If you are thinking of becoming a researcher after your undergraduate program, taking courses that give you hands on experience on how scientific research works is a great place to start. That was my mindset when I chose FIU for my senior year and I can assure you it has been a 100% worth it.
My name is Laura García, I’m from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and I came to FIU to gain experience in the field of Marine Biology. As an Exchange student, my requirements are a bit different so I’ve been able to take some of the best upper division electives FIU offers. In Fall I took Invertebrate Zoology with Dr. Bracken-Grissom and, though my interests rely mainly on marine megafauna, I ended up thinking inverts are very cool organisms to study.
When it was time to enroll in Spring courses, Dr. B-G was offering Topics in Organismal Diversity. The moment she told me we were going on a research cruise; I was in (who would say no?!?).
The course started after spring break, with a series of on-line assignments that prepare you for the cruise. The projects are individual at the beginning and, after that, you come up with a research cruise plan -in pairs- and a project to do for the class. Stacie and I decided to work with decapod crustaceans. Our hypothesis was that crustacean decapod species distribution and abundance changes with depth.
After all the on-line assignments, the real work begun. It was Research Cruise Time!
We were supposed to cast off Tuesday May 2nd in the afternoon. The plan was to start trawling at midnight on our first site, but the sky had other plans. Due to weather conditions we had to wait in the harbor and, at 4 am we finally left port. If you have never slept on a boat before – like me- you will realize two things: 1) Open ocean waves are not exactly great for sleeping and 2) Sea sickness pills are not as good as they seem.
At 10 am we deployed our first trawl, while it sampled at around 500 to 600 m, we set up the lab and all the material we would need to sort out the organisms. Two hours later we collected the net and we had caught many decapods! I was surprised at how tiny everything was but, once we started sorting out, main characters became evident and soon everything was bagged and in ethanol. I got very excited for an organism in particular, I had heard about it in Fish Biology class but I had never seen it, a Leptocephalic larvae! This is what baby eels look like, cool right?
Our second day trawl was deployed in the water around 3 pm and collected at 5:30. We decided to stay on the same site and sample at the same depth because the organisms we had gotten before were what we needed for our projects. This time, we found more diversity of organisms. We caught small cephalopods, more decapod species and an alien like deep sea amphipod called Phronima sedentaria.
At 10:30 pm, the night trawl started. Being on a boat surrounded by blackness is pretty amazing on its own but, having to deploy a net and trying not to fall overboard while collecting it makes it and adventure. The night trawl was at around 200 meters and we caught so many organisms! We had bioluminescent shrimp, pyrosomes and deep sea fish!
After this trawl, the vessel moved to our second station and at 7 am we deployed again the tucker trawl at around 150m. It was not a very successful deployment since we found mostly gelatinous inverts and not many decapods. We did not quit and we gave station B a second chance, this time, deploying an otter trawl at 200m. I had never deployed an otter trawl and, in case you haven’t either be prepared: The doors are heavy but they move faster than you would think! When we recovered it at 12 pm we understood how different the two types of trawling were. The major part of our catch were brittle stars, which was nice, but not what we were looking for.
We deployed the otter trawl again, around station B but in shallower waters (less than 100m). Ten minutes after deploying something went wrong… The net was severed in half and we had to go back and get the part that was still in the water. We tried to find shrimp in the sponge pieces that were still in the net but we were not very lucky.
If you ever intend to become a researcher you need to understand field work is not always perfect, in fact it is usually far from perfect. That does not mean all hope is lost and if you are creative, there are other ways to sample for invertebrates.
We tried pulling Sargassum out of the water with buckets, floating pieces of wood and in the end we deployed tangles (which strongly resemble to mops) at different depths. The methods were not perfect but we learned how important it is to be resourceful when you are out in the field. Weather got worse and a storm was coming our way so, in the end, the Captain decided that the best option was to go back to Key West and spend the night far from the rocky open ocean (Thank you Billy, my stomach will be forever grateful). Now we are finishing some identifications at Dr. B-Gs lab and, in the following weeks we will analyze our data, write our reports and prepare the final presentations.
This class gives you a very realistic idea of how the entire process of completing a research project works. From coming up with a hypothesis to testing it and writing a paper. The Research Cruise is an amazing opportunity to learn different sampling methods and improve your invertebrate knowledge skills. In our case, things went a little bit south but we definitely made the most of it.
I would happily take the course again if I could, not only because the experience you gain in the field will always be greater than the one in a book, but also because the moments spend with this year’s crew were great from the beginning to the end.
PS: Bring a cards against humanity set and make sure Dr. De Leo doesn’t win, it’s part of the experience!
May 2nd The goal of our research cruise was to head out to sea on the R.V. Bellows to collect decapods at different depths and to analyze the abundance and distribution of the species collected. Before getting on the boat, a few members of our crusty crew met up at Turtle Kraals to discuss our plans for our experiments at sea over a few adult beverages and some Dramamine( to avoid seasickness, or at least to ensure that we did not vomit before Charles - a notorious vomiter). Once we were allowed to board the ship, we discovered we would not be leaving until 4am due to rough seas. Back to Turtle Kraals we went!
May 3rd We all woke up to the smell of bacon and ate a surprisingly delicious breakfast while in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. I could wake up like this everyday( for at most a week)!
Now for the Science! We conducted our first trawl a couple hours after breakfast. As we pulled in the net, I was filled with excitement to see what kind of creatures we would find in 600m of ocean. Once the net was up, we began sorting through organisms and took them in to our makeshift lab to sort the species. We had collected a lot of shrimp, some crabs, tons of amphipods and some organisms that looked liked aliens(Phronima aka the Alien Queen from the movie Alien!) As we organized everything, we labeled and preserved the specimens in Ethanol to further examine them back in the lab on land. In the meantime, I took pictures of the most interesting specimens we collected in order to get a closer look at these amazing animals. One of my favorites was a Sergestid shrimp that was collected during our only night trawl. When Dr.BG took a look at it under the microscope its’ bioluminescent light organs emitted an electric blue light which I was lucky enough to capture a photo of.
May 4th After our first day trawl, the trap broke! We were not going to let the entire day go to waste, so we improvised and McGyvered some traps to collect some decapods. Dr. BG tied a rope to a bucket and scooped some sargassum floating by the boat and also made traps out of mop heads to see what we could get, while Laura and I worked together to fish out some bamboo and a coconut drifting in the water. We found some interesting shrimp that blended in well with the sargassum, and in the bamboo we found two ovigerous swimming crabs. After our small success and no more otter trawls to use, we called it a day and had a swim call! Later we headed back to port due to a thunderstorm expected to come the next day. When we got back to port, and for days after being on land, I felt land sick! On the boat I never felt nauseous or dizzy, but on land I felt like I was swaying back and forth.
Overall this was the best research experience i’ve had! It showed me that no matter how much you plan, everything is unpredictable and you have to make the best of what you have to collect data and conduct a proper experiment. Now, I look forward to analyzing all my data and seeing how my project comes together and I look forward to going on more research cruises in the future.