SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer
December 11, 2018
Science beyond SEA Semester, a perspective from an alumnus
18° 08.45’N, 061° 55.29’W
025 degrees true
Wind ENE, Beaufort scale 4, 2/8 cloud cover, 26°C
Hello land creatures who may be following our voyage, I am the CRX Reef Specialist and my name is Kalina Grabb. I am an SEA alumnus (S250) and currently a Ph.D. student in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program in the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry department under Dr. Colleen Hansel. My specific research is on reactive oxygen species that are associated extracellularly with coral (more explanations to follow). I have been involved in this trip since the shore component, assisting Jeff in teaching the Oceans and Global Change course and also taking part in advising the Directed Oceanographic Research (DOR) portion. My role this semester has allowed me to deliver a few formal lectures to the students as well as mentor them informally through discussions about science and the path as a scientist beyond their undergraduate years.
As an alumnus, this is my first time back onboard SEA Semester ships. I feel so lucky to be a part of this voyage and it is very special to return as a part of the staff. There is something uniquely special about SEA and I have enjoyed being immersed within the community once again. As a member of the teaching faculty I have witnessed the students build their tight-knit community and progress academically and individually throughout their SEA Semester experience. I was so happy to stand watch for the first portion of the trip and get back into the groove of sailing and science stations. It was also special to go through the first few days right alongside the students, as they were learning all of the ins and outs about the ship and adjusting to life at sea. It is great to get to know more SEA Semester students, staff, and crew, as SEA seems to attract such interesting and wonderful people all around. It is just as magical as I remembered, and more.
While on the ship, my main responsibility is to help with the reef sampling days at each of the island. This entails scouting out the snorkel sites with Jeff, helping the students prep their gear, assisting with in-water sampling, and offering discussions about the analysis and interpretation of the data. I think back to only two months ago on land, when I gave one of their first lectures about corals. They were so intrigued about the coral biology, yet, they had a lot to learn. Since then, they have been sponges and soaked up so much information about the coral reefs, not to mention all of the other courses that they have been involved in. Beyond the classroom, they have learned how to conduct reef surveys, process reef data, and have started interpreting the data through a critical scientific lens.
Upon leaving Montserrat today, we had a debrief on our reef sampling. The types of questions, thoughts, and inquiries that they are now asking about the reef systems, environmental conditions, coral diversity, fish behavior, and sampling protocol (just to name a few… this group is never short of questions!) illustrate that they are thinking critically and analyzing the environment as any good scientist would. The scientific conversations that are pushing the limits of what is known about coral reef ecology and student questions are inspiring new paths of scientific inquiry. There is learning happening at all levels on this ship, as I know I have gained so much from Jeff, Seán, the assistant scientists, and the mates. Majority of the learning, however, is driven by the student's curiosity and strive to better understand the reef environments.
In addition to general mentorship of student projects, I also advise three students, Maria, Laura, and Bryce on a project that complements my Ph.D. research. They began working with me during the shore component and did a great job learning the context and background of my research. For my Ph.D., I am measuring reactive oxygen species (ROS), which include superoxide and hydrogen peroxide, that are associated extracellularly with coral. ROS are produced by any organism that utilizes oxygen, including humans. A build-up of ROS can lead to oxidative stress, which can cause things such aliments as cancer. In corals, some hypothesize that ROS may be associated with coral bleaching when produced intracellularly (inside the corals). However, a few recent studies predict it may be helpful when it is produced extracellularly (outside the corals), possibly playing a role in fending off pathogens, spurring growth, cell communications, and/or heat tolerance.
Anti-oxidants degrade ROS and help maintain a healthy balance, hence the reason why we try to include foods such as blueberries in our diet. I am particularly intrigued by extracellular ROS associated with the coral because it may have significant implications on coral health and could possibly assist in predicting how corals respond of environmental changes. For my research, I have been working with WHOI engineer Jason Kapit, to create the first submersible instrument that measures superoxide in situ, called the DISCO. This is particularly important since superoxide is a short-lived radical lasting only seconds to minutes, thus prohibiting delayed measurement back in the lab. This trip is the first extended field test of this instrument and it appears we have collected reliable data for the first time here in Montserrat!
