July 19, 2018

Biology Students Get Hands-On Learning at Lab

Biology Students
At left, CSM biology students Dylan Weamert, left, and Patrick Bissell prepare sediment samples for analysis at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island. At right, CSM biology student Brittany Clark delivers a water sample taken from the Chesapeake Bay to the wet lab on the Rachel Carson.

Biology students at the College of Southern Maryland got hands-on experience during a recent trip to the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

At one point, student Brandon McMahan of California tentatively reached out over the side of the boat — an 81-foot research vessel named the Rachel Carson — and guided the collection of monitoring instruments hung by a cable to be lowered slowly into the gently rolling, dark water of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Not too bad,” McMahan said as he straightened up and wiped his hands.

Two other biology students stood by on deck, watching and waiting their turn to get their own experience collecting samples of water as engineer/mate Rob Nilsen offered advice and direction. At the same time, other CSM students were close by in the ship’s wet lab, with clipboards and pens in hand, watching a computer screen displaying characteristics of the bay water like salinity and oxygen levels as the monitoring instruments on the CTD Rosette slowly sank through the water down to the bottom, around 35 meters down.

“I’m just so excited. I’ve been on the water all my life, but nothing like this,” said Brittany Clark of Prince Frederick as she worked to help with the sampling, adding that she is aiming for a career as a marine biologist so she can participate in coral reef preservation. “I have to do this. I’m in love.”

“Something like this is pretty spectacular,” said another CSM student Nicholas Johnson of Brandywine.

The entire day was dedicated to learning outside of the classroom. The students worked alongside experienced scientists to learn how to correctly take both sediment and water samples from the bay at two locations.

“I wanted to give them something they can touch and see and get them excited about,” said Dr. Laura Lapham, associate professor with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

Dr. Lapham was awarded one of 10 Changing the Face of STEM mentoring grants from the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science program last fall. The grant allows her and researchers at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Lab to expose the students to work in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The grant gave initial funding for the May 13 research trip, along with matching funding provided by CBL and more from the Chesapeake Gardening Club.

Dr. Lapham partnered with CSM Assistant Professor Lori Crocker and her Principles of Biology II (BIO-1070) students to make it happen. “I hope it will open their eyes to the opportunities, the careers that are out there. Expose them to research,” Ms. Crocker said as she watched her students concentrate on their new skills. “I hope students can see that science isn’t sitting somewhere memorizing. This is science. You just have to have that base of knowledge to get to this point.”

After learning some of the ins-and-outs of collecting water and sediment samples, the students took them back to Dr. Lapham’s CBL lab and learned how to prepare those samples for further study. They were looking for “tiny bubbles” of methane gas that are naturally formed by microbes in the anoxic muds underlying the Chesapeake Bay waters. When they extracted sediment cores on the cruise, the students found that over time, methane bubbles began to appear.

Those who participated in the research cruise and lab experience included Mr. McMahan, Mr. Johnson, Ms. Clark, Sean Watson of Benedict, Dylan Weamert of Dunkirk and Patrick Bissell of North Beach.

“The best part of the day was the whole day,” Mr. Johnson said. “Working with all of the scientists, the ship’s crew and all of the assistants was absolutely amazing. I learned so much from every single one of them and the experience was something to remember.”

Dr. Lapham’s grant gave her a chance to lecture in Ms. Crocker’s class at CSM’s Prince Frederick Campus in March. There she discussed methane biogeochemistry — which is Dr. Lapham’s particular area of research, measuring fluctuating methane levels in the bay and other bodies of water to learn how that contributes or doesn’t to global warming.

Dr. Lapham called her grant proposal the “Tiny Bubbles Mentoring Project” in reference to the tiny bubbles of methane she finds and measures in water and sediment. In addition to the lecture and the May 13 research cruise/lab experience, the grant will also help fund an internship position with Dr. Lapham at CBL this summer for one CSM student.

Dr. Lapham said she designed her grant proposal with CSM students in mind. “The community college level is a great time to get students excited about STEM,” she said. “If you can capture them at that stage, there’s research that shows that it stays with throughout their career.”

The day on the research cruise and in the CBL lab went beyond the science skills taught to the students by Dr. Lapham, Mr. Nilsen and Dr. Lapham’s assistants, Maureen Strauss, faculty research assistant Skyler Golt and former faculty research assistant Kathleen Marshall. Dr. Lapham and these assistants also shared their story with the students — the sometimes circuitous route to where they are in their science career and the surprising variety of specialties that exist. Lapham found her pathwhen she started doing field work at a landfill as a graduate student with an undergraduate math degree.

“I realized this is a career,” she said. “I can do this.”

“You never know where you’re going to end up … what the plan is,” Ms. Strauss said after telling her story of nursing work that morphed into a career studying the immune systems of oysters.

“Getting field experience … you see how the science you learn in the classroom is used in the real world,” Ms. Marshall said “Dip your toe in the water and test it out.”

“It can help you decide what you want to do,” Ms. Golt said.

While the mentoring project between CSM and CBL was largely grant funded this year, both Dr. Lapham and Ms. Crocker are hoping to continue it in the coming year. “I think as a pilot study this has gone really well,” Dr. Lapham said.

For more about the College of Southern Maryland, visit its Leader member page.

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