Art Trembanis, right, in the Visual and Advanced Simulation Training Lab.

In the deep

University laboratory offers window into ocean exploration

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1:51 p.m., Aug. 18, 2011--Erika Young boarded the EV Nautilus off the coast of Turkey on Aug. 7 to begin training as a navigator. She didn’t know exactly what the job entailed, but it wasn’t long before she was “thrown into the deep end.”

The deep end is exactly where the senior geological sciences major at the University of Delaware wants to be as she prepares for a career in marine geophysics. Aboard the exploration vessel, she is gaining valuable experience in navigation and mapping while working with some of the most renowned scientists in the field.

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While the opportunity to work in the field as Young is doing is invaluable, other students and faculty at UD can take advantage of a front-row seat to the exploration in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment’s Visual and Advanced Simulation Training Lab. Located in the basement of Penny Hall, the VAST Lab uses Google Earth and other computer visualization systems to display real-time data streams from remote locations.

This summer, that front-row seat includes windows into two major ocean explorations—Nautilus Live, which is sponsored by the Sea Research Foundation, and Okeanos Explorer, a project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Telepresence is a new paradigm for ocean exploration,” says Art Trembanis, assistant professor of geological sciences. “UD is one of several universities and oceanographic institutions around the world connected to these expeditions, allowing faculty and students here not only to receive live data streams but also to interact and talk with people on board the ships, provide input to the findings, request samples, and actually contribute to the work.”

Graduate student Nicole Raineault participated in the Nautilus expedition in 2010 as a navigator during legs off the coast of Turkey exploring ancient shipwrecks. This year, she will join the exploration vessel as a data logger on stints to explore seafloor geology and biology off the coasts of Greece and Italy. 

“The Nautilus combines the two things that excite me most about science: ocean exploration and outreach,” she says. “The purpose of the ship is to go where no one has gone before to learn new things about our oceans and to broadcast that knowledge to the public.”

Going where “no one has gone before” means that there are many unknowns associated with these expeditions. That’s where telepresence can play an important role, according to Trembanis.

“Telepresence allows experts to be brought in as needed,” he says, “providing access to a full range of expertise at a much lower cost. It also enables the people onboard exploration vessels to be more focused because people off-site are available to help solve problems.”

Bryan Keller, who recently graduated from UD with a master’s degree in oceanography, had many opportunities to use the VAST Lab during his thesis research with Trembanis as his adviser.

“Several of my colleagues volunteered on last season’s cruises,” Keller says. “This got me interested in the work the Nautilus crew was performing. This fall I’ll be joining the team myself aboard the research vessel in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic. I’m excited about the chance to work with some of the best oceanographers in the world.”

Working in Trembanis’s lab during the past four years, Ph.D. candidate Adam Skarke gained valuable exposure to a number of oceanographic instruments and methods, providing him with the background to participate in two exploration efforts.

In the summer of 2007, Skarke spent time aboard the RV Alliance finding and documenting Byzantine-era shipwrecks in the Black Sea. He followed up with the same research groups working on the Nautilus in the summer of 2010 exploring undersea volcanoes and vents in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

Skarke credits the field experience he gained working at UD and on these research expeditions with being a key factor in securing his current position on Okeanos Explorer, where the work will focus on mapping the seafloor in previously unexplored parts of the ocean.

“These expeditions enable students to see how what they’re doing in the classroom maps into what happens in the field,” Trembanis says.

Young confirms that. “Since I’m specifically interested in structural geology and marine geophysics, I need to be able to think in 3D,” she says. “Navigation requires me to do the same. The way I like to learn is by doing, so I am directly applying this ‘thinking in 3D’ concept while I’m on watch in high-pressure situations every day.”

Trembanis also emphasizes that the access provided by telepresence on these expeditions goes beyond providing research data and educating university students. 

“The community engagement is phenomenal,” he says. “My six-year-old has been following these expeditions since she was four. She has asked questions and gotten responses—not just from a webmaster but from leading scientists in the field.”

As for Young, she is “living her dream” aboard the Nautilus.

“I’m working on a famous exploration vessel with some of the smartest and most talented people in the field,” she says. “Not only am I creating friendships, but I have plenty of opportunities to network and make an impression on people who I may work with in the future.”

Undergraduate education doesn’t get any better than that.

About the VAST Lab

The Visual and Advanced Simulation Training (VAST) Lab in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment uses Google Earth, Fledermaus, and other computer visualization systems to display real-time data streams on everything from global ocean temperature and currents to the movement of ships in Delaware Bay—all at once. The data come from a wide variety of sources—including satellites, autonomous underwater vehicles, and floating buoys—and are pulled into visualization software that lets users see geographic data in four dimensions (space and time).

In addition to an array of large wall-mounted monitors, a projection system, a conference area, and a full classroom set of computers, the lab includes technology that lets scientists remotely operate underwater vehicles and connect directly with ships on scientific missions anywhere in the world.

About Nautilus Live

In summer 2011, Robert Ballard, Katherine Croff Bell, and their team launched an expedition on the EV Nautilus to explore ancient history and learn more about the ocean. The expedition started in the Black Sea in July; continued in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas and the Atlantic Ocean in the summer and fall; and will finish in November off the coast of Israel. Nautilus expedition scientists are mapping the sea floor, studying underwater volcanoes, investigating unusual life forms, exploring shipwrecks, and more.

About the Okeanos Explorer

Roughly 95 percent of the ocean is still unexplored—and the Okeanos Explorer, in partnership with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration (OER), is aimed at changing that. Known as “America’s ship for ocean exploration” Okeanos conducts operations around the globe, mapping the seafloor and characterizing largely unknown areas of the ocean. Okeanos is the only NOAA ship to have a dedicated remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Although ROVs have been used on other NOAA ships, they are typically removed at the end of a cruise. Having a permanent ROV makes it easier to deploy at any time throughout the field season. 

Article by Diane Kukich

Photo by Lisa Tossey

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