Getting Underway – Update #1

Greetings from the R/V Sharp!  After working through some science and mechanical issues, we are finally underway.  Here’s a brief update of what we’ve been up to so far.

Unpacking and organizing
Throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday, the science crew arrived from their various home institutions.  Our original goal was to get everything unpacked and organized to depart on Tuesday.  After days of carrying boxes, shoving lab equipment into every available space, and taking multiple trips to Walmart and Home Depot, we finally got everything situated to depart around noon on Wednesday.

Loading up the ship.
Because of the relative size of the ship and the harbor, it was only possible to leave during high tide.  This gave us a ~4 hour window around noon, and again at midnight.  We were ready to leave at the end of this window, so the crew got everything ready and turned on the engines.  They shut right back off again.  We weren’t going anywhere just yet.
Trying to fit scientific equipment into the ship’s labs

It turns out there was a mechanical problem that needed fixed before we could leave.  The science crew took some much needed downtime from cruise preparations.  We explored the ship and were briefed on safety procedures.  Local wildlife, including an osprey nest, stingrays, turtles, and blue crabs provided a welcome distraction.
We caught a blue crab in a net off the side of the ship, but it was a bit too small to cook.  Here, one of the crew is showing us how to properly hold a crab.
The issue with the engines was fixed right around dinnertime, and we were able to leave with the next tide, around 9:30pm.  There was a last minute scramble with bungee cords and ropes to make sure everything was strapped down and ready to go.
Science plans
Before we left, we had a science meeting to determine our best course of action.  There is a large Gulf Stream eddy almost due east of us that will have good conditions for what we need.  Current forecasts show rain arriving at some point on Friday.  This would be ideal, as we can get to the eddy ahead of the rain.  We plan to sample the conditions before, during, and after the rain to determine the effect of rain on the surface ocean.
Map of Sea Surface Height (SSH).  The white box shows the eddy we are headed towards and the red dot is our approximate starting location.
Prior to arriving at the eddy, we plan to stop once we get to deeper waters to test all the equipment and practice our procedures.  One of our concerns right now is the presence of a tropical invest to the south.  An invest is the step before a tropical depression, which is the step before a tropical storm, which is the step before a hurricane.  It looks like the storm may make landfall before it heads far enough north to bother us, or it may dissipate.  Forecasts of the storm more than 3 days out aren’t reliable enough for us to make plans.  So, we will be keeping an eye out and modifying our plans as necessary.
Stay tuned for the next update.  I’ll be writing about our first station and some of the science we are doing.

Upcoming research cruise, Part II

It’s almost here!  In less than a week, we will be aboard our research vessel and beginning our scientific journey.  Before all that gets started, I have some last minute updates for you.

My science task:

Recently I’ve received more information about what my expected duties will be on board the ship.  The principal investigators (PIs) for the DANCE project have decided its a good idea to add measurements of light to our study.

Since sunlight is the principal energy source for phytoplankton, we measure the amount of light that penetrates the water column.  When light passes through water, it attenuates, or loses intensity.  Atmospheric conditions, such as cloudiness and time of day influence how much light reaches the surface of the water.  Oceanic conditions such as size and amount of particles in the water influence how much light penetrates to certain depths.

We are specifically interested in light that falls into the category of PAR, or Photosynthetically Active Radiation.  This includes light with wavelengths between 400 and 700 nm, essentially the visible spectrum.  PAR is the part of sunlight that phytoplankton actually use.  So it makes sense to measure only this portion.

The PAR sensor I will be using, shown hooked up to a laptop.  The little white knob on top is the actual sensor.

In order to measure PAR, I will be using an optical device that is lowered through the water column.  It first records the PAR at the surface of the water, then, as it descends, it records a continuous profile.  By plotting the amount of PAR versus the depth in the water, we can determine how deep the phytoplankton are likely to live.

Of course, there are some technicalities to be observed while measuring PAR.  Which I will be trained on by a technician once onboard the ship.  These will mainly consist of working with the recording software, and making sure the ship’s shadow doesn’t interfere with the measurements.

Now that you know more of what I’ll be doing, let’s move on to…

How to follow along:

Blog – Internet resources on the ship will be very limited.  I plan to record the interesting events each day and blog about them.  Depending on how much access I have, I might post an update every few days, or I might have to wait until we return.  Any updates here will be automatically posted to Facebook as well, but I won’t be able to respond to any questions or comments.

Ship track – You can follow along online with the location and status of the R/V Hugh Sharp, our ship.  The map gives information about the current location of the ship, where’s it been, where it’s heading, and the current conditions.

