Oregon State University this fall will begin selecting graduate students for a bold new program to train cohorts of students that will tackle emerging issues in marine science. The National Science Foundation chose Oregon State to develop the program, which focuses on the use of “big data” to analyze and understand the effects of human activities and climate change on the ocean system around the world. It also requires students to look at the impact of potential management decisions on the stakeholders – the fishing industry, for example – as well as the environment. This National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) program is being funded by a five-year, $3 million grant from NSF.
“This really is a new approach to the training of students in natural resource education,” said Lorenzo Ciannelli, a professor of ocean ecology in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and principal investigator on the project. “Typically, students in science focus on a comparatively narrow area of the discipline and work individually. “In our NRT program, students will address marine science issues with significant societal impact and will have to work in a group with 2-3 other students who have different backgrounds and expertise,” he added. “They will not only have to understand the science, but what it means for the resource management, and the people that it impacts.”
A core group of faculty from the colleges of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Engineering, Liberal Arts and Science will provide leadership on the project, bringing to the initiative such diverse backgrounds as mathematics, human development and family science, sociology, genetics, computer science, ocean modeling, statistics, geography and others. Requiring students to work across disciplines is what they’ll encounter in the working world, said Sastry Pantula, dean of OSU’s College of Science, which is actively involved in the new program.
“Solving major complex issues related to climate change, marine studies and risk assessment requires people to have a diversity of expertise to work together,” Pantula said. “No single person has expertise in all sciences, mathematics and statistics. Bringing an interdisciplinary cohort together will enhance depth in core areas, breadth of communication across various fields, and strength in statistical and computational skills. This program takes advantage of the unique collaborative spirit of OSU.”
The program will provide for more than 30 fellowships for OSU master’s and doctoral students, and has room for perhaps an additional 30 students if they have an alternative funding source, Ciannelli said. The students and participating faculty will decide on the projects. One example of an issue is what the university included in its proposal to NSF – the management of chinook salmon along the Oregon coast.
“If you look at chinook, the management is rather complicated,” Ciannelli pointed out. “The fishery is comprised of numerous different stocks, some of which are doing well, like the Columbia River, and others which are struggling, like that of the southern range, including the Klamath River and Sacramento River.
“But when you catch fish out in the ocean, you aren’t sure where they’re from, so how do you gauge the impact on a particular river basin system?” he added. “The challenge is to see if you can create a fine-scale management tool that might be allow more fishing, yet protect depleted stocks. Or it may turn out that the students will find the current management system is the best approach for the situation.”
OSU researchers, including Professor Michael Banks, Ph.D. student Renee Bellinger and others, already are involved in a project along the coast to use genetic identification on fish caught in the ocean to identify their river of origin in hopes of enabling “real-time” management protocols. “I would envision some of our students working on that project,” Ciannelli said.
Pantula said the amount of data involved in such studies can be staggering, weaving in not only salmon catch data, but also ocean conditions, genetic analysis, historic data, and climate data. The program’s focus on ‘big data,’ risk assessment and uncertainty quantification is important, he said, because such analysis is becoming an increasingly important research tool. The integration of policy implications and communication to stakeholders and the public is essential. “This program also fits in greatly with OSU’s Marine Studies Initiative and the critical need to enhance data science on campus,” Pantula said.
Information and photos by OSU