Students in the Field Pt. 3

For this episode of Students in the Field, we spoke to undergraduate Riannon Colton about her experience on the research vessel R/V Falkor, operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Riannon accompanied Dr. Annalisa Bracco to the South China Sea for research into the nutrient load being deposited by the Mekong River into the Sea. Take a look at Riannon’s blog to go deeper into her adventures at sea.


Researchers boarding the R/V Falkor from Nha Trang, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Riannon Colton.

1.) What year are you?

I am a rising 3rd year.

2.) What was the purpose of your research in Vietnam?

The purpose of the research is to study and measure nutrient fluxes from the Mekong River into the South China Sea. The Mekong River’s impact on the local ecosystem isn’t well understood at the moment, but it clearly plays an enormous role. Currently, there are plans to construct several dams along the length of the river which will change how the river’s nutrients are transported. Gathering data about nutrient fluxes now means that we can better understand the nature of those changes once the dams are in place.

3.) What was your specific role on the trip?

At the outset, my specific role on the trip was to assist with sample collecting and processing. I spent a lot of time collecting seawater from a CTD sensor – a sensor that collects data about the conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water in a particular location. However, after constantly asking everyone if they needed assistance on anything when I had nothing to do, I got assigned to the plankton net tows. I would complete the net tow with Andreas Lovotny, a Swedish Ph.D. student, and then he would show me the specimens we’d just collected under a microscope. I learned how to identify different phytoplankton thanks to his expertise.

At one point, I overheard one of the crew members talking about XBT’s, which caught my attention. I asked if I could learn how to launch one, and the answer was yes. XBT’s are another tool used to measure ocean temperature. These measurements are taken globally and, with several decades of data available, they provide a picture of the changing marine climate.

Whenever anyone needed help, I would assist them with their work, educating myself in all parts of the multidisciplinary ocean science team. Mónika Naranjo-Gonzalez, the ship’s journalist, decided to add to my list of things to do by giving me and another student small but fun tasks that taught us about communicating science to those who do not pursue science. From this experience, I was able to author of one of the cruise log entries on the Schmidt Ocean Institute website.


Riannon collecting seawater from the CTD Sensor aboard the R/V Falkor in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Riannon Colton.

4.) Did anything unexpected happen while you were on the trip? If so, how did you deal with it?

When I boarded the R/V Falkor, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew very little about biology, let alone marine biology. During the first days of the expedition, I met Andreas and pretty much became his assistant, helping him collect and label samples from the CTD.

By the end of the trip, however, I’d also learned how to tie boating knots, steer a research vessel, put on fire safety suits as well as other protective gear, extinguish ship fires, communicate with other crew members over the radio, and how to correctly paint a ship. I was also given the task of recording salinity measurements as the ship sailed back and forth over the river plume boundary. The captain decided that I would steer the ship while others were recording the numbers too. Thankfully, I was able to personalize my research experience by participating in every aspect of the expedition.

5.) How did you come to be involved in Dr. Bracco’s research?

Dr. Bracco sent an email to all of the EAS students announcing an opportunity of a lifetime to which I responded with interest. There was a personal interview with Dr. Bracco and afterwards, she had was write 3-4 sentences on why we wanted the position.

6.) What would you say to any incoming freshmen or transfer students who might be considering whether or not to do research?

DO RESEARCH! Research is super fun, eye-opening, educational, makes you feel like a mad scientist, and presents wonderful opportunities of a lifetime.


Opportunities of a lifetime await the Georgia Tech Researcher. Riannon Colton aboard the R/V Falkor in the South China Sea, June 2016. Photo Courtesy of Riannon Colton.

7.) Do you have any plans for doing research with Dr. Bracco or other faculty for the remainder of your time at Tech?

I am currently working with aerospace professor Dr. Brian Gunter on the RANGE team in designing a CUBESAT satellite to accurately access planetary topography under a NASA grant.

I also plan to take any exciting arising opportunity in the research field. I absolutely love research!


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