Team ROS, as we like to refer to ourselves, has also been collecting samples of water surrounding the coral to measure hydrogen peroxide steady state concentrations and decay rates (anti-oxidant activity). I have been so impressed by their dedication to the project and their endless joy in helping with sampling and processing. We practiced our in-water routine on land and in a pool in Grenada. After four reef days, we have been sampling at high efficiency with extra time to enjoy ourselves in the water too. Back on the ship, we are frequently found crammed into the cozy, toasty library with sampling vials tucked into all of the nooks and crannies and a trusty spectroflourometer that makes cricket noises while sampling. Our typical sampling day requires about two hours of undivided attention directly following sampling, and then time points every 4-6 hours for 24 hours following. Since the time points can take up to an hour, the entire day after field sampling can be filled with seemingly endless processing. On top of this, the students' time is also required for other sampling responsibilities that includes coral, fish, and invertebrate observations as well as environmental sampling.
Nonetheless, Team ROS is blessed with amazing team players who have dedicated their minds and energy to ensure ROS sampling is completed thoroughly and efficiently. They are always happy to step up and help out with the time points, even in tough times of day, such as the middle of the night and 10 minutes before a delicious meal is served. I am surprised they haven't attempted to hide from me yet in the corners of the ship when I approach them with more plans for ROS science time. I could not have asked for a better, more dedicated team. They have dove head first into this project and taken a lot of ownership in getting good, reliable data and analyzing it with a critical eye. It has been really rewarding to watch them grow as scientists and take on this project as their own. I look forward to the last few weeks where we can break down our trends and talk about what our data is telling us. We are able to share intellectual conversations about the intricacies of ROS that rival those conversations I have within my own lab group. Beyond team ROS, I continue to be impressed by the intellectual insight, questions, and conversations of the students on this ship. And I know this is not unique to this SEA Semester.
As an upcoming scientist, this opportunity to be involved in SEA Semester means so much more beyond the data that is being collected. On paper, this scientific collaboration is allowing me to access many reefs over such a short amount of time throughout the Caribbean to better understand the geographical significance of the trends that we observe. This is also a powerful dataset to couple with the student’s projects and has offered Team ROS the opportunity to be involved in an on-going project that will hopefully be a part of future publications.
Outside of Team ROS and the science, I have also enjoyed conversing with all of the students, particularly about future directions. We have dove deep into conversations about the adventure as a scientist beyond undergrad. I really enjoyed sharing with them what I have learned along the way and what life as a graduate student looks like. I remember so clearly being in their shoes. I thought there was no way I would continue onto a Ph.D. program, yet here I am, and I love it! SEA was one of my first exposures to oceanographic research and I fell in love. In the five years since my student trip, I have been able to build on my SEA experience and work in several different science fields before returning to school for my Ph.D. I can say that I would not have had the same experiences in the field of oceanography without the connections the SEA network has provided. Science can take so many different forms, but I remember upon graduating how intimidating it can be to find a path that fits you personally. The career conversations that I have with the students while processing samples or hanging out in the head rig continue to remind me how important it is for both parties to have mentor relationships and discuss the realities, hopes, and dreams of the scientific world.
While my perspective has been shaped by my experiences and the path I chose, I feel as if I have been able to connect with and relate to at least some small aspect for each of the 18 students who are carving their own path based on their interests. Even for those that are pursuing different career paths, I know our entire ship’s community has benefited from the diversity of interests and hopefully they have been touched by the love of the ocean and can apply it to their future endeavors as well. While I hope the students have benefited from my presence on the ship, I know I have grown as a scientist, educator, and mentor; I am gracious that I get to give back to the SEA community from which I gained so much. This has been such a rewarding semester to watch the students better understand the oceans, feel more comfortable in the water, and gain confidence with science, sailing, and themselves. Just as my student trip completely changed my life path, this opportunity to serve as an educator, mentor, and shipmate to class C283 has allowed me to embrace the joy I get in sharing my passions for ocean science and inspiring young, brilliant minds to pursue their dreams wherever they may lead. I feel so lucky to have this opportunity and am very thankful to SEA Semester and my shipmates for making this a voyage to remember.
Shout out to my family, friends, and labmates who have supported me following my passion for fieldwork and embarking on this adventure.
Best wishes and fishes,