Venturing into the depths: Local science teacher to help explore ocean floor

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
February 3, 2009

There are no depths that one high school science teacher won't go to in order to impact his students.

In fact, he is hoping to reach some very deep places as part of an expedition that will study newly discovered ecosystems on the deep-sea floor.

Brian Wrightsman, a biology and earth science teacher at North Central High School in Farmersburg, is accompanying an Indiana State University professor on a trip to Costa Rica. From there he will board a research vessel and actively participate on a National Science Foundation-funded expedition that will take scientists into the depths of the ocean to explore methane seeps by using the Alvin, a manned submersible that can travel up to 4,500 meters (about 14,764 feet) below sea level.

"It's the same submarine they used when they found the Titanic so it's got a lot of history," said the ISU graduate. "It's a very elite group of people that actually get to work with Alvin and even more so to go down in Alvin and explore the sea floor and all the organisms down there."

Wrightsman hopes he'll be one of the scientists on an upcoming cruise chosen to descend to the ocean's floor in the Alvin. He's going as part of an ISU team scheduled to leave on Feb. 16 and return March 11, with 14 scheduled Alvin dives during the expedition.

"We will need a few extra days before and after the cruise to set up the lab on the ship and pack up the lab and samples after the cruise," said Tony Rathburn, ISU associate professor of geology who is one of the leaders of the team that includes scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and California Institute of Technology.

During the cruise, which will last two and half weeks, Wrightsman plans to blog about his adventure so students can follow his experiences at http://blogs.indstate.edu/~wpmu/brian/

"Any way I can convey to them my daily experiences or what I've seen and what I've done there today, it's just going to make it more exciting for both of us," he said. "It's a good way for us to keep in contact and for them to understand exactly what I'm doing down there."

Kaitlyn Lewis, a freshman in Wrightsman's biology class, is excited about the opportunity her teacher has to explore the ocean and then to pass that knowledge along to his students.

"It would be a really neat experience to see what Mr. Wrightsman's doing down in a submarine," she said. "I think we'll learn a lot when he gets back because I know he'll learn some new stuff, so of course, he's going to pass his knowledge to us."

The researchers are examining organisms that have evolved to survive around methane seeps. The seeps occur where buried methane finds its way up through rocks and sediments to reach the seafloor.

"The particular ecosystems we will be examining have never been studied before," Rathburn said.

Wrightsman as a student at Indiana State, with a double major of geology and science education, went on other cruises with Rathburn to Alaska and San Diego and worked in his research lab. After graduating from ISU in 2007, he began teaching science, but kept in contact with Rathburn.

"He called me and said ?How do you feel about Costa Rica in February'' and I said ?I feel really good about that,'" Wrightsman recalled. "Then I said, ?Let me just find out if I can go.'"

School board members approved of Wrightsman taking a month-long leave of absence.

"Brian was chosen as the teacher participant because he has a sincere interest, knowledge and experience in marine science, is reliable and has some experience at sea and is a local, rural teacher that has expressed interest in being involved in the project," Rathburn said.

Wrightsman will be able to conduct independent research after the cruise, which will give him experiences to share the excitement of science to his students.

"It is important to reach out to graduates, especially those in the community, because ISU should not be for college days alone," Rathburn said. "The geology and anthropology programs at ISU strive to provide a strong linkage with graduates to promote lifelong learning and to enhance community engagement and the recruitment of students."

Growing up in Terre Haute, Wrightsman said he did not imagine life would take him where it has.

"I never really thought that I would do a whole lot as far as deep sea exploration and going to the far reaches of the earth and exploring places nobody's ever seen before," he said. "The knowledge and the activities and the things that I've done while at ISU are unmatched and I wouldn't trade them for anything. I've learned so much and been given so many opportunities by the people at ISU."

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Contact:

Brian Wrightsman, North Central High School, biology and earth science teacher, at 812-397-2132 or at WrightsmanB@nesc.k12.in.us

Tony Rathburn, Indiana State University, associate professor of geology, at 812-237-2269 or at arathburn@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jsicking@indstate.edu

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/460272802_7Ybht-D.jpg

Cutline: Brian Wrightsman, a science teacher at North Central High School, helps a student while the student holds an albino king snake that Wrightsman keeps in his classroom. ISU photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/460269461_eadBS-D.jpg

Cutline: Brian Wrightsman, a science teacher at North Central High School, holds up pictures of cells that his students were completing in class. ISU photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/460268463_KtJ8h-D.jpg

Cutline: Brian Wrightsman