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Geology Student Broadens Horizons Aboard Research Vessel

By Peyton McElaney

In the summer of 2019, CLAUDIA BANKS was in the American Southwest, mapping formations of sedimentary and metamorphic rock for her capstone geology class. A few weeks later, the 2020 geology graduate found herself in a slightly different position — on-board a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean.

Claudia Banks (Image: Scott Harper)

While trading the arid terrain of the Southwest for the salty breeze of the Pacific may seem like a complete U-turn, for Banks this was just another opportunity to broaden her horizons.

Banks boarded the vessel as a participant in STEMSEAS, a program sponsored by Columbia University with aid from The National Science Foundation that allows undergraduate students to conduct scientific research at sea.

This was unknown territory for Banks, whose previous geology fields trips had all been on land. Luckily, STEAMSEAS didn’t require any past research experience on water.

“The point of the program is to get students interested in oceanography and science overall,” Banks said.

For one week (July 27 to August 3), Banks and her peers sailed from Newport, Oregon, to San Diego, California, aboard the R/V Atlantis, a research vessel capable of advanced investigation and exploration. The participants assisted in graduate student research and attended lectures twice a day discussing their academic futures, with topics that included preparation for internships along with scientific subjects such as hydrothermal vents.

While participating in the program, Banks became familiar with sophisticated technology – most notably the ALVIN submersible. One of the world’s few deep-sea research submersibles, ALVIN is famous for exploring the wreckage of the Titanic, among many other underwater research opportunities.

“It was such a unique experience that we students were very eagerly awaiting due to the prestigious reputation of this submersible among the scientific community,” she said. The 45,000-pound data-collecting vehicle, in operation since 1964, can reach depths up to 2.8 miles under water.

Banks isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Shortly after her STEMSEAS experience, she presented research at the 2019 Geological Society of America conference in September. With plans to study sedimentary and structural geology in the Amazon Basin and pursue her PhD in Geology at University of Texas at Austin, she has her eye out for more unique research opportunities.

Banks is back on dry land for now — but could her ambitions take her back on the open water?

“Since I did not throw up and enjoyed life on the ship,” she said, “I discovered that I would love to potentially do a research project on a research vessel.”