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Students set sail as part of the University of Florida short course on Microbial Life in the Oceans

The spring 2024 semester was quite eventful for the Durham lab at the University of Florida (UF). With leadership from Dr. Bryndan P. Durham and collaboration with C-CoMP postdoctoral fellow Dr. Nicole Lynn-Bell, the Durham lab members formed an instructional team to design and teach a Microbial Life in the Oceans short-course for undergraduates to study marine microbes and see what it is like to conduct actual ship work! This five-week immersion course is part of the “Semester of Immersion” series offered through UF Biology for students to get hands-on research experience outside of the typical semester schedule. The series gives students the opportunity to engage in research while earning credits that count toward their degree requirements.

12 people stand together on the back deck of the R/V Walton Smith research vessel to take a cruise team photo.

UF Biology Semester of Immersion’s “Microbial Life in the Oceans” research team on the R/V Walton Smith back deck: Back row, left to right- Nathaniel Pontefract, Max Taylor, Clarisa Groff, Helena Panuthos, Felipe Quintana. Front row, left to right- Dr. Durham, Lisa Coe, Laurel Meke, Jasmine David, Melanie Gomez, Amanda Nolen, Dr. Lynn-Bell. Photo Credit: Lisa Coe, University of Florida.

The course met daily in the lab for lectures and bench work instruction. To apply this knowledge in the field, seven students and the instructional team set sail to the Atlantic Ocean to engage in real-time collection of environmental data. Aboard the R/V Walton Smith, the group worked to learn and conduct seaboard sample processing over five days. In total, there were 10 stations where the crew and science team conducted “casts” to collect ocean samples. Students learned how to examine conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) profiles and choose collection depths by communicating with ship crew. Alternating teams worked together to gather water aliquots, filter water for DNA and metabolite analysis, and conduct chlorophyll measurements. Periodically, students helped with respiration experiments and collected live organisms by plankton net to examine further under the microscope.

A group of researchers stand on the deck of a ship next to a CTD rosette.

Research team preparing to collect water from Niskin bottles on the CTD. Photo Credit: Lisa Coe, University of Florida.

A researcher lowers a rope over the side of the vessel while standing on the deck of a ship next to a marine technician.

Researcher collecting samples by plankton net with assistance from the R/V Walton Smith marine technician. Photo Credit: Lisa Coe, University of Florida.

Two researchers stand in front of a bench within a ship-board laboratory in order to filter seawater.

Researchers filtering water and measuring chlorophyll. Photo Credit: Lisa Coe, University of Florida.

The immersion format of the course allowed students to commit to an opportunity to travel for nearly a week without sacrificing other academic responsibilities. Student evaluations revealed that the cruise reinforced course themes, fostered teamwork, and made students feel that their contributions were valued! While there were challenges typical of sea-going research, including rough seas and equipment troubleshooting, the students expressed a strong sense of pride in what they accomplished as a team.

A group of researchers stand in front of two computer monitors in a ship-board. One researcher, sitting in front of the computer monitors, points to the screen.

Dr. Durham giving a tutorial of how to examine CTD profiles to determine sample collection depths. Photo Credit: Lisa Coe, University of Florida.

Three researchers are located next to a table covered in science equipment in a ship-board lab. One researcher is sitting, and two are standing. Two researchers are holding glass bottles.

Researchers conducting respiration experiments using oxygen probes with spot sensors. Photo credit: Lisa Coe, University of Florida.

After returning from the cruise, students broke off into subgroups according to interest to further analyze data from the cruise. The work conducted by the teams included microbial community analysis (through 16S rRNA gene classification), metabolite profile comparisons, CTD trend analysis using R, and determination of respiration flux and primary production rates. As students worked on individual data analysis, they often found it necessary to communicate among groups in order to better interpret their findings. Thus, working in subteams allowed students to gain more specialized research knowledge and skills while reinforcing the value of teamwork and information sharing.

Students ended the course by submitting written data reports and presenting their findings to the instructional team and their peers. It was clear that the course structure allowed students to take ownership of their contributions, and some even expressed interest in continuing with their projects after the course. The whole experience left a lasting impression both professionally and personally. Thanks to the course content coordinator Lisa Coe, this experience is something the students will certainly remember!

Keep a look out for a future C-CoMP blog post on how to conduct safe and inclusive field work!

This course was supported by the National Science Foundation (Supplement to Award 2230999). Research activities were additionally supported by C-CoMP and Simons Foundation. Course information and data products will be made publicly available and periodically updated on the course webpage.

About the Authors

Dr. Bryndan P. Durham is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Florida. Her research group studies marine microbial interactions and their impact on ocean biogeochemistry, and her teaching mission centers on incorporating experiential learning into STEM courses and making ocean science inclusive and accessible.

Dr. Nicole Lynn-Bell is a C-CoMP Postdoctoral Fellow conducting research at the University of Florida centered around ocean microbes and undergraduate education.