Indiana State University Newsroom

Cruising: Students conduct research in Pacific

August 11, 2011

Four years ago, Darin Lang made a phone call that set him on a path he didn't know existed.

"It was honestly a phone call that I made to take a course that I found out that oceanographic research was even going on at ISU," said the May 2011 graduate in earth and environmental systems who will begin graduate work at the University of Georgia in the fall.

A month into his freshman year, Lang set sail on a research cruise off the coast of San Diego with Indiana State professor Tony Rathburn. This summer after finishing at Indiana State, Lang returned to San Diego with Rathburn for a week-long, National Science Foundation-funded research cruise on the Research Vessel New Horizon. Between the two expeditions, the Terre Haute-native traveled to Antarctica, spent a summer studying at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and worked with scientists in Baja California, Mexico studying whale sharks as part of ISU education.

"The whale shark researcher is contacting me and I'm still getting opportunities because of the work that I've done with Dr. Rathburn," Lang said.

Opportunities continue to abound in the oceanographic research lab at Indiana State where Rathburn takes students to sea to experience all aspects of scientific research.

"When they come out to sea and experience the ship and all the things that need to go into conducting research at sea, it's really satisfying to see students with a smile on their faces," said Rathburn, professor of geology in the department of earth and environmental sciences. "They're actually holding onto the taglines, they're smelling the ocean, they're feeling the metal of the sampling devices, they're seeing the samples as they come up."

Seven Indiana State students, including Lang, joined Rathburn on the July cruise as they took samples from the seafloor about 100 nautical miles off the coast of San Diego in the Pacific Ocean. Back in the lab, the students will be removing foraminifera from the samples to study them. As one of the most abundant organisms in the deep-sea, foraminifera form an important part of seafloor ecosystems. In addition, the shells (called "tests") of these single-celled creatures can be preserved in the fossil record and are used extensively to assess the history of environmental change.

"The way that these organisms build their shell and the different number of pores that they make on their shell might be able to tell us about changes in an environment from the ocean floor," said Ashley Burkett, an ISU doctoral student in spatial and earth sciences.

To get those samples, more experienced students work with others to deploy the multi-corer, a teepee-shaped structure with eight plastic tubes that sink into the seafloor, to collect the sediment. After the corer returns to the ship with the samples, the students begin processing and preserving slices of the sediment.

"I think it's really important to make sure that even the undergrads are aware of what's going on because the more they know, the better they can do their jobs while they're out here processing and going about the daily routine of the research expedition," said Burkett, who worked as Rathburn's second-in-command on the trip.

Such an attitude fits what occurs in the laboratory at Indiana State. Those with more experience teach what they know to those with less experience.

"The mentoring process is very good," said senior Zack Bailey. "That type of interaction definitely fosters quick learning and retention of learning because once you have been taught that task, it becomes your responsibility to teach others."

"It's like having a friend whose done everything before and gives you little bits and pieces to help you along, but not too much that you don't have to think for yourself," said Brendan Paddack, of Waveland, a sophomore earth and environmental sciences major.

The mentoring is part of students getting hands-on experience in the lab and at sea.

"It's critical to get them out early because they really understand where the samples that they're working on are coming from," Rathburn said. "The lectures about the ocean or about earth science or about the seafloor just pale in comparison to actually being there and doing science."

In turn, the students' ocean-going education becomes anchored in experience and opportunities.

"ISU's given me more from day one in that as an undergraduate in the middle of Indiana, I should not have these types of opportunities available to me," Bailey said, adding that usually undergrads at other universities do not have research opportunities. "If you go to large universities, you become a number. You're just a student in a class of 500 people. At ISU, your professors know who you are. They learn what you like to do, what you excel at and they help you find those environments."

Darin Lang, a 2011 ISU graduate from Terre Haute, helps to lower the multi-corer from the Research Vessel New Horizon. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford
Tony Rathburn, ISU professor of geology, and Ashley Burkett, ISU doctoral student, discuss coring plans while aboard the Research Vessel New Horizon. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford
Zack Bailey, a senior in earth and environmental systems, and Ron Taylor, a graduate student in earth and quaternary sciences from West Terre Haute, process a core sample. ISU Photo/ Tracy Ford
Brandon Paddack, a sophomore earth and environmental sciences major from Waveland, carries a core sample from the multi-corer to be processed. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford

Contact: Tony Rathburn, Indiana State University, professor of geology in the department of earth and environmental systems, at 812-237-2269 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or

Story Highlights

Seven Indiana State students joined ISU Professor Tony Rathburn on the July cruise as they took samples from the seafloor about 100 nautical miles off the coast of San Diego in the Pacific Ocean.

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