From Classroom to Real Oceanographic Research

Sitting in a math lecture at the University of Cambridge in England last winter, Scott Li was focused on the course and completing his term work during his third year in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. That is, until a researcher in the university’s Department of Earth Sciences walked in at the end of the lecture to encourage students to apply for the Cawthorn Cambridge Internship at BIOS.

Established by BIOS Trustee Emeritus Rob Cawthorn, the annual opportunity is open to Cambridge students and fully funds a 12-week research internship at BIOS. Since its inception in 2008, the internship—which alternates between students in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and students in the Department of Earth Sciences—has been awarded to ten individuals, many of whom aligned their research at BIOS with final-year projects at Cambridge.

For a student like Li, who spent the term focused on fulfilling degree requirements, this offered a unique opportunity to conduct research during the summer months that related directly to his field of study in continuum mechanics—a broad discipline that includes fluid dynamics, or the behavior of solid and fluid objects in nature. Li was especially eager to apply knowledge from his coursework to real-world research questions.

“Sometimes you can’t study things as a particle, so you have to look at them as a system,” Li said. “Weather is a good example of this, as is understanding how geologic structures, like the Earth’s crust, act under different forces like heat and pressure.”

This summer at BIOS, Li discovered his skill set is also applicable to coral reef science and remote sensing. Paired with Eric Hochberg, a coral reef ecologist at BIOS and principal investigator on the NASA-funded COral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) mission, Li combined his computer programming background with specialized modeling software to model how light travels through the water.

The goal of CORAL is to develop a set of quantitative models that can be used to estimate current reef condition, as well as forecast how reefs may respond to various biological, physical, and chemical changes in the world’s ocean. Considering the time and funding required to collect data on global reef coverage, CORAL scientists are using remote sensing technology to study large areas of reefs in a relatively short period of time.

However, to turn these remotely sensed images into useable maps and models, scientists must first develop and apply a set of mathematical algorithms that transform measured light values (or spectra) into data that indicate reef composition (relative densities of sand, algae, and coral) and productivity (primary production and calcification).

“Having Scott work on this issue helped advance the CORAL science,” Hochberg said. “During his time at BIOS, he helped shed light on a new methodology for testing and refining algorithms, resulting in a more robust and accurate data set.” 

“The most interesting parts of the project are thinking about and understanding why things work,” Li said. “There’s also a lot of trial and error associated with the coding involved, so I feel a great sense of achievement when I’ve been working at something for a while and it ends up working as intended.”

Li said the internship has opened him to learning outside of his field of study, and it’s shown him that certain fundamental skills can be applied down the road (such as working with the computer program Matlab, a software program used by scientists and engineers around the world). The most valuable part of his experience, however, was learning what it’s like to apply science to existing research questions.

“It’s been eye-opening to see how science works and what it takes to run various projects,” said Li. This includes scheduling science meetings, taking boat trips, and securing the necessary equipment. “You can become sheltered from these things while earning a degree and you forget that they’re essential to research,” he said.

This may turn out to be an important lesson for Li, who is currently in his fourth year at Cambridge—a year in which most students make the critical decision whether to pursue an advanced degree, start work in a research-based career, or turn to more skills-based technical job prospects. But first, he’ll just be happy to return to England after 12 weeks on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, an experience that he said  “surprised him with just how remote life feels like out here.”