USC students travel to study intricacies of coral reefs
Posted June 14, 2011 at 6:27 pm in News
Jim Haw, professor of chemistry and environmental sciences, will tell you not all the best research is done at a lab. In fact, some of the most important research can be doneÂ underwater.
Haw and lecturer David Ginsburg led 24 USC students on a Problems Without Passports program this summer, conducting research on coral reefs and ocean environments from May 16 until June 4.
The program was started last year with 14 students because of a lack of scuba regulators and buoyancy compensators, as well as safety and practicality issues.
This year, the number of participants almost doubled after more equipment became available and interest grew.
After enrolling in a four-unit course, part of the Maymester program, students spent one week at Catalina Islandâs USC Wrigley Marine Science Center, one week in Guam and one week in Palau.
The cost of the program was included with the spring semesterâs tuition, but most students received $2,500 in a summer undergraduate research fund scholarship toward travel expenses for participation in the program.
âThe course prepares students to participate in a real scientific expedition where they perform scientific measurements underwater in remote, exotic and threatened marine coastal environments,â Haw said. âIt is a very ambitious goal.â
Participants enrolled in the program either through a personal invitation or by showing interest and submitting an application.
âI heard about it in my ENST 100 Â [Introduction to Environmental Studies] class when Dr. Haw came to tell us about itâ said Kirstie Jones, a junior majoring in environmental studies and who participated in the program. âI was immediately attracted to it because I thought it would be a really unique thing not only to travel to those places but also to learn how to scuba dive.â
Though students began their research at the time of their travel, training for the trip began in the first week of the spring semester. Students began doing routine pool sessions in March and spent most of their weekends in April at Catalina Island.
During the actual travel, each day consisted of various lectures and recreational activities including hiking, meeting endangered species, kayaking, snorkeling and diving. Dives were often monitored by Gerry Smith, USC dive safety officer, and Tom Carr, a USC hyperbaric chamber volunteer, experienced scuba instructor and a reserve captain in the Riverside County sheriffâs office.
âMost of the dives on Palau contributed data sets to a government conservation program,â Haw said. âThose dives were made on reefs that no one, and I mean no one, is allowed on for any purpose [other than for] permitted research activities only.â
Underwater research consisted of transecting â observing, recording and determining change in the oceanâs environment through a given path. Students also surveyed Micronesiaâs biodiversity and encountered World War II debris and sharks along the way.
âI learned the basics of research diving such as learning how to use transect lines, underwater slates, and quadrants to count and survey invertebrates and substrate,â Jones said. âI also learned that coral reefs in Guam are threatened by a military buildup that would involve dredging 70 acres of coral to make way for a U.S. aircraft carrier.â
Last yearâs participants were required to keep an online blog of their experiences through USC. This spring, Scientific American expressed interest in studentâs experiences and picked up on their posts.
Emilie Moore, a senior majoring in environmental studies, who also participated in the program, recalls her most memorable experience during her groupâs last dive on Palauâs famous Ulong channel.
âWe swam with great reef sharks, sea turtles and manta rays while drifting over 200-year-old coral formations,â she said. âI plan to directly use the experiences from this trip in my summer work with a Venice-based marine consulting group.â
According to Haw, almost all of the students who participated this summer now have complete American Academy of Underwater Sciences Scientific Diver certifications. They are all also being issued at least two recreational diving cards.
âWe are all like a family after our experiences,â Moore said.