Monday, June 15, 2020

A love of the sea...and students

 When Cynthia Venn teaches a class about the world’s oceans… she’s teaching from direct experience.  Venn joined BU’s Department of Environmental, Geographical and Geological Sciences, as the oceanographer in 1996. She had already established herself as an in-demand oceanographer for research trips at sea in the summers and a go-to adjunct professor to teach oceanography in Pennsylvania. And she had a strong set of sea legs through research trips to the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Arabian Sea and Antarctic Ocean.
“I love working on ships, and love traveling,” says Venn. The soft-spoken Texan became interested in the ocean as child by reading books about the famous French explorer Jacques Cousteau and his research vessel the Calypso.
“In college, I thought I wanted to pursue marine biology, so the summer after my junior year I took a summer field course in oceanography,” says Venn. “It was in the Virgin Islands, and when you take a course where your labs involve boating and snorkeling around Caribbean coral reefs, trust me — you are pretty much going to be hooked on oceanography.”
Oceanography is inherently interdisciplinary … encompassing the physical geography, geology, chemistry, and biology of the ocean. And there’s still lots to discover says Venn.
“We know more about the surface of the moon than the bottom for the ocean. Every time I go to oceanography conferences, there’s always surprises. Hydrothermal vents were discovered only in the 1970s and that’s turned biology on its head. We have animals live at the boundary of oxygen and no oxygen. There are microbes that live in temperatures of 400 degrees Celsius, or four times the boiling point of water. When I was in grad school, we believed that it there was no oxygen, there was no life and if you boiled water, it killed microbes.”
“After I finished the two year teaching stint at Millersville State College, I decided I wanted to teach in a university for a living.” says Venn, who will retire this summer after 24 years at BU. “I never thought I was going to be a teacher but I loved it. So I went to the University of Pittsburgh to get my doctorate — in geology because both oceanography and geology are cyclical but usually not on the same cycles. During my time as a grad student, if I got a chance to do or teach Oceanography, I did it. So while I was a graduate student, I also rattled around as an oceanographer for hire, going on a number of research cruises, and taught as an adjunct in Pennsylvania.
“When I saw the position at BU, my mother said the ad read like my resume. They were looking for someone that could teach Oceanography and Geology, with experience teaching field courses and who could develop a course in Aqueous Geochemistry. I had worked for a chemical oceanographer for years. I had experience teaching in the field, particularly at Wallops Island in Virginia.”
Most importantly to Venn — BU’s Department of Environmental Geological and Geographic Sciences was a good fit personally.  “When I got here, everybody seemed to get along really well.”
At BU, Venn’s mission has been to get her students hooked on research. She’s been a driving force behind the department’s summer geology field course trips that have taken students to California, Nevada and Utah. Students in her Aqueous Geochemistry course all do course-embedded research. In addition, she has directed a number of students in independent research.
“Everybody in Aqueous Geochemistry gets a research project,” says Venn. “That’s part of the deal, they have to present at the end of semester. I’ve had about 70 students present at regional, national and even international meetings. Several students have told me the fact that they’d performed and presented their research is what got them the jobs.”
One of those “oceanographer for hire” trips had a major impact on Venn’s own career. “My first trip in the tropical Pacific in 1993 introduced me to two of my great obsessions — café lattes and gooseneck barnacles.”
“I was on the ship to collect and analyze samples for chlorophyll. When the instruments came up, they were covered with these creatures that looked like clams on a flexible neck. Fascinating. It turned out that a network of 77 buoys across the tropical Pacific would be completely in place the next year. The research group putting the buoys out saw them as ocean instruments being fouled by very irritating barnacles they had to scrape off and throw in the ocean. I saw the buoys as ocean instruments taking valuable data while they were acting as settling plates for delightful creatures whose distribution was little understood. I asked the buoy folks: “Can I go to sea with you if I scrape barnacles, and if I scrape them off, can I keep them please?”
“That’s how ten consecutive years of barnacle sampling began. Because I wasn’t going to be able to be on the ship longer that the first one-month leg of a three-month cruise, I enlisted a former student to go with me and continue on to Samoa when I returned to teach. After that, I enlisted almost 50 students to sea to collect them on subsequent cruises.” Venn jokes, “you get lots of volunteers when you tell them ‘First, I have to fly you to Hawaii to meet the ship.’”
Venn’s knowledge of barnacles was put to the test in 2013, when she was contacted by a forensics investigator in Australia. “She needed to know how fast they grow because there were a bunch of them attached to a dead body, and she was trying to determine how long the body had been floating in the ocean. We worked together and published a paper, and I entered into my most recent research endeavor: Barnacle CSI.”
After retirement, the adventure will continue, though the grading will not. “We’re going to travel a lot. We have a boat in California and we plan to be able to spend more time sailing around Southern California and Santa Catalina and the Channel Islands….maybe even go down to Baja, California. In December, we hope to fly to Chile to see the total solar eclipse and then go fly fishing in Patagonia.”
“I’ve loved teaching in a university setting since the beginning. What I’ve really loved about being at Bloomsburg is not just the camaraderie with the great students and the wonderful faculty,” says Venn. “I loved being in one place long enough to see students progress from where they were as freshmen and watching them develop a collection of knowledge and skills to where they are ready to graduate.”

 -from bloomsburgu tumblr 6/7/20

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