December 2019 OES Beacon

Student Members, Don’t Miss Out On Your Opportunity to Attend OCEANS

Three enterprising students found a way to attend OCEANS 2018 Charleston, all travel expenses paid.

Brandy Armstrong, OES Student Activities Chair                                                                                   

Laura Hode, Uchenna Nwankwo and Courtney Bouchard, The University of Southern Mississippi chapter

The Student Branch Chapter (SBC) support program is designed to provide financial support to SBC chairs or representatives to attend the OCEANS conference. This allows students to become involved in the society, network at the conference and participate in and promote student activities. To participate, the SBC should provide the student activities chair (Brandy Armstrong,  the name and contact information of the SBC chair or representative who is nominated to attend the next OCEANS conference. The financial support for travel to OCEANS and for technology initiatives will be based on the available funds and the activity of the SBCs.

Normally only one student from each chapter is approved to attend on the travel grant, but three enterprising students from the University of Southern Mississippi, School of Ocean Science and Engineering planned and budgeted appropriately so that they were all approved for a travel grant to attend OCEANS 2018 in Charleston. Read on to hear their perspectives on why attending OCEANS is a valuable and rewarding experience for students.

Photo: Taking a tour of historic Charleston, South Carolina, host city of OCEANS. Left to right: Courtney Bouchard, Laura Hode, Uchenna Nwankwo.
Photo: Opening plenary with the co-chairs of OCEANS Charleston: Jeff Payne (left) and John Flynn (right).

Laura Hode

Oceans is a curious word, curious not because it lacks a definition but because it has so many.  We recognize 5 oceans, but since water exchange occurs between them, we also reference a single, global ocean.  This ocean permits commerce, sees armed conflict, and is crisscrossed by hundreds of jurisdictions.  The science of oceans ranges from bathymetric surveys to mesoscale circulation to ecosystem dynamics and beyond.  In terms of environments, oceans extend from the intertidal zone to the abyssal plains, and the concept of oceans is no longer confined strictly to Earth.  I mention all of this because I recently attended OCEANS in Charleston, South Carolina.  I feel the vagueness of the name does the conference credit.  It leaves the door open for companies, agencies, and institutions to showcase a myriad of products, prototypes, and research all tied loosely to that simple word: oceans.

For my part, I wanted to meet people.  I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern Mississippi, but our campus is at Stennis Space Center, Mississippi.  There are lots of NASA personnel, there are lots of navy personnel, and there are a host of secure buildings.  You find out very quickly that everyone knows everyone, but if you are new, it is challenging to find a time and location to meet them.  As such, OCEANS for me was a chance to meet researchers whose papers I had read, companies whose equipment I maintained, and agencies whose data I used.

Of course, I was not the only one who wanted to chat with my fellow conference goers.  There were old friends meeting up and collaborations being made, and I was a graduate student trying not to awkwardly interrupt.  As you attend more conferences and spend longer in your field, you meet at least a portion of everyone, and little by little you acquire your own stories.  I love stories.  The two things about oceans.  They are salty, and they are wet.  Naturally, we deploy metal equipment powered by cables and batteries into them.  You know, the best possible pairing to salty and wet.  When you add people and some very determined marine mammals to that mix, the stories just add up.  I love stories because they are a unique icebreaker.  No two stories are alike.  You remember them, and hopefully, you are remembered.

Since I am in the process of finishing my degree, being remembered can be valuable.  Some students do not want to attend conferences.  Preparations take time from their research, and they assert they do not require networking.  They know exactly the field in which they want to work and have already met the key people in that field.  Consequently, the conference holds no value for them.  I respect their certainty, but throughout my life, I have found myself at pivot points.  These are events that shifted my life into unexpected directions, and I welcome these new adventures.  I had not anticipated attending OCEANS, but I am glad the opportunity presented itself.

I grew up in a land-locked state surrounded by mountains.  My father would lay out sleeping bags under the stars whenever there was a meteor shower, and in the crisp early morning air, you could see every star.  The universe was awe-inspiring, so I studied astrophysics.  My intention was to continue a career in that field, but I got the opportunity to teach in Japan after graduation.  My home was in the middle of the Japanese inland sea on a tiny island only accessible by boat.  My students and neighbors were the descendants of pirates, and tankers were built and serviced on the island next door.  Life there revolved around the sea, and sometimes the sea hit you with a mean right hook.  I had never understood the appeal of the ocean, but the wonder of it crept into my bones.  As such, I found myself applying to graduate school in marine science.  I am not sure when the next pivot point will come or what form it will take, so I recognize the potential of conferences like OCEANS.  They provide me with an opportunity to share my discoveries and my awe with others, and I can share in the discoveries and awe of others.  We share stories, and perhaps the next adventure begins.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to the conference organizers and to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Oceanic Engineering Society.  A select number of students were chosen for the student poster completion, but a regular poster session was also opened for the conference.  Additionally, efforts were made to introduce students to senior researchers on multiple occasions: the student mixer, the career panel breakfast, and the Women in Engineering panel.  We had the chance to meet most of the mentors the first evening of the conference at the mixer, but I learned a little more at each event.  From a continuing dialogue perspective, this setup was effective.  Graduate school is a lesson in frustration.  To do it well, you should ask questions for which no answers exist.  You struggle, and every so often, it is comforting to be reminded that everyone else struggled too.  That way, you can ask more questions and continue the struggle.

