University of South Florida

USF College of Marine Science


An exploration into the ocean: USF & SPC Students learn on land and at sea

COMIT Interns, Zoe Brooker (left) and Katherin Abreus-Rodriguez (right), on the cruise next to the water sampling processing set-up. PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Grasty.

IMAGE ABOVE: COMIT Interns, Zoe Brooker (left) and Katherin Abreus-Rodriguez (right), on the cruise next to the water sampling processing set-up. PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Grasty.

Written by: Riley Benson, COMIT Intern

Ocean air, heavy with the scent of salt and adventure, fills the lungs of passengers, as they step aboard the R/V WT Hogarth destined for scientific exploration. The Center for Ocean Mapping and Innovative Technologies (COMIT) at the USF College of Marine Science (CMS) gathered a small team of staff and current interns to learn and gain hands-on experience in a variety of oceanographic sampling techniques.

This is the second cruise in the Collaborative Oceanographic Research Experience (CORE) series, which was started in 2023 by Jay Law, a physical oceanographer at CMS, and Yonggang Liu, associate research professor and director of the CMS Ocean Circulation Lab. Support from the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO), which offers subsidized ship-time for educational endeavors for its consortium members, has enabled CORE leadership to make these cruise experiences possible.

Aboard the ship are undergraduate students Zoe Brooker and Katherin Abreus-Rodriguez from USF and Stella Robinson from St. Petersburg College (SPC).

Brooker and Abreus-Rodriguez are part of a larger Spring 2024 internship cohort at COMIT which was funded for the semester via the Florida High Tech Corridor (HTC) Undergraduate Research Initiative. The Florida High Tech Corridor aims to bring more collaboration, opportunities, funding and resources to academia in Florida, and financial support for internships is one of many ways in which the HTC makes that possible.

“We were thrilled to offer an opportunity this semester and it wouldn’t have been possible without the funds from the Corridor,” says Sarah Grasty, COMIT’s outreach and education manager. “We were also very intentional to open the internship spots to a wide range of academic backgrounds to support interdisciplinary learning and collaboration.”

The internship begins

Flashback to the months leading up to the cruise, Brooker was working on ArcGIS StoryMaps to highlight research being done on coastal modeling and seafloor mapping backscatter calibration. This work is a collaboration between COMIT researchers Yonggang Liu and Stephan O’Brien, respectively.

Brooker is scheduled to graduate in Fall 2024 with a bachelor's degree in geography and concentration in geographic information systems (GIS). Finding the COMIT internship application was “perfect,” she says. After taking a marine science class, Brooker knew she wanted to study seafloor mapping, and further understand the interactions between different aspects of the ocean.

Abreus-Rodriguez, a chemistry major, has spent her internship developing standard operating procedures for performing water sampling and translating aspects of the COMIT website.

Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Abreus-Rodriguez’s first language is Spanish. She moved to Florida with her family when she was 18.

The COMIT internship opportunity allowed her to leverage her chemistry background and apply it to new experiences with oceanographic sampling techniques. Abreus-Rodriguez was trained by Lily Verrill, a CMS graduate student, who taught her how to work the water sampling set-up. Abreus-Rodriguez created a visual guide that followed Verrill’s written standard operating procedures ahead of the cruise, including steps for important protocols such as cleaning, sampling and filtration of the water.

“I’m more of a visual learner,” Abreus-Rodriguez says. “In all my labs, I do a quick sketch so that I don’t get lost and so I don’t have to read everything while I’m in the lab, so it’s better to reference when you have images.”

Abreus-Rodriguez aboard the RT W/V Hogarth. PHOTO CREDIT: Abreus-Rodriguez.

Abreus-Rodriguez aboard the RV W/T Hogarth. PHOTO CREDIT: Abreus-Rodriguez.

There are a total of four interns in COMIT’s Spring 2024 Internship: Brooker, Abreus-Rodriguez, Shana Korn and me, Riley Benson. Korn and I were unable to attend the cruise due to prior commitments, but there was plenty of work to be done on land.

Shana Korn is an environmental science and psychology student who, throughout her COMIT internship, has been processing multibeam data used to create maps of the seafloor. She has a passion for photography and has also taken pictures and videos to help COMIT communicate its science more visually.

I am a digital communications and multimedia journalism student, who’s pursuing a minor in literary studies. Throughout my internship, I have reviewed and updated COMIT’s website content and written about the COMIT team’s work.

Robinson, the SPC student on the CORE cruise, is an undergraduate research student, majoring in cell and molecular biology. She does research alongside Linae Boehme, a professor at SPC, on copepods – tiny organisms known as plankton which are a foundational part of the marine food web. Though she wasn’t part of the COMIT internship this semester, Robinson was able to attend several trainings with the team prior to the cruise.

All aboard! 

