Students in URI summer oceanography research program present results at world’s largest earth science conference

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – December 15, 2014 – Students from four universities around the country – all of whom participated in the University of Rhode Island’s 2014 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships in Oceanography program – will present the results of their research at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union this week.

The meeting in San Francisco is the world’s largest gathering of earth and space scientists, with more than 24,000 researchers and students expected to attend.

The four students from the URI Graduate School of Oceanography program are Sierra Davis, a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; John Lodise, a senior at the University of Delaware; Emily Iskin, a senior at the University of California at Davis; and Lauren Sommers, a senior at the California State University at Monterey Bay. They were among 14 undergraduate students who spent 10 weeks last summer conducting cutting-edge oceanographic research in collaboration with URI faculty and graduate students.

“Presenting research at international meetings authenticates the students’ research experience,” said Kathleen Donohue, associate professor of oceanography and co-coordinator of the program. “Attendance allows them to see how their research fits into the big picture and provides them with networking opportunities. Ultimately, the experience helps guide them on their future path.”

Davis’ research involved interpreting the layers of subsurface rock and sediment beneath the western Ross Sea, a bay of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica. She sought to understand how a broad trough beneath the seafloor was created more than 30 million years ago.

“One hypothesis is that the erosional surface of the trough might be the first advance of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet,” said Davis, a resident of Indiana, Pa. “If indeed this was true, we might be able to improve the understanding of paleo-ice sheet instability, which would aid in future climate modeling efforts. I like to think of this project as one small puzzle piece that might help us understand past, present or future climate patterns.”

She said that her summer research experience at URI not only helped her become a better researcher, but it expanded her professional network dramatically. “Within our group, I made what I consider to be lifelong friends with aspiring scientists that might someday be great oceanographic collaborators,” Davis said.

Lodise spent his summer studying meteotsunamis, which are small tsunamis formed by atmospheric surface pressure disturbances during storms. A resident of Hicksville, N.Y., he examined the frequency of these tsunamis on the East Coast and compared the storm systems that produced them to the height of the waves they generated.

According to Lodise, the speed that a storm moves across the water has important implications for the size of the waves. When the pressure disturbance moves at the same speed as a tsunami wave on the continental shelf, the height of the meteotsunami waves grow larger.

In addition, he said, “larger pressure disturbances seem to produce larger meteotsunamis.”

Iskin, of Truckee, Calif., said the program at URI’s Bay Campus was a chance to learn about a discipline she had long been interested in – oceanography. She especially enjoyed the camaraderie of the other participants. “We got to see each other grow as scientists, from our first struggles with research to our final papers and presentations,” she said.

Her research involved the analysis of data to better understand the physics of the ocean and how the ocean transfers energy at small scales. She studied temperature data collected by satellites and by a ship carrying oceanographic instruments in an effort to improve climate change and ocean models.

“I’ll be presenting the results of this research, including how we found the data could be used and what it tells us,” Iskin said.

Sommers applied to the program to gain research experience on the quantitative aspects of oceanography. A resident of San Jose, Calif., she studied the largest ocean current in the world, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which travels around Antarctica. Previous studies of the current are thought to have underestimated the amount of water it carries by as much as 20 percent.

“We used a high-resolution ocean circulation model as the ‘real ocean’ to analyze the methodologies of a previous study,” she said. “The largest impact of that study’s circumpolar current transport estimates seemed to come from interpolation and not from optimal averaging techniques.”

The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships in Oceanography program, now in its 30th year, has been funded by the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation. More than 200 students have participated through the years, and 75 percent have pursued graduate school in a science, math or engineering discipline.