Attending OCEANS was a wonderful surprise.  At every conference I have attended, I find myself in at least one session that presents the oceans in a light I never considered.  For instance, surfers can be citizen scientists who create an objective analysis on how changing the dominant grain size on a beach can be detrimental to ecosystems.  Beyond the sessions though, I was able to make connections with those groups everyone seemed to know but I had never had a chance to meet.  I got to share one-up stories about destabilized lithium batteries with a company (I will not say which one) and commiserated with other organizations about taking down equipment before hurricanes.  We are so happy to keep the equipment intact but sad to lose the data.  That is the beauty of OCEANS; it connects us.

Photo: Career Panel Breakfast, Wednesday, October 24, 2018. Left to right: Brandy Armstrong (moderator), Fausto Ferreira, John Potter, Nicole LeBoeuf, Matthew Gilligan.
Photo: Display of the newly unveiled Bluefin-9 Automated Underwater Vehicle from General Dynamics side by side with its model. The Bluefin-9 was one of many underwater vessels being showcased at the conference.

Uchenna Nwankwo

OCEANS 2018 conference was a great experience. It provided opportunities to acquire knowledge, network and appreciate the beautiful city of Charleston. As a student, it accorded me the opportunity to discuss with fellow students who are doing amazing research and with other professionals. It was also a fully funded experience by IEEE/OES which shows how much these organizations have the interests of student development at heart.

I observed something unique during the conference. Special sessions were dedicated to students. The first was an opportunity to interact with mentors. I found this experience worthwhile because I got to meet a couple of renowned professionals. Secondly, a breakfast session was organized. During this session, mentors shared their life experiences. Honestly, the session was an eye opener for me. I got to understand that the path to success during a post-graduate program is filled with ups and downs. In the final session dedicated to students, I heard the best talk about climate change in my entire life.

It was amazing how OCEANS 2018 was able to incorporate business and pleasure. Enriching meals were provided. The trip to the aquarium was exceptional. This was so because before then, I had never been to an aquarium. I got an opportunity to gain more knowledge about American history. Though I was not able to visit Fort Sumter, at least I was able to see it from afar. On the day of the tour, the sight of sunset was so beautiful.

The OCEANS 2018 application was a great tool during the conference. However, I was not entirely satisfied with it. There were a couple of talks I got to know about after they had been given. I was not able to attend them because they were under sessions names which did not capture the content of the talk. I felt maybe in future OCEANS conferences, talks should be under adequate session names. I also felt that more opportunities should be given to students to present their research either through presentations or through posters.

I observed that there were not many posters and that poster sessions were not attended when compared to oral presentations and exhibitor sessions. One reason for this was that poster sessions were not indicated on attendee tags. I also observed that poster sessions commenced during lunch. It was challenging for the presenters to get lunch and still be at their posters the same time. In subsequent conferences, more awareness about poster presentations should be made. Also, more room should be given for poster presentations because this will enable students/presenters to get constructive criticisms about their work.

During the career breakfast panel, a question was raised about diversity. This struck a chord in me. I immediately observed that the representation by people of color during the conference was not encouraging. I could not explain this. To the best of my knowledge, the population of people of color in oceanography at both graduate and professional levels is poor. I feel this is something that can be addressed during conferences. I believe with more diversity, scientists can better relate and reach out to all walks of life about salient issues like climate change.

OCEANS 2018 was a great experience. I was positively impacted by it and I look forward to subsequent OCEANS conferences.

Courtney Bouchard

I didn’t grow up near an ocean, so for me the ocean was just the small area of beach in Galveston that we would drive 6 hours to visit, make some sand castles, and maybe have an ice cream. Now that I’ve found myself studying oceanography, I realize that our coasts are so much more than that. This OCEANS 2018 Charleston conference was centered on the theme “Healthy Oceans, Resilient Coasts, Robust Commerce…Strong Nations.” After attending OCEANS 2018, I am more inspired about my role as a scientist in helping protect the coasts.

I wanted to attend this conference to hear talks from people with the technical expertise I hoped to gain. And while all the talks and sessions I attended were helpful, I was specifically impressed with the mentor/mentee atmosphere that this conference set up. At one point during the icebreaker I heard a man yell, “Where are the students, I need to talk to some students!” That man turned out the be Sandy Williams from WHOI and from the hour I spent talking to him I learned a great deal about graduate school, career paths, and a little bit about scuba mishaps with current professors of mine. I’m sure I’m not the only graduate student who has felt a little overwhelmed, so it was nice hearing from Sandy and others who have been in this field for a while tell us about how they have navigated academia and career.

The career panel and Women in Engineering panels helped make the conference seem less large and allowed more interaction with mentors and mentees. Some sound advice I received while at these events was from Mark Milligan of Savannah College who said, “The only proper path to take in your career is the one you choose.” I made connections with students, businesses, and seasoned academics at the OCEANS conference that I know I’ll be using in my career and I will be attending many more OCEANS conferences in the future.