Around 8 a.m. on April 8, eight passengers board the Hogarth, setting sail for the Gulf of Mexico.

Robinson (left), Abreus-Rodriguez (center) and Linae Boehme (right) aboard the RT W/V Hogarth. PHOTO CREDIT: Abreus-Rodriguez.

Robinson (left), Abreus-Rodriguez (center) and Linae Boehme (right) aboard the RV W/T Hogarth. PHOTO CREDIT: Abreus-Rodriguez.

One of the moments leaving the shore that sticks out to Brooker and Abreus-Rodriguez the most is the color of the water changing and the land disappearing as they venture out further into the Gulf.

“When you see [the water] near shore it’s gray-ish, then it turns blue, and then it gets really dark blue. I had never experienced that before,” says Abreus-Rodriguez. 

“I also did not know how to feel about not being able to see land,” says Brooker. 

“You just look around and see nothing but water,” adds Abreus-Rodriguez.

As they get further out to sea, both interns begin to settle into their roles. Brooker’s focus is on seafloor mapping, which she can’t start until they get further out, so for now she observes the other roles around her. Meanwhile, Abreus-Rodriguez begins her work on water sampling.

Her water sampling involved utilizing CTD scans, which detect how the conductivity and temperature of water changes relative to depth. When those samples come back to the lab, you can run them through a HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) machine and do other tests. This process allows researchers to detect nutrients, like phosphate and nitrates, and measure chlorophyll levels in the water.

“It was also really cool to see the CTD deployment for the water sampling. The whole process of how it goes into the water, and you can watch it go down on the computers at certain depths,” Brooker says. “It was really cool to see because that has nothing to do with what I’ve been working on these past few months.”

On the other side of the ship, Robinson works with Dr. Boehme on bongo net tows to collect plankton samples. Bongo nets are made of a very small mesh so that they can collect extremely small organisms in the water, many of which are microscopic in size. After collecting their samples, the student and mentor use a microscope to classify and count each species they see— a process that helps quantify diversity. Along with what she has a focus on documenting, Robinson speaks about all the new things she learned onboard.

“I learned a lot of technical things about the boat,” she says. “I learned about water chemistry and nutrients before the cruise and all the procedures involved. I learned how to work on a lot of equipment, like the bongo nets and the CTD.”

Brooker (far-right) observing FIO’s Science Technician, Marshall Kormanec (left) and Verrill (right) perform a CTD cast and collect water samples. PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Grasty.

Brooker (far-right) observing FIO’s Science Technician, Marshall Kormanec (left) and Verrill (right) perform a CTD cast and collect water samples. PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Grasty.

As the team gets comfortable in their scientific positions aboard the cruise, they also start to experience life on the water. One of the biggest surprises is the food served on board, and the comradery they share with each other during mealtimes.

“I was expecting the food to be something different, like sandwiches, but the food might’ve been the best part”, says Abreus-Rodriguez. 

“The food was so good, it was like a four-course meal,” Brooker chimes in. 

“Eating meals together was really fun and usually consisted of us just talking to each other about our lives and meeting the crew. We were usually laughing and trying to talk about anything but science,” Robinson says.

Outside of the food, the students are able to experience marine wildlife like dolphins. Although for some on board dolphins are more of a pain than a welcome presence. 

“I tend to feel a bit grumpy about the dolphins – but mostly because they can interfere with some of the equipment! If we have the mapping sonar on and they’re under the vessel, they can knock out the sonar beams and then we lose data. But I know I’m in the minority. They’re a highlight for most people that come on board, and it makes me happy to see them excited,” explains Grasty, the chief scientist on the cruise. 

As they all continue with the cruise, it isn’t until late in the evening that they realize their time is being cut short. Due to the weather, the team is informed that they must return to shore the morning of the April 9th.

“For the 36-ish hours we were out there, there was collectively amongst the eight of us, easily 50 hours of prep work spread out over this last semester,” Grasty says. “So while it’s disappointing we didn’t get to complete everything we wanted considering how much work went into getting ready for our venture, safety is always top priority.”

Despite the unfortunate weather, all the interns on-board are grateful for the valuable experience on the ship and continuing their education in ocean mapping and marine sciences. 

“It was such an amazing unique experience that I would encourage anybody to apply, if they have the chance. I knew nothing about boats and had no experience and it still was just spectacular. So even if you think you aren’t qualified just try and you may surprise yourself,” says Robinson.

Editors’ Note: Sarah Grasty would like to add that everyone involved with the cruise would like to reiterate their thanks, particularly to the crew of the R/V WT Hogarth, Lilly Verrill for spearheading the water sampling, CMS graduate student Jessica Caggiano for running the CTDs and flow through sampling, Stephan O’Brien and Matthew Hommeyer for the multibeam echosounder set-up and troubleshooting, and Jay Law for assisting with the cruise preparation.

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