Students at the Virginia Commonwealth University are making history by becoming the first to win the prestigious National Science Foundation National Graduate Research Fellowship.
The students will spend the next two years developing new ways to monitor and understand ocean acidification, and the researchers behind the project, called SeaLab, are now working with other oceanographers and students to refine their ideas.
“It’s an incredible moment for us, we’re really looking forward to seeing what the results will be,” said Peter O’Sullivan, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia and a co-founder of the SeaLab project.
“We’ve always dreamed of being able to take a sample and actually go back to the ocean and look at the chemical composition and see what the sea was like back in the day.”
O’Sullivan has been working with researchers at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Marine Fisheries Service to determine the state of the marine environment in the Atlantic Ocean, and he hopes to develop a new method of monitoring ocean acidity that could help scientists determine how ocean ecosystems respond to ocean acidifying.
“The ocean is changing faster than we’ve ever seen,” he said.
“I think the way we’re going to try to monitor changes is with data, because that’s where the ocean is.”
SeaLab will work with other marine scientists to develop data sets, including pH readings from deep-sea fish, to assess ocean acidities.
Researchers will then analyze those data to predict how ocean waters will respond to the next big changes in ocean chemistry.
Ocean acidification is a term used to describe the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by human activities.
The concentration of CO 2 in the ocean has grown by about a factor of ten over the last century.
O’ Sullivan hopes the data collected by the project will help scientists better understand how ocean conditions are changing in the world’s oceans.
He said that, in addition to providing the information needed to help scientists develop new methods for monitoring the ocean, SeaLab could also be a way for students to get involved in ocean science as well.
“A lot of these students, we can tell their stories and they’re all passionate about their field, so it’s really about the students taking on the responsibility of putting the work in and doing it for them,” he explained.
The project is one of a number of efforts underway at Virginia Commonwealth to improve ocean monitoring capabilities.
In August, the university announced that it would invest $1.5 million to develop and build a new satellite-based sensor that can measure ocean acidifications in the Gulf of Mexico.
The project will be the first of its kind in the United States, and Virginia Commonwealth’s funding will support the creation of the first satellite-equipped ocean monitoring station.
The university plans to install the system in the summer of 2019, but funding for the project is still being finalized.
Virginia Commonwealth’s SeaLab is one example of how the university is working to build its reputation as an internationally-ranked research institution.
O’ Sullivan has spent his career working in the marine sciences, and now he is working with students to develop new ways of monitoring and understanding the ocean.
“What we’re trying to do is create a kind of a platform for future students who are interested in ocean sciences to go in and start doing these things, to come in and learn how to make these things,” O’, Sullivan said.