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NASA Scientist and Education Award Winner Leads Student Phytoplankton Study
Dr. Tiffany Moisan is a NASA scientist who thrives on studying the ocean and has a passion for educating and inspiring students in ocean sciences. Last year, Moisan received an award that enabled her to work with the education community and bring students into the field for a hands-on learning experience.


Students work the winch built by NASA oceanographers to collect water samples on the Chesapeake Bay fishing pier near Norfolk, VA. (Image courtesy Lisa Wu)
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Moisan, together with other scientists and educators, has created a curriculum that will enable other schools to do the same thing. It is called Rising Tides and is available in book form on the Internet. It was distributed to Virginia schools and describes coastal oceanography.

Dr. Moisan works in the Ocean Sciences Branch of the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va. The laboratory is located on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

In 2011, she was awarded an Education Internal Research and Development (IRAD) award. She developed a curriculum for middle school to undergraduate students that utilized an ocean optics radiometer to measure reflectance and solar stimulated fluorescence. She led a collaboration with John Hopkins Talented Youth Program, Baltimore, Md., and Ocean Optics Company, Dunedin, Fla. that distributed the instrument and accompanying curriculum. The curriculum's goal was to create a hands-on project to inspire and teach students in biology, optics, physics, and oceanography, and to explain climate change processes within the carbon cycle.

In November 2011, Dr. Moisan and students from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), Alexandria, Va., worked together in the field to conduct physiology experiments to understand how phytoplankton respond to diurnal changes in light, temperature, and tides to understand how coastal productivity changes over the day.

Moisan said, "Students got hands-on experience by using mini spectrometers to understand the physics of color and the biology on phytoplankton the base of the food chain. I believe a wider distribution or library of these spectrometers can be created for many schools to use at an affordable cost. We watched with pleasure as students were able to connect microscopy samples with in situ instrumentation to ocean color satellites."

SeaWiFS biosphere map
This SeaWiFS image of our world depicts the Global Biosphere - the ocean's long-term average phytoplankton chlorophyll concentration acquired between September 1997 and August 2000 combined with the SeaWiFS-derived Normalized Difference Vegetation Index over land. This image shows where there is more or less plant life on our planet. On land, the dark greens show where there is abundant vegetation and tans show relatively sparse plant cover. In the oceans, red, yellow, and green pixels show dense phytoplankton blooms, those regions of the ocean that are the most productive over time, while blues and purples show where there is very little of the microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton. (Credit: NASA)
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The students joined Dr. Moisan at the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel pier, located on the Delmarva Peninsula. The Delmarva Peninsula is a large peninsula on the East Coast of the United States, occupied by most of Delaware and portions of Maryland and Virginia. Students experienced how scientists sample the ocean. Samuel Thompson, a student in the Undergraduate Student Research Program joined Rachel Steinhardt of Sigma Space Corporation, Lanham, Md., to collect water. The samples were analyzed quickly in a garage, set up like a laboratory, where filtration and physiological measurements were conducted.

The students worked as research scientists in the field and applied concepts of oceanography that they had been reading about in class. They were amazed to see a combination of high-tech instruments like the spectrophotometer being used alongside homemade devices such as a simple winch on the pier. The scientists were doing what is necessary to collect data and making adjustments as they were working in the field.

"Working alongside the scientists emphasized that engineering skills and creativity are as important in research as core knowledge in math and science," said Lisa Wu, Director of the Oceanography & Geophysical Systems Laboratory, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. "For some students, knowing that NASA works in Earth's inner space as well as outer space was an eye opener. The fall algal bloom was a bonus."

Later, students returned to their high school laboratories to witness a dinoflagellate bloom under a microscope. The students also compared the water quality analysis to NASA satellite imagery.

Several of the students are following up with applications for summer internships that would expand on this work with her during the summer.

Dr. Wu and Dr. Tiffany Moisan and students spend a day working on the dock on the Bay, exploring the waters beneath the fishing pier near the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel. (Image courtesy Dr. Anthony Wu)
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NASA contributes a tremendous data set -- called "ocean color" -- to the oceanographic community. Ocean color is the characteristic hue of the ocean according to the presence and concentration of specific minerals or substances, such as chlorophyll. Together with global or regional maps of pigment distribution of phytoplankton all over the world and other products, NASA gives unprecedented global coverage of phytoplankton information to scientists and the public. NASA scientists study the ocean using satellites and at colored dissolved organic matter, ocean biology, calibration of the satellite, modeling of the physics of the ocean, etc.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is a unique Fairfax County public school offering a comprehensive program that focuses on scientific, mathematical, and technological fields. The TJHSST students that accompanied Moisan attended the Oceanography/Geophysical Systems Lab at the school. The lab explores the biology, chemistry, geology, and physics of the Earth's last frontier.


NASA researchers help students process water samples collected from the Chesapeake Bay. (Image courtesy Lisa Wu)
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As a Governor's school, TJHSST serves as a resource for other elementary, middle, and high schools from the five nearby Virginia counties, as well as around the nation and with the international community. Its goal is to connect educators, scientists, and students in real-world scientific inquiry. This is done through video conferencing as well as face to face during professional conferences or field trips.

Moisan said, "NASA's relatively modest investment in this activity has produced profound results. It's a great way to interest students in STEM studies, and I hope we will be able to continuing to do so in the future. Hands on activities such as these are needed in STEM." Moisan said she wanted to be a scientist ever since she was young. At Texas A&M University, where she worked in an oceanographic laboratory as undergraduate, she decided to become a phytoplankton ecologist and pursue higher degrees. She's traveled to exotic places such as the Antarctic to study phytoplankton, something that she hopes all students will be inspired to do.

Students can gain the fascination about science at an early age, which will help motivate them to pursue jobs in the science and engineering field. "There is no greater feeling than discovering something on your own," she said.

For more information about NASA's phytoplankton research, visit:


For more information about the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, visit:

Rob Gutro
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.