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USF Professor Teaches While at Sea

Mark Schreiner
WUSF 89.7 News

Geology 3311, “The Solid Earth,” is a required course for University of South Florida students pursuing an undergraduate degree in geology.

This semester, it’s being taught by Assistant Research Professor, Zachary Atlas.

"This course is really geared towards trying to get them to know minerals, mineral formation, the chemistry of minerals and how all of that comes together to form rocks," Atlas said after a recent class.

It's also being taught by the Chair of the USF School of Geosciences, Dr. Jeffrey Ryan - when they can dial him up.

You see, Ryan is currently halfway across the globe on board a ship in the Pacific Ocean.


"It’s the first time I’ve done a research cruise like this, so it’s been an interesting experience," Ryan said, speaking via an internet feed from the JOIDES Resolution, where he's currently serving as shipboard geochemist.

The Resolution is operated by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), a marine research collaboration between 26 countries that's based out of the University of California San Diego.

"This particular cruise is interested in the evolution of the ocean crust," Ryan said. "It’s actually in the formation of the igneous rocks, essentially the volcanic rocks that make up much of the ocean crust beneath that sedimentary layer."

He’s been at sea since early August. The 170 foot long vessel - what Ryan calls a seven-story tall building floating in the Pacific - has stopped for extended periods at sites off the coast of Japan so workers on board can drill holes deep into the earth’s surface to extract rock cores that date back millions of years and contain answers about how our planet has developed over that time.

"And so we are actually seeking to understand the formation of oceanic crust in what we call a subduction zone, which is a place where two pieces of the earth’s crustal plates actually converge, one slides down underneath the other," Ryan said.

Credit Vickie Chachere / USF Communications & Marketing
USF Communications & Marketing
WUSF's Mark Schreiner prepares to shoot an interview with USF Prof. Jeffrey Ryan (on computer screen), who's on a research ship in the Pacific Ocean. Assistant Research Professor Zachary Atlas lends a hand.

Through Ryan’s video visits to the classroom, as well as a blog he regularly updates, students see what it’s like to live on board a ship for two months with scientists and crew members from six other countries.

"One of the things I think is going to be sort of neat for them is that they’re going to see that their professor is actually doing what he says they should learn to do in real-time for an international scientific effort," Ryan said. "I think that’s a good way to sort of hammer home the point that this isn’t just stuff we make you go through, this is actually the tools of your trade and so they’ll get to see me actually applying those tools."

Environmental Science major William Evonosky compared talking to Ryan with speaking with an astronaut orbiting the earth on board the International Space Station.

"Those kinds of expeditions, I would love to do. Getting out into the field, getting your hands dirty, being the person on the front line doing the discovery, doing the research has got to be an amazing feeling," the senior said.  "I plan to do planetary science, and hopefully, I can be part of that. It’s very interesting."

Credit William Crawford / IODP-USIO
The JOIDES Resolution, the research vessel USF Geosciences Prof. Jeffrey Ryan is working & teaching from.

For Geology major, senior Victoria Coraci, the experience was equally eye-opening.

"I think the biggest advantage of getting to see a professor in the field and actually doing their research is to give first-hand experience of what professional opportunities are out there - not only in the industry but in academia, if we do choose to continue down that path," she said.

And on-shore teacher, Zachary Atlas, likes that he can tailor the class so students can attempt to mirror the work Ryan is doing at sea.

"To be able to say, ‘Okay, we’re both examining minerals at the same time, we’re both trying to discover problems at the same time,’ one on a professional level and one on a student level, really puts students in a position where they can really think about where this is going and what they’re doing and how this all works in terms of a greater picture, in terms of a professional picture," Atlas said.

Ryan is scheduled to return to the dry land of the classroom in early October - shortly after the students take their own, much shorter field trip, to explore geological sites in North Carolina and Virginia.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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