Indiana State University Newsroom

Students work with top oceanographers during week-long expedition

August 16, 2007

ASTORIA, Ore. - Six current and former Indiana State University students worked alongside some of the top names in oceanography this summer during a research cruise off the California coast.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the expedition was aimed at better understanding the links between seafloor ecology and geologic records of climate change. It also provided hands-on experience for future scientists who may be called upon to address global warming.

“Our work is related to global warming in the sense that methane seeps are places where methane is bubbling up out of the sea floor. This is a major source of greenhouse gases and we need to better assess how extensive these seeps were and their direct relationship to climate change in the past,” Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology at Indiana State, explained shortly after the research vessel Atlantis docked in this Columbia River port city on July 29.

Rathburn served as chief scientist for the expedition, which had set sail from San Francisco a week earlier. The project involved students and faculty from Indiana State, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Florida, the University of Southern California and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego.

Research by Rathburn and his students focuses on benthic foraminifera, single-cell creatures that secrete shell-like skeletons which, when preserved as fossils, can be used to assess past climate changes.

“Foraminifera are among the most abundant creatures in the deep-sea,” Rathburn said. “It is important to know about the ecology and chemical composition of their (shells), not only to understand modern ecosystems and biogeochemical processes in extreme environments such as methane seeps, but also because scientists use the chemistry and ecological characteristics of fossil foraminifera to assess environmental changes of the past.”

The project included an interdisciplinary team of biologists, geologists and geo-chemists working aboard the Atlantis, a U.S. Navy ship operated by Woods Hole.

Students who took part worked long hours alongside veteran researchers.

“I treat them as equal scientists. We put them into equal jobs that everyday students don’t get the opportunity to be exposed to. Students are actively involved in the collection of samples, in processing the samples and in recording the data,” Rathburn said.

“A lot of the media is focusing on the possibility of global warming and climate change,” said Cassie Gray, a senior geology major from Jasonville. “These organisms are a very important tool in deciphering past environments. If we can figure out what’s going on in the past, we may be better able to predict what’s going to happen in the future.”

Collecting samples from the seafloor involved the use of Woods Hole’s Jason II, a remotely operated vehicle that is the successor to the original Jason, made famous by oceanographer Robert Ballard’s 1985 discovery of the Titanic wreckage. It was reading about that discovery while in elementary school that gave ISU student David Bohnert of Jasper his first exposure to the mysteries of the deep blue sea.

The Monterey Bay expedition gave Bohnert a chance to take part in his own journey of discovery.

“That had a big impact on the way I was thinking back in second grade,” he said. “We’re using Jason II right now, taking logs on it and operating a camera from the actual vehicle at the bottom of the ocean. I can’t believe it.” Just as incredible for Bohnert was the opportunity to work with - and learn from - some of the top experts in oceanography, including Joris Gieskes of Scripps, Jon Martin of the University of Florida and Joan Bernhard and Will Sellers of Woods Hole.

“They know exactly what they’re doing; they’re the top of the profession and here I am meeting with them, just as an undergraduate, learning a lot of things from people who have 50 years on me,” he said.

“It’s important to realize how other scientists function,” added Ellen Brouillette of Vincennes, a May graduate of ISU who is now a graduate student at the University of Georgia. “When you work in the same lab with the same professor, you get accustomed to how he runs things. Being able to interact with different scientists, it’s great to get their perspectives, see their different procedures and how they handle similar situations.”

Sellers, expedition leader for Jason II, worked with Ballard on the Titanic exploration.

“The opportunities and experiences he had are just unbelievable. Talking to him about shipwrecks and hydrothermal vents and all his stories was really amazing,” Brouillette said.

Chandranath Basak, who holds a master’s degree geology from Indiana State and is now pursuing a Ph.D. at Florida, credits Rathburn for “introducing me to the world of science. I learned how research is done and how to communicate and collaborate with top researchers in the field.”

For Jared Kluesner of Linton the Monterey Bay expedition provided a reminder of why he chose to become involved in oceanography. Kluesner is a Ph.D. student at Scripps and a 2006 ISU graduate who previously worked with Rathburn and Gieskes on a study of the lagoons of Venice, Italy.

“(Rathburn) is the reason I’m at Scripps. Working with him again reminds me of why I got into this in the first place • going out and doing research and discovering things that no one’s ever seen before,” he said.

“Global warming is in the forefront of scientific research. There’s a lot of money being put into that topic. To be a part of it is pretty amazing,” added Jason Waggoner of Hutsonville, Ill., a graduate student in geology at Indiana State.

Like Kluesner before him, Waggoner switched majors after being exposed to oceanography by Rathburn.

“Working with some of the best scientists in the world has definitely influenced what I’m considering doing in the future,” Waggoner said. “I realize I can get on board and work well with a group like this. I’m overwhelmed and pleased that I have the opportunity to work with some of the best oceanographers in the world.”

ISU crew Members of the Monterey Bay research expedition with ISU ties stand in front of the research vessel Atlantis prior to the ship's departure from San Francisco. The crew, from left to right: Student Jason Waggoner; Tracy Ford, video production manager; Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology; students David Bohnert and Cassie Gray; recent graduate Ellen Brouillette, now a grduate student at the University of Georgia; master's graduate Chandranath Basak, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida; 2006 graduate Jared Kluesner, a Ph.D. student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography; and Elena Perez, a post-doctoral researcher.

Preparations Aboard the Atlantis, student researchers assemble injection cores to collect core samples with using the remotely operated vehicle, Jason II. The cores were specially made to inject a chemical to help determine the presence of living foraminifera. This time consuming process had to be completed several times a day to prepare for more samples. Clockwise from top right: David Bohner, Ellen Brouillette, Cassie Gray, Jared Kluesner and Chandranath Basak. In the background is University of Florida student Dylan Miner. (Tracy Ford/ISU)

Checking Tony Rathburn (right), ISU associate professor of geology, watches the progress of Jason II, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's remotely operated vehicle, with Jason II pilot Robert Fuhrmann aboard the research vessel Atlantis during a week-long research cruise off the California coast. (Tracy Ford/ISU)

Contact: Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2269 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or

Story Highlights

Six current and former ISU students worked alongside some of the top names in oceanographry during a research cruise off the California coast. Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology at ISU, served as chief scientist for the project, funded by the National Science Foundation.

See Also:

‘Steel Magnolias’ kicks off Crossroads Rep’s season

Top seniors honored

More than 1,800 Sycamores participate in commencement

New math teaching program OK’d

Crossroads Rep relocates to the Dreiser stage this summer

Fine Arts Building, Sycamore Towers Dining renovations OK’d by state