Well, that’s all for now.  See you on the ocean!

More posts in this series:
Upcoming Cruise
Cruise Delays
Update #1
Update #2
Update #3
Update #4
Update #5
Update #6 
Update #7 
Update #8 
Update #9

Writing a Prospectus

I’ve recently finished up writing my prospectus, and boy, was it a lot harder than I expected.  For a ~10 page document, it took a significant amount of time (read: months) to write.  In my department, a prospectus is essentially the combination of a literature review and a research proposal.  It is the first official document you submit to your committee, detailing what you plan to research for your thesis/dissertation.

My main problem with the prospectus was the organization of it.  I had a few example research proposals from grants my advisor had submitted, but those were not helpful.  I ended up re-arranging the entire document several times.  So, based on my experience, and the helpful suggestions of fellow graduate students, I’ve put together a list of prospectus tips.

Tips for writing your Prospectus

1. Start reading early.  The first portion of your prospectus is likely a literature review.  Or a long winded introduction to your topic.  Either way, you will need a lot of references for this.  The good news is that you can use these references over and over throughout your career.  They should be the fundamental papers in your field, and some more specific ones that comment directly on your topic.  The bad news is that you have to find and read them all now.  Don’t despair.  As soon as you know your topic, start reading up on it.  Make sure you take notes!  By the time you get to your prospectus, you should have a wealth of paper summaries to populate the introduction.

2. Define an audience.  Before you start writing, take a moment and define your audience.  Yes, your committee members will probably be the only ones reading your prospectus.  And they probably already know a lot about your topic.  However, their goal is to see what you know.  I started by assuming a basic knowledge of concepts, but no knowledge about my specific field.  In oceanography, this translates to knowing the key ideas about oceanography, but not knowing the oceanography of my region of interest.  When in doubt, go by this rule: If it was on your qualifying/candidacy exam, don’t explain it.  Or, pretend you are talking to someone who just graduated from your department, but with a completely different research project.  Any base knowledge you expect them to have doesn’t need to be mentioned, but the specifics of your project should be explained.

3. Tell a story.  This part was hard for me because my prospectus seemed to be two different parts – an information dump, and a research proposal.  There needs to be a sense of flow to your writing.  I suggest approaching it like a story.  Begin with a broad overview: you are introducing your audience to the topic.  Then, increase in specifics and lead up to the most recent research in your field.  The idea is to state it in such a way that what you plan to do comes as an obvious next step to addressing an important issue or question.  This is how you can transition to the research proposal part.  Now, state your research questions, describe the methods you will use to answer them, indicate any preliminary results, and finish up by stating the significance of your research.  Note that I haven’t given you specific section titles.  Get it written first so it flows, then divide it up later as needed for your topic.

4. Be specific.  AKA, how to be a scientist for real.  I made the mistake in my first draft of not being specific about what I was researching.  Mostly because I hadn’t thought enough about it.  I know better now.  If you have some vague idea in your head, such as “I’m want to know more about such and such area”, forget it.  That does not count as a research goal.  Set out extremely specific questions you want to answer, and think about exact methods you can use to answer those.  It doesn’t matter if you change your mind later and use a different method.  Or end up answering a different question.  Your committee wants to see that you can scientifically think through a problem.  You also need to specifically consider potential problems or issues.  Maybe the method you want to use has known failings.  If you state specifically what those are and how you will deal with them, not a problem.  This forces you to really consider your research and define it, which gives it a scope, and more importantly, a finishing point.

5. Write steadily.  Now that you know what to write and how to write it, go write!  Avoid burnout by writing for a set amount of time each day, say an hour or two.  It is always easier to go back and edit than it is to write new material.  If you aren’t sure about a fact or figure, write it down anyways.  Then, go back later and look up the reference to fix the sentence.  I ended up working in a cycle.  One session was spent writing.  I would get to a point where I wouldn’t know details or have references to back myself up.  So the next session would be looking up more papers.  I’d use those papers to correct what I had already written and then move on to more writing.  Just remember, its not always about how much you get done in a day, but that you worked on it each day.

I hope these tips help you out as you write your prospectus.  It’s much more than just a writing document – its ordering your thoughts and really defining your research project.

Remember though, any comments or instructions from your advisor and committee always trump.  If you aren’t 100% happy, but they are, let it go.  They are the ones that grant you your degree in the end. Just think of it as a lesson in collaboration.

Did you have to write a prospectus as part of your degree?  Was it anything like what I’ve described here?  Tell me if there are any tips you think I missed!