Indiana State University Newsroom

Student, professor conduct research off Australia

June 6, 2011

As far back as she can remember, Ashley Burkett dreamed of seeing the Land Down Under.

"It's just always seemed like one of the coolest places in the world with some of the most well-known unique creatures and world-renowned places," she said.

Instead of donning cap and gown to celebrate receiving her master's degree in earth and quaternary sciences from Indiana State University, on May 5 Burkett boarded the Australian Research Vessel Southern Surveyor in Hobart, Tasmania. Together with Australian and French scientists, Burkett and Tony Rathburn, ISU associate professor of geology, spent eight days traveling nearly 1,000 nautical miles at sea, conducting scientific research off the east coast of Australia before docking in Brisbane.

Rathburn was one of three researchers on the Australian grant that funded ship time for the expedition. Additional funding was provided by an Australian Research Council grant to Patrick De Deckker of Australian National University and an ISU University Research Council grant to Rathburn.

One of the primary tasks for Rathburn and Burkett was to train the Aussie crew in the operation of Australia's first and only multi-corer. The multi-corer, which is deployed off the ship, allows oceanographers to take samples of the ocean floor.

"Tony has a great deal of experience with the multi-corer," said Burkett, who participated on four previous research cruises while attending ISU. "We wrote a manual while we were onboard and left it with them."

They also obtained samples of the previously unexplored seafloor for further research of foraminifera at ISU. Foraminifera are single-celled creatures that secrete shell-like skeletons which, when preserved as fossils in the core samples, can tell the history of environmental change in the area.

"We'll examine the forams and look at their ecology, where they live, the depths and who's there," she said. "We'll see if the population changes along the transect."

"Our multi-national, interdisciplinary research will not only yield valuable information about deep-sea ecosystems on the Australian margin, but analyses of the unique cores that were collected will also provide clues to assess the history of environmental change in the region," Rathburn said.

Nature didn't make it east to obtain the cores.

"We thought it would be rough in the southern portion of the Tasman Sea, then smoother sailing as we moved north," Burkett said.

However, a storm created 20-foot waves that rocked the boat with each swell.

"Even crew members were getting sick," said Burkett, whose stomach remained calm on the rough seas. "When crew members who live on a ship get sick, it's pretty bad."

They also found the seafloor difficult to sample because of its sandy makeup.

"Sand doesn't sample well," Burkett said, noting that it would wash out of the tubes. Instead of a tube full of sediment, sometime they received half tube of samples. Despite these difficulties, the expedition collected valuable seafloor samples that will be analyzed by researchers at the Australian National University, The University of Bordeaux, and Indiana State University.

Burkett, who plans to enroll at ISU in the fall as a doctoral student in spatial and earth sciences, said the trip also proved successful in broadening her research skills and enhancing the potential for future collaborations with other scientists.

"It's just experiential learning, which is fantastic," she said.

It's that type of hands-on learning that makes ISU unique in oceanographic study, according to Burkett. She gave an oral presentation on her foraminiferal research at a conference in Germany in September and was surprised to discover that few master's students attended the conference and most of the doctoral students gave poster presentations.

"That just shows how Tony holds his students to higher standards," she said. "He treats his undergrads as grad students. He treats his grad students as doctoral students and his doctoral students like post docs. You're always one step ahead of where you are so you are well prepared for the next step in your journey."

It also allowed her to conduct research in places such as Costa Rica and to fulfill her dream of seeing Australia. Although Burkett spent four days exploring Sidney and Hobart prior to the cruise, she also stayed a week in Canberra visiting researchers and graduate students at the Australian National University (ANU) in Australia's capital city.

"I made friends with other students on board and there were very kind in shuffling me around," she said.

She went snorkeling with one student who is growing mollusks for his research. Another student took Burkett to her parent's farm.

"We drove across the property and we could see kangaroos hopping across the hills," she said.

She also toured the Australian National University and observed instruments used in oceanography and foraminiferal research. ANU faculty and staff have made many pioneering breakthroughs in instrument design, and Burkett was able to speak to the inventors of those instruments. Researchers from all over the world come to ANU to use its advanced instruments.

"The value of international research goes beyond the acquisition of scientifically important samples," Rathburn said. "Hands-on learning, exposure to cutting edge techniques, discussions with scientists and students from other countries, cultural experiences, and exploring new environments all serve to enhance a young scientist's abilities to conduct research, teach, and be a more worldly citizen."

Though she fulfilled a long-time goal of visiting Australia, one trip did not prove to be enough for Burkett.

"It was a great opportunity and I'd love to go back. Hopefully, I made some great connections that will benefit me in the future," she said. "I'm thankful for the opportunity to have participated."

Photos: - Ashley Burkett, who holds a master's degree in earth and environmental sciences from Indiana State University, poses in front of the landmark Sydney Opera House. Burkett joined Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology at ISU, and Australian and French researchers in an eight-day oceanographic expedition off the coast of Australia. - Tony Rathburn (left), associate professor of geology at Indiana State University, instructs Australian Nathan Coleman on techniques to extract seafloor sediments from a multi-corer tube. - Ashley Burkett, who has a master's degree in earth and environmental sciences from Indiana State University, and Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology at ISU, were part of an international team of scientists conducting a recent oceanographic expedition off the coast of Australia aboard the Research Vessel Southern Surveyor.

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

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