The School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island has recently been awarded nearly $3 million from the National Science Foundation to use towards a research expedition in the Arctic’s Northwest Passage.
In August of 2017, 12 high school students, 18 undergraduate students, six graduate students and a team of dedicated scientists will depart on the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry for a five-week journey into the heart of the Arctic Northwest Passage in Canada.
Gail Scowcroft, associate director of the Inner Space Center and director of the project explains how “the project is a research and education expedition” that focuses on both educating the students and conducting research. The 36 students allowed on this project will have an incredible learning experience, receiving instruction from the scientists and researchers on the ship. Some of the research includes a study of the biochemistry of the water and an aerial drone that will help them study the currents in the water.
The students and research team will be collaborating with the Canadian Wildlife Services to document the wildlife that they see on the voyage. Scowcroft is hoping to see polar bears, beluga whales, walruses, and other marine and arctic animals. Because the Northwest Passage is so remote, not much research has been done in it. The lack of exploration though, is what makes it such a unique endeavor.
Beyond the scientific research of this expedition, there will also be an Arctic Historian on board. He will be talking with the students about some of the geopolitics of the area. In addition to that, they will be visiting some of the settlements along the passage to learn about the Inuit and their arctic culture.
As far as research expedition goes, URI is extremely lucky in gaining such substantial and important funding.
“This is my 38th year [in research] and this is the largest single grant I have ever received,” Scowcroft said.
URI had less than an 8 percent chance of receiving this competitive grant. Scowcroft explained how it was a combination of both their exemplary proposal and by having such an incredible team of people involved in the project that helped them receive the funding.
Part of their proposal stipulated that the 18 undergraduate students would be coming from six different minority serving institutions, among them being California State University Channel Islands, City College of New York, Florida International University, Texas State University, University of Illinois at Chicago and Virginia Commonwealth University. There is a possibility that grad students will come from the Graduate program at URI, and that the high school students will come from Rhode Island Schools.
“One of the problems in science in general is that we need to increase diversity and [particularly] in oceanic studies,” Scowcroft said, while explaining the reasoning behind only taking applicants from six minority serving institutions. “It’s important that the science workforce represents the population” and this project is a way to help increase that diversity.
Though URI is not among one of the minority serving institutions, Scowcroft and the School of Oceanography are hoping that the undergraduate and high school students that join this project will apply to graduate schools at URI.
During the expedition there will be live broadcasts of what they are doing on the sea. These broadcasts will be going into three different science museums as well as be made available for the public to view online for free.
Based in Rhode Island, the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry will leave Rhode Island in July where it will meet the students and research scientists in Canada around the first of August. This ship, meant to look like an early 1800’s U.S. vessel, will be the first sailing vessel to cross the passage in nearly 100 years.
Scowcroft still can barely believe that they won the funding for this voyage.
“It’s going to be a phenomenal experience for all of us,” Scowcroft said. “And I’m very, very grateful [for this opportunity].”