Biology student Kiel Callahan participates in inaugural STEMSEAS voyage

July 15, 2016

Author: Alexa Amster

Honors student Kiel Callahan was one of nine students selected from nearly 900 applicants across the country to participate in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Student Experiences Aboard Ships (STEMSEAS) experience.

STEMSEAS is a new program offering students the opportunity to embark on one of three 6-10 day exploratory experiences aboard a research vessel to perform scientific research practices and techniques. The National Science Foundation (NSF) completely funds the experience at sea, which targets students interested in joining STEM fields or raising STEM awareness.

Biology professor Dr. Caroline Solomon, Callahan's academic advisor, wrote a recommendation letter for her STEMSEAS application. Solomon first noticed Callahan's potential as a scientist when Callahan took her Introductory Biology class last year.

"In Kiel, I saw a true passion to pursue a career in marine biology or biological oceanography," said Solomon. "She also asked excellent questions in class last year that showed her inquisitive nature, which is essential for any emerging scientist."

Callahan sailed with the inaugural program on the research vessel Oceanus from San Diego, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, from May 10-18, 2016. Two other expeditions are scheduled for July and August 2016, departing from Morehead City, North Carolina, and Seattle, Washington, headed to Gulfport, Mississippi, and Nome, Alaska, respectively.

Each day of the sea expedition, Callahan and her fellow voyagers balanced classroom learning with hands-on experiences. Classroom study included a variety of "mini-courses" covering topics within geosciences. Lab work and field work comprised the hands-on experiences on the deck of the Oceanus.

Students completed research activities using a gravity core, an instrument that collects sediments from the bottom of oceans. The team found different species of foraminifera, which are among one of the most abundantly found alga in marine environments.

The student team also searched for microplastics, which are small plastic particles that come from cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes in an area called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that is located in the North Pacific Gyre where high concentrations of debris and chemical sludge exist.

"These plastics are degradations of bigger pieces of plastic that are difficult to dissolve," Callahan said. "The concern is that these plastics are fed on by fish and can be found in our own bodies."

Faculty professors accompany each sea voyage and act as mentors throughout the students' sea experiences. Dr. Mark Leckie and graduate student Raquel Bryant from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Dr. Kristen St. John from James Madison University served as the three faculty instructors for Callahan's voyage.

Leckie recalled Callahan's engagement and enthusiasm on the inaugural cruise of the Oceanus.

"Kiel was always quick with a big smile, and she didn't hesitate to ask the instructors or her fellow students for clarification," said Leckie. "The white noise of the ship must have added to her usual challenges of hearing and understanding people, but this did not deter her from participating in everything."

St. John praised Callahan's efforts aboard the Oceanus, calling her "dedicated and hardworking." According to St. John, Callahan left a strong and positive impression, and the two kept in contact after the voyage's end.

"Kiel had lots of good questions and a natural curiosity, which is important in science," said St. John. "Kiel and I exchanged a couple of emails following the expedition, and it is clear to me she is a very articulate writer and perceptive on both science and science education issues."

Throughout the nine-day voyage, participants from Callahan's program were assigned to write a blog post about the program's progress on a given day, as well as compose an interview with a member of the vessel's crew to be posted on the voyage blog. As a condition for her participation in the program, Callahan will either create a campus presentation or write an article outlining her research experiences.

St. John said that Callahan plans to submit an abstract on her research to present at the Geoscience Society of America (GSA) Annual Meeting happening September 25-28, 2016, in Denver, Colorado.

Having participated in the experience of a lifetime, Callahan is emboldened to explore future opportunities with an open mind.

"My time on the expedition opened my eyes to the plethora of experiences out there that I could engage in," said Callahan. "I feel overwhelmed with the possibilities of the future, and I know now not to limit myself to a certain subject when looking for experience."