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Studying oceans and volcanos from the prairie

Cabaniss takes her turn on Capstan Duty, keeping an eye on the winch. Photo Credit: Haley Cabaniss

Haley Cabaniss did not realize she could follow a career path in ocean sciences until she moved to Illinois in the “Heartland of America” to begin her PhD. ...

Going into graduate school, Cabaniss wanted to figure out a way to combine her passions. “I have been afraid of commitment in science because people get pigeon holed into very specific topics and I never wanted to do that,” says Cabaniss. “I came to graduate school without a project and said – hey I am interested in these two things – plate tectonics and volcanoes.”

Almost immediately upon beginning her PhD program in the Department of Geology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Cabaniss found herself on a ship. Cabaniss took part in the 2016 Off-Axis Seamount Investigations at Siqueiros (OASIS) cruise to the eastern Pacific Ocean to study the 8’20N seamount chain off the East Pacific Rise with her advisor Dr. Patricia Gregg. The goal of the cruise was to fill in gaps of our knowledge about mantle melting, melt migration, and lithospheric evolution. The 31 days at sea included 15 Alvin dives and 12 AUV Sentry Dives, as well as extensive dredging operations. The cruise also helped to solidify for Cabaniss that oceanography was indeed the route she wanted to take – “I totally fell in love with oceanography and sea going science.”

It seems ironic to have moved 800 miles inland from her coastal college to have begun her oceanography career, but not to Cabaniss. “There are actually quite a few people who do ocean science in land-locked places,” says Cabaniss. And she is also quick to point out that “we may not have oceans here, but we don’t have volcanoes either and that doesn’t stop people from researching them.”

Not only is the ocean accessible to Cabaniss because she has an ocean-going advisor, but also because she has access to the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). “The thing that makes oceanography accessible in Illinois and any place inland,” says Cabaniss, “is that we have these awesome datasets like the OOI. Anyone anywhere in the world can go online, grab these datasets and start playing with them.”

Not only does Cabaniss utilize the OOI, her Ph.D. work is funded by a grant awarded to her advisor by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to work with the OOI Cabled Axial Seamount Array datasets. A huge draw to conduct this work at the University of Illinois is access to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The NCSA, located at the university, provides time and resources for Cabaniss and her colleagues to develop their high tech modeling approaches on supercomputers. ...

Cabaniss is entering her 4th year of her PhD program and beginning to think about her future career. “I plan to always be an OOI user and a user of these data sets available online to anyone,” says Cabaniss. “There is so much you can gain from open source huge datasets that are free.”

In terms of her next steps, Cabaniss is interested in education. She is certainly in a unique position, amongst fields of corn, to realize just how much the OOI can mean to students and teachers away from the coast to connect with the ocean and use ocean data. “You can have kids in any classroom learning about an oceanographic process go online and look at real data instead of just reading from text books or looking at a powerpoint.”

Judging from what we know from Cabaniss’ journey, it is unclear if even her EnKf model could predict where her path may lead next – Greenland to begin tropical research? – but one thing is clear, she will continue to try and solve these puzzles of tectonics, volcanos, and the seafloor and follow her passion wherever it leads.

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See more photos and read the full story by Leslie Smith, reposted from OOI in the News (September 19, 2018).