‘This Is Science’
College of Southern Maryland (CSM) biology student Brandon McMahan of California tentatively reached out over the side of the boat — an 81-foot research vessel called the “Rachel Carson” — and guided the collection of monitoring instruments hung by a cable as it was lowered slowly into the gently rolling, dark waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
“Not too bad,” McMahan said, straightening up and wiping his hands.
Two other CSM students stood by on deck, watching the process and waiting their turn to get their own hands-on experience collecting water samples as Engineer/Mate Rob Nilsen offered tips and direction. At the same time, several other CSM students were nearby in the ship’s wet lab, clipboards and pens in hand, watching a computer screen that displayed characteristics of the bay water such as salinity and oxygen levels as the monitoring instruments on the CTD Rosette slowly sank through the water down to the bottom about 35 meters down.
“I’m just so excited. I’ve been on the water all my life, but nothing like this,” said CSM student Brittany Clark of Prince Frederick in between assisting with the sampling, adding that she is aiming for a career as a marine biologist so she can participate in coral reef preservation. “I have to do this. I’m in love.”
“Something like this is pretty spectacular,” said another CSM student, Nicholas Johnson of Brandywine.
This was just the beginning of a day learning outside of the classroom for these CSM students. The students worked with experienced scientists to learn how to correctly take both water and sediment samples from the bay at two locations.
“I wanted to give them something they can touch and see and get them excited about,” said Dr. Laura Lapham, associate professor with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL).
Lapham was awarded one of 10 Changing the Face of STEM mentoring grants from the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science program this past fall. The grant allows Lapham and researchers at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological to expose the students to work in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Lapham partnered with CSM Assistant Professor Lori Crocker and her Principles of Biology II (BIO-1070) students to make it happen. “I hope it will open their eyes to the opportunities, the careers that are out there. Expose them to research,” Crocker said as she watched her students concentrate on the new skills they were being taught. “I hope students can see that science isn’t sitting somewhere memorizing. This is science. You just have to have that base of knowledge to get to this point.”
The grant provided initial funding for the May 13 research trip, along with matching funding provided by CBL and additional funding from the Chesapeake Gardening Club.
“This new collaboration with College of Southern Maryland is of the utmost importance to the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory as we seek to engage fully with the community and to promote STEM training for women and underrepresented communities,” said Tom Miller, director of UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons. “If we want more graduate students and senior researchers at CBL, which we do, we must play an active role in providing training to young people. The Tiny Bubbles project is a great opportunity to encourage young women scientists to explore and develop careers in science.”
In addition to learning some of the ins-and-outs of collecting water and sediment samples, the six CSM students took the samples back to Lapham’s CBL lab and learned how to prepare those samples for further study. They were looking for ‘tiny bubbles’ of methane gas naturally formed by microbes in the anoxic muds underlying the Chesapeake Bay waters. When the students extracted sediment cores on the cruise, they found that over time, methane bubbles began to appear.
CSM students who participated in the research cruise and lab experience included McMahan, Johnson, Clark, Sean Watson of Benedict, Dylan Weamert of Dunkirk and Patrick Bissell of North Beach.
“The best part of the day was the whole day,” Johnson said. “Working with all of the scientists, the ship’s crew and all of the assistants was absolutely amazing. I learned so much from every single one of them and the experience was something to remember.”
Lapham’s grant allowed her the opportunity to lecture in Crocker’s class at CSM’s Prince Frederick Campus in March. There she discussed methane biogeochemistry, which is Lapham’s particular area of research, measuring fluctuating methane levels in the bay and other bodies of water to learn how that contributes or doesn’t to global warming.
Lapham named her grant proposal the “Tiny Bubbles Mentoring Project” in reference to the tiny bubbles of methane she finds and measures in water and sediment. In addition to the lecture and the May 13 research cruise/lab experience, the grant will also help fund an internship position with Lapham at CBL this summer for one CSM student.
Lapham said she designed her grant proposal with CSM students in mind. “The community college level is a great time to get students excited about STEM,” she said. “If you can capture them at that stage, there’s research that shows that it stays with throughout their career.”
Crocker said she had high hopes for what she expected her students to take away from the experience. “I hope it will open their eyes to the opportunities, the careers,” she said. “Expose them to research.”
The day on the research cruise and in the CBL lab went beyond the science skills taught to the students by Lapham, Nilsen and Lapham’s assistants, Maureen Strauss, Faculty Research Assistant Skyler Golt and former Faculty Research Assistant Kathleen Marshall. Lapham and these assistants also shared their story with the students — the sometimes circuitous route to where they are in their science career and the unexpected variety of specialties that exist. Lapham found her pathwhen she started doing field work at a landfill as a graduate student with an undergraduate math degree. “I realized this is a career,” she said. “I can do this.”
“You never know where you’re going to end up … what the plan is,” Strauss said after telling her story of nursing work that morphed into a career studying the immune system of oysters.
“Getting field experience … you see how the science you learn in the classroom is used in the real world,” Marshall said “Dip your toe in the water and test it out.”
“It can help you decide what you want to do,” Golt said.
While the mentoring project between CSM and CBL was largely grant funded this year, both Lapham and Crocker are hoping to continue it in the coming year. “I think as a pilot study this has gone really well,” Lapham said.
For a photo gallery from the hands-on experience, visit http://csmphoto.zenfolio.com/tinybubbles. For information about UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, visit https://www.umces.edu/cbl. For information on CSM’s programs, visit https://www.csmd.edu/programs-courses/credit/.