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UW oceanography ranks number one in the world

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8/13 Oceanography

The Ocean Sciences Building, located on the southern edge of campus, contains the labs for the #1 ranked Oceanography department.

The UW recently ranked first in oceanography programs as part of the ShanghaiRanking Global Ranking of Academic Subjects. The ShanghaiRanking system focuses on research rather than teaching and takes into account research productivity, research quality, extent of international collaboration, and the highest academic recognitions when calculating the rankings. 

Although the UW oceanography program is currently ranked first globally, some faculty members found the Shanghai ranking in particular was surprising. They consider the top two research institutions to be Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego (UCSD) and MIT.

Other UW departments were also ranked in the top 20. Atmospheric sciences ranked seventh and Earth sciences ranked 13th.  

The UW is one of relatively few schools that have an undergraduate oceanography program. Many other top oceanography research schools, like MIT and UCSD, only offer graduate programs. People who pursue oceanography in grad school generally choose undergraduate majors in a general science discipline like biology, chemistry, or physics. The UW is unique in that it allows an interdisciplinary program like oceanography to thrive. 

The UW oceanography program is a small, with 125 undergraduate and 60 graduate students. The faculty to student ratio is small, so students are able to interact one-on-one with professors easily and enjoy small class sizes. Undergraduate students also take a field course sophomore year and an expanded course, which includes writing a senior thesis, to culminate their learning in the major. 

“Every student designs their own research project,” UW oceanography professor Russell McDuff said. “Most carry it out at sea and present it in different ways [at the] undergrad research symposium in May. Students are incredibly well prepared to work in any of the environmental sciences or grad school in the ocean sciences. They also go into policy programs, and some study law.” 

Professors are particularly proud of the school’s graduate program.

“There are wonderful graduate students,” UW oceanography professor Steven Emerson said. “The program is pretty selective, and they get a lot of bright students that help the work that they do.” 

Students often do research at the UW’s Friday Harbor site. Many have the opportunity to do research even farther away from campus in the northern Pacific Ocean and Antarctica. 

“The undergrads typically are all involved in research with senior faculty, and some of them choose their faculty for their senior thesis and coursework,” UW oceanography professor Jim Murray said.

One unique program oceanography hosts is the Spring at Sea program. Rick Keil, chemical oceanography professor, hired associate professor of classics Sarah Stroup to teach a non-oceanography class on literature through the program. She chose to teach “The Odyssey” because of the many plot events that take place at sea, as well as the detailed descriptions of water and the sky. Many people read “The Odyssey,” but most people don’t really get the full experience and actually live at sea. 

“We met in the mornings up on the deck,” Stroup said. “The first day we tried to meet inside, but later that day I was sitting up on the deck and I said ‘This is absolutely ridiculous. We are out at sea.’ So after that day we would meet on the deck and we would talk about both what we were reading in ‘The Odyssey’ and the experience actually being at sea and looking at the sky and looking at the sea birds and looking at the color of the water and how it changed throughout the day.” 

Professors say that the students make the major a good one to study. The interaction between faculty and students is great as well. One aspect of the UW that also makes it unique the continuity in teaching and research careers at the UW. The older professors in the department have stayed in the program for many years, even up to a few decades at the UW, and that doesn’t happen at a lot of other oceanography schools. 

“One of the great things about UW is that there are so many undergraduate majors that a student can find the exact right fit for them,” Keil said. “Oceanography is a great major because it works at the intersection of so many sciences: geology, biology, chemistry, physics. To me, a student’s university experience is about broadening [their] skills and knowledge base while slowly discovering the things that bring out a person’s passion. I encourage all students to try things out their first year at UW. Who knows, maybe oceanography will be the right major for them."

Reach reporter Monica Mursch at Twitter: @MonicaMursch

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