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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Broadcasting from the ocean, scientists share realities of climate change and science research

The virtual tour of the “JOIDES Resolution” opened students’ eyes to in-the-field climate research

The scientists came from around the world, the video was livestreamed off the coast of Spain. But in an event designed to teach students about how microscopic fossils explain the effects of climate change, some saw a familiar face: professor Barbara Balestra, the director of teaching and labs in American University’s Department of Environmental Science.

Balestra has been studying ocean core samples of microscopic fossils on a ship since Dec. 10. During a Jan. 22 livestream organized by the Department of Environmental Science, she explained her research to students. 

During the livestream, viewers went on a virtual tour of the ship, named the “JOIDES Resolution” for the Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling. The ship’s mission started as a partnership between universities looking to explore the ocean floor, according to the JOIDES Resolution website

Balestra is one of 27 scientists aboard the ship who uses sciences like geochemistry, sedimentology and paleomagnetism to study core samples of sediment to better understand how the Strait of Gibraltar has affected the Earth’s climate over time, according to the expedition’s website.

According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, nearly six million years ago, land formed between what is now the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, causing the Mediterranean Sea to dry up. The Atlantic Ocean eventually filled the Mediterranean Sea again, changing the waters’ chemical makeup and circulation patterns, according to the expedition’s website.

The sea-fairing scientists are looking to learn more about how those changes have affected the Earth’s climate.

“We are trying to study the sediment that, in some way, has the insight of the story that happened,” Balestra said in a Zoom interview with The Eagle after the event.

Balestra’s work studies the fossils of organisms found in sediment. Identifying the organism can lead to an understanding of what the climate was like when the organism was alive, Balestra said.

Those conclusions aren’t possible, however, without an understanding of the core sample’s properties like magnetism and density, Balestra explained. That’s where the other scientists come in. They have expertise in scientific fields like geology, sedimentology and chemistry, according to the expedition’s website.

Combining areas of study on the boat allows for a complete picture of the Strait of Gibraltar’s influence on climate change, Balestra said.

“It’s like making a puzzle,” Balestra said. “You have a lot of pieces [and] a lot of things and you have to build the story.”

Crew members have been successful in building that story so far, Balestra said. The scientists have gained useful data from the core samples in good weather conditions; something that’s not guaranteed.

“The expedition has been fantastic,” Balestra said.

The expedition broadcast for students showed Nolan Menanno, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, how scientific research works outside of the classroom. 

“It’s one thing to learn about the subject, but it’s totally different actually seeing the work being done with this information that we’re learning,” Menanno said. “I just think that’s a really valuable aspect of education that you don’t always get in a traditional academic setting.”

Watching professionals practice fieldwork in real time also taught Menanno the role of collaboration in science.

“I learned that there’s a lot of different fields that can come together,” he said. “You don’t have to just be an environmental scientist. You can use your background in environmental science and apply it to so many different things. You can collaborate with engineers and geologists and people from so many different backgrounds.”

Kat Rainao, a senior in CAS, said they enjoyed getting a glimpse into the work that goes into environmental science findings and publications.

“A lot of the time, you see some climate research and they get projections about the future and models about how things have been in the past, so it was cool to see how they did that,” Rainao said.

School of Communication junior Layne Barber watched the tour and reveled in the opportunity to see science outside the classroom.

“I loved it,” Barber said. “I’m always a big fan of getting real boots on the ground to pass down information.” 

She said environmental science has many opportunities to work outside the lab. Yet science classes, she said, don’t always showcase that part of the work.

“While all the work that we do in the lab is incredibly valuable, sometimes it does keep us away from what it is like to actually get our hands dirty out in the field,” Barber said.

Seeing Balestra and her teammates collecting samples in the middle of the ocean to further scientists’ understanding of climate change helped Barber explore the on-site side of science. In turn, while Barber and the other scientists expanded their understanding of climate change, Barber’s understanding of environmental science expanded as well.

“I think getting insight into the whole spectrum of what it means to be an environmental science professional out in the field is really valuable because it will allow all of us as students to get a better look at what our options are,” Barber said.

Valentina Aquila, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science, said she wanted students to learn about possibilities in environmental science like field research.

“I hope they take away the idea that science can be exciting,” Aquila said. “It can be a really immersive experience and I hope they get interested in trying to do some research project while they’re at [American University].”

Studying the environment beyond the confines of a lab, Aquila said, adds challenges of realism to the process of science.

“When you’re in the real world, so many unexpected things come up and I find it very fascinating that somehow they manage to work it through,” Aquila said.

Aquila was fascinated seeing the work in action as soon as Balestra shared the instructions on how to host a live video event with the JOIDES Resolution. 

“I said, ‘let’s do it for the students,’ but I really wanted to know what the livestream was,” Aquila said.

Aquila was interested in seeing the ship at work and learning how to extract and analyze cores from the ocean. She said she hopes the event inspired students and taught them about the process of science and research.

Balestra also hopes the livestream inspired students to explore science outside their classrooms. Having researched in the field since obtaining her doctorate, Balestra said expeditions allow her to conduct as much science as she can without worrying about external responsibilities.

“For me, it’s one of the most incredible experiences that scientists can have,” Balestra said.

Balestra said she may present a seminar on her experiences from the expedition in the fall when she returns to AU to study her findings even more. She also encourages students to talk with her if they’re interested in learning more about the expedition or in conducting research with her.

“I really hope that some students get curious and come to talk to me about everything, because this is the best there is,” Balestra said.

The current expedition of JOIDES Resolution is scheduled to end Feb. 10, according to the ship’s website.

This article was edited by Clair Sapilewski, Sara Winick and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti. 

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