ability to pay for the trip and the tuition costs."

Beginning, Monday August 22, the guest researcher was OES Professor Peter Sedwick. Students worked with Sedwick to set up a rainwater collection device later used determine the nutrients entering the coastal system from the atmosphere. "We headed to South Bay, a shallow bay with a beautiful dense seagrass meadow," said Hill. Also, Associate Professor Rip Hale and Professor David Burdige demonstrated several sediment coring techniques. The students collected sediment samples within the seagrass meadow for later analysis back in the lab.

On Tuesday, August 23, Assistant Professor Joe Tamborski took the students to Phillips Creek Marsh to learn about marsh morphology. The students learned how to use the self-leveling laser to map marsh topography and then collected ground water samples. "Back at the lab, students calculated the elevation from the creek to the forest and we discussed differences in pore water, pH and salinity between stations," said Hill.

Then on Wednesday, August 24, the budding researchers worked with three ODU faculty. Using boats, they collected water samples at various sites in the coastal bays. Professor Dreux Chappell showed the students how to collect and process samples for genetic analysis of phytoplankton. OES Professor and Chair Fred Dobbs showed the students how to collect water samples that were returned to the lab to be filtered and incubated to look at the presence of potentially harmful bacteria. Associate Dean and OES Professor Rodger Harvey showed the students how to collect sediment samples using a grab corer for carbon content determination and hydrocarbon analysis over the next semester.

On Thursday, August 25, Assistant Professor Victoria Hill and Professor Richard Zimmerman took the students snorkeling in the seagrass meadows. They measured the amount of sunlight reaching the seagrass and discussed seagrass ecology and collected samples for microscopy.

The ODU undergraduate researchers spent hours in the field and in the lab, which helped the undergraduates better understand all of the components needed for successful research.

"In a post-trip survey, the students commented that having the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the field solidified their interest in Ocean & Earth sciences and made them more comfortable interacting with our faculty," said Hill.

Since returning to ODU, students in the COSURP program have been working on their research projects within faculty research labs. Over the fall and spring semesters the students will choose and work with a professor on individual projects. They will present their findings at ODU's Undergraduate Research Symposium in March 2023.