Geology Students Explore the Sea for Fossil Records




​​​A cruise in San Diego sounds like a time for relaxation, but for CSU Bakersfield undergraduates, it has been a research opportunity they likely wouldn’t get anywhere else. 

Helmed in part by Dr. Anthony Rathburn, department chair of geological sciences at CSU Bakersfield, the oceanography project started in 2018 to attract students to marine sciences, a field that might not immediately come to mind for students in the landlocked Central Valley of California. 

“Students are working hand-in-hand and elbow-to-elbow with research scientists,” Dr. Rathburn said. “When we’re out at sea, students are treated as real scientists, so whether you’re a freshman or a senior, you’re given responsibilities, you’re trained, and you are doing hands-on research.” 

Plenty of activity takes place at sea, and students are at the heart of it all. Using high-tech equipment, students gather water, rock and seafloor sediment samples from as deep as 6,824 feet. The research, which continues back on campus, looks at ocean and climate changes over time. 

Rathburn and his students study foraminifera, microscopic, single-cell organisms that live on the ocean floor. Sensitive to environmental change, they leave a fossil record and generate shell-like skeletons the size of a grain of sand. The research looks at how they are affected by changes in oxygen levels; by studying the living organisms found on the expedition, the scientists can learn more about paleoenvironmental conditions.

“By looking at the fossil record, we can see how the environment, oceans and climate have changed through time based on these tiny organisms,” Rathburn observed.

The study of marine science may appear to have little relevance in the Central Valley, but the area was under water about 15 million years ago. 

“Marine environments cover 70 percent of the planet so, as geoscientists, that’s an important aspect to focus on,” Rathburn said. “In addition, most of the economic-oriented geologic deposits in the valley have a marine origin, so students interested in the geology of the valley need to know how marine environments, marine sediments and marine geology work.”

For geology major Chris Chavez, the research cruise was a transformative experience. He heard about the trip in his oceanography class.

“I enjoyed oceanography when I took the class, and getting into this research, I think I’ve found that it’s something that I really, really like,” Chavez said. “It’s kind of decided for me that oceanography is what I want to get into in graduate school.” 

Natural science major Rebeca Guerrero is in the credential program to become a science teacher and said the expedition has already made its way into her own classroom. She uses her experience on the cruise to expose her students to real-world scientific research. 

“Plus, Dr. Rathburn gave me deep-sea sediment to show my class and they were so excited!” she said. “Who would have thought that a group of eighth-graders would be so intrigued and excited about mud! A little bit of deep-sea sediment can plant the seed for my students to pursue a career in science, and that is all thanks to an incredible experience out at sea.” ​​