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Graduate Course at DMC Teaches Students About Light in the Ocean

Ocean optics

Every couple of years at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center on the banks of the Damariscotta River estuary in Walpole, Maine, graduate students from all over the world converge at the research laboratory for four weeks of intense, hands-on ocean optics training.

The class, “Ocean Optics: Calibration and Validation for Ocean Color Remote Sensing,” allows students the opportunity to stay at the center during the summer to learn from seven optical oceanographers, including course coordinator Emmanuel Boss and course creator Mary Jane Perry, both professors in the UMaine School of Marine Sciences.

The course is sponsored by NASA and UMaine with the goal of creating a new generation of oceanographers trained in ocean optics by teaching students about light in the ocean — both practical measurement and theory.

“You can use optical measurements to learn an incredible amount about the ocean,” Perry says.

Using a combination of lectures, hands-on laboratory activities, field sampling, models and group projects in an interactive learning environment, the course provides students with the skills to accurately measure light in and above water, the knowledge to interpret satellite ocean color images, and the ability to use the information to better understand biogeochemical and ecological processes in the ocean as well as apply it to practical problems such as tracking oil spills and harmful algal blooms.

Other instructors this year included Curtis Mobley, vice president for Science at Sequoia Scientific, Inc., in Washington; Collin Roesler, chair of the Earth and Oceanographic Science Department at Bowdoin College; Ken Voss, professor of physics at the University of Miami; Jeremy Werdell, research oceanographer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; and Ron Zaneveld, director of research at WET Labs in Oregon. Alison Chase, a UMaine graduate student in oceanography, was the course’s teaching assistant.

More than 65 students from 35 countries applied for this year’s one-of-a-kind course. Twenty students, including Thomas Leeuw a UMaine graduate student, were selected. Other accepted students hail from all around the United States, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Spain and Saudi Arabia.

“Such training is not available anywhere else,” Boss says. “Many leaders in the field are graduates of the course.”

Perry started the ocean optics course in 1985 at the University of Washington’s marine lab and brought the class to UMaine when she joined the faculty in 1999.

“At that time, optical oceanography was just starting to blossom,” Perry says of when she started the course. “Newly developed optical sensors were particularly well suited to study phytoplankton, and I realized that teaching a graduate-level course was a good way to jumpstart the use of these wonderful new tools.”

Phytoplankton, also known as microalgae, are similar to land plants because they contain chlorophyll and depend on sunlight. In a balanced ecosystem, phytoplankton provides food for a wide range of sea creatures, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Phytoplankton are key to the health of oceanic food webs, and in a simplistic way, one could say if you’re going to have fish, you have to have phytoplankton,” Perry says.

Boss first took the class in 1995 when he was a graduate student, three years later he returned as a teaching assistant, and by 2001 he was an instructor. In 2004, Perry turned the course coordination over to Boss, but remained involved. The next course will likely be held in 2015 — 30 years since Perry created the class, Boss says.

Besides optical measuring techniques, Perry and Boss say the class teaches students how to collaborate with others, make high-quality measurements, and understand the broader responsibility of sharing data.

“They have a scientific responsibility to collect high-quality data, but they also have a civic responsibility to collect and make their data widely available,” Perry says. “Very often when a scientist makes measurements, they collect data for a specific hypothesis, but other researchers can mine that data for other purposes. Since the taxpayers are paying for these studies, our goal is to help the students collect the highest quality data.”

Jing Tao, a graduate student studying oceanography at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, says she will use optical measurements in her Ph.D. research on sediment transport in coastal areas.

“I will use ocean optics as a tool to study sediment size, particle size and particle distribution in the water for my Ph.D. program, so it’s a good tool for me,” Tao says.

Before taking the class, Tao says she had never worked with optical measurements, but uses remote sensing for research in the Bay of Fundy. She is confident she can now convert the remote sensing data to more useful measurements for her project.

“Initially there were more biologists in the class, but now we get a very diverse group of students,” Perry says. “This course attracts a lot of students who have broad interests. They’re interested in optical technology and ocean ecology, so it’s a really nice blend.”

Ashley York, a graduate student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who is studying geography, is taking the class in preparation of her Ph.D. research on glacier-ocean interaction.

“I have no ocean experience,” York says. “I’ve been coming from the glacier side of things and now this is introducing me to the ocean side.”

York says the class is challenging, but she is learning a lot.

“The course is very intensive,” York says. “It’s just a lot of information to soak up, but I definitely think it was worth taking.”

She says one of the instruments she was introduced to during the class — the radiometer — is similar to an instrument she will use in the field in Greenland in March 2014 and March 2015.

Sam Wilson, a graduate student studying physical oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, Calif., says he comes from a math and fluids background, but respects biology and wants to use more of it.

“I want to approach biology from a fluid mechanics side and apply optical techniques I’m learning with my fluid mechanics background and bring it all together,” Wilson says, adding he’s excited to take optical measurements in the future and plans to recommend the course to others.

Wilson, who has “been able to go kayaking and eat a lot of lobster,” during his first trip to Maine says he enjoys studying at the Darling Marine Center.

“It’s neat to have a facility that’s dedicated to ocean sciences as clearly as Darling is,” he says. “You may not have all the resources a large city would provide, but I think it’s good for our uses. We need uninterrupted science.”

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

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