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Stanford@SEA to set sail across the Pacific

Mark Shwartz Stanford at Sea

Twenty-one undergraduates sailed aboard the Robert C. Seamans  for the Stanford@SEA course in 2007. The five-week cruise from Honolulu to Palmyra Atoll and back was led by Stanford scientists Barbara Block and Rob Dunbar. In this photo, the boat is anchored at Palmyra Atoll, where the students conducted research on land and at sea.

BY LOUIS BERGERON

Ask anyone who is a master at their craft, and you'll likely be told there is no substitute for hands-on experience. At some point, you have to get your feet wet if you're going to learn how it's done. Thus, the Stanford@SEA program, which takes students on a five-week voyage on the Pacific Ocean to conduct oceanographic research and heighten their awareness of the vital role the oceans play in supporting life on Earth and regulating the global climate system.

"This is how you're going to get the next generation of students thinking about these problems," said Barbara Block, the Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences at Stanford University, Hopkins Marine Station, and one of the instructors.

The 22 undergraduates and two graduate students assisting in this year's class will fly to Tahiti the first week of May and set sail May 8 from Papeete aboard the oceanographic research vessel Robert C. Seamans. The 134-foot, two-masted brigantine will sail through part of the Society Islands before heading northeast across the Tuamoto Archipelago to the Marquesas Islands. Leaving French Polynesia, the expedition will head northwest, crossing the equator as they sail roughly 3,500 nautical miles of open ocean to Hawaii. The group will be at sea for 37 days.

Along the route, the students will be conducting oceanographic research projects they designed during the on-land half of the course at Hopkins Marine Station, as they studied oceanography, and maritime culture and nautical science, the latter taught by the ship's captain. The steel-hulled ship was built specifically for ocean research and teaching, with laboratory, library, classroom and computer facilities on board. Students' research projects this year will include investigating the role of the equatorial currents in the carbon cycle and how ocean acidity is affecting certain invertebrates.

In addition to research, the students are required to pitch in with operating and maintaining the ship—everything from swabbing the decks to standing watch to navigating and steering the ship itself. Various members of the team also will be blogging as the voyage progresses.

Christopher Hanson, now a junior, went on the voyage in 2007. He and a partner studied populations of large predators in the Line Islands in the central Pacific.

"Stanford@SEA is an incredible experience," Hanson said. One of his strongest memories is of smelling the grass and flowers of the Hawaiian Islands as they appeared on the horizon after the long sea voyage.

"You don't realize what the Earth smells like until you are away from land for weeks at a time and you are surrounded by ocean," he said.

Hanson credits the experience with helping guide him to his major in the Earth Systems Program. "Prior to that voyage, I had never even heard of [that major]," he said. But Rob Dunbar, the W. M. Keck Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and the Victoria P. and Roger W. Sant Director of the Earth Systems Program, was one of the chief scientists on the voyage. Dunbar is teaching and sailing again this year.

"Stanford@SEA is my all-time favorite teaching experience. We are able to focus and observe in ways that are never possible in a normal classroom back at Stanford," Dunbar said. "This class always ends up changing peoples lives … and even though I've been going to sea for more than 40 years I always learn something new that changes how I think about the ocean. I expect this trip will be no different."

Block said a lot of students have been guided in their career choices by their time on such voyages.

Bruce Robison is one of many former students who took a similar class in the 1960s, when Stanford was using the converted luxury yacht Te Vega as an ocean-going research vessel, and was influenced.

Robison said that while the ship and program were different when he was a student, the fundamental goal was the same. "Take students to sea and let them conduct research in an environment that in many respects, both literally and virtually, was total immersion," he said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Robison is now a senior research scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, but back in 1967 he wasn't sure of his direction.

"I was interested, but I didn't really know if I had any aptitude," he said. "One of the things that [a voyage like] this shows you is that oceanography, at any rate as we still practice it, is both physically challenging as well as intellectually challenging.

"When I realized, 'Hey, I can do this and I like it!' that was an important revelation," he said.

"The sea has a special capacity to kindle in many people this very transformative experience where they then move on to a career in ocean sciences," said Block, who herself was influenced in her career choice by taking a similar class as an undergraduate through the Sea Education Association (SEA), in Woods Hole, Mass., which owns and operates the Robert C. Seamans, a ship built with support from private funders as well as the National Science Foundation.

Stanford@SEA is a cooperative venture between the Massachusetts association and Stanford. In addition to Block and Dunbar, a third chief scientist on this year's voyage will be a marine biologist with the Sea Education Association, Jan Witting. Boris Worm, an ecologist from Dalhousie University, also will be on the trip, as will three additional associate scientists and five professional crewmembers.

This is the fourth session of Stanford@SEA, which has been offered alternate years, starting in 2003.

Block sees courses like Stanford@SEA as vital to the planet's future.

"Really what climate is about is how the atmosphere and the ocean are coupled, and if we don't teach this next generation about how these systems work, if we don't attract students to these types of courses and put them in touch with the ocean, I believe that we will not have enough people trained in this fashion in order to generate the type of scientific research we are going to need to pursue the questions we need to solve Earth's problems," she said.

Block and Dunbar are both senior fellows at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.