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Christina and Josh Conover, siblings from Smithfield, will have a head start on their oceanography classmates when they enter Old Dominion University this fall as freshmen.

The two teenagers, together with parents Joan and Greg, returned to Hampton Roads on May 15, ending an 11-month, 10,000 mile voyage on the family's 51-foot ketch, Growltiger. Part of the voyage involved an ocean-surface research project designed by Alexander Bochdansky, ODU assistant professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, and which was performed by Christina with help from Josh.

ODU had accepted Christina and Josh for entry in fall 2005. But a medical condition of Joan Conover persuaded the family to take the voyage across the Atlantic, into the Mediterranean, and back through the Caribbean-which is something they had dreamed of doing-while all of them were able seamen. Joan asked the ODU admissions director, Alice McAdory, for deferred admission for her children, and it was McAdory who suggested the family contact Bochdansky to see if a research project was possible.

The research was conducted while the family made its initial crossing of the Atlantic. Christina went through a three-hour routine on many days taking surface water samples, mixing the water with formaldehyde to preserve organisms in the water, and then filtering the water to collect the organisms. The filters were stored in a freezer on the Growltiger.

"That was my biggest concession to Professor Bochdansky and the research project, allowing plankton samples in the freezer where steaks could have been," joked Greg Conover, a defense analyst and retired Army lieutenant colonel.

The research project involved a survey of tiny protists that play an important role in the food web and are predators of marine bacteria. Bochdansky said there have been few transatlantic transects sampling for organisms the size of protists or smaller.

The frozen samples were packed in dry ice in Portugal and shipped back to ODU, a plan that threatened to go awry when Portuguese authorities showed up to check out what was in the box. The encounter had a happy ending, but not before Christina had a good scare. "The officials could have easily taken everything away," she said.

The Conovers met up with Bochdansky in November in the Canary Islands, while he was working on a project on a Dutch research vessel.

"My brother and I were taken on a personal tour of the research vessel that Dr. Bochdansky was using to perform practically the same procedure that I had performed, but on a much larger scale with better equipment," Christina said. "It was a fantastic opportunity to be able to see what kind of vessel I may one day be working on."

On Tuesday, May 16, a day after the family's return, they had a homecoming with Bochdansky at the pier in downtown Hampton, where the Growltiger was tied up pending a trip to a marina in Little Creek for painting and minor repairs.

"I'm finding some interesting things in spot checks," the oceanographer told Christina regarding her samples. But he said the primary analysis is awaiting the arrival in the ODU oceanography labs of a robotic microscope that will do a lot of the sample analysis automatically.

He also told her that there would be an internship available for her in his lab, where she will be able to learn the molecular techniques necessary to analyze a portion of her own samples.

This article was posted on: May 17, 2006

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