The research cruise that 25-year-old Ellie Bors took in 2009 looked so appealing, she says, that she skipped her own Oberlin College graduation to be part of it. On board, the crew made garbage-bag robes and a fake diploma for her, and she made her graduation walk anyway.

Bors, one of about 30 undergraduate fellows at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, gave up her commencement to see the Mariana Trench, 200 miles off the coast of Guam. With her adviser, biologist Tim Shank, Bors helped guide a hybrid deepwater probe, called Nereus. Plunging 6.8 miles to the deepest recorded point in the ocean, the vehicle gathered biological specimens such as sponges, sea anenomes and a sea cucumber for genetic analysis.

Each fellow in the program works on a research project under the supervision of a staff member, and they present their findings to their research departments at the end of the program. Students have analyzed water-sample columns from the Deepwater Horizon spill, estimated the migration paths of baleen whales with an acoustic tracking system, and helped build a biological sampler for undersea vehicles. The program is “an amazing chance to meet and befriend some of the engineers at the forefront of deep-submergence technology,” says Bors, a Fulbright scholarship recipient who is now enrolled in a joint WHOI/MIT Ph.D. program.

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