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Scientists turned seadogs: A study abroad experience

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17 October 2018

The BIO 497 classroom.
The BIO 497 classroom.
As the ship eased into the placid Caribbean waters, the captain told the professor “I think it’s time for them to take the helm.”

For the next several hours, the newly minted sailors piloted the ship and acquired a degree of confidence from their newly developed nautical skills. Gaining confidence and learning would be recurring themes these shipmates would encounter over the next several weeks.

Just hours before, and for the three days prior to that, these students were hanging over the handrail, unable to hold anything down as they got used to the heaving Atlantic Ocean below their feet. They were on board this ship ostensibly to conduct oceanographic and biology experiments, and soon after they received their safety briefings, they weighed anchor and set sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico, into the Atlantic Ocean. This was not the typical laboratory experience. It was BIO497, otherwise known as Biological Oceanography, and this was its maiden voyage.

Mónica Medina, associate professor of biology, conceived of this course as an attempt to give students a eld experience that also challenged them in other ways.

“I saw students engaging with the science, but I also saw them taking on new challenges and overcoming them,” said Medina.

“This is not a typical study abroad program,” said Krista Miller, global experiences coordinator. “It was less programmed and more adventurous. It was more of a group experience abroad.” Medina echoed those sentiments.

“I witnessed several personal transformations on this trip,” she said. “I saw some timid people gain confidence, and everyone had a sense of ownership over what they were doing. It wasn’t like a laboratory, where when the hour is up you put everything away and come back in two days. It was a true natural history experience in a field station environment.”

BIO 497 student labeling samples Rigging work Students using the sextant

Over the three-week “at sea” portion of the course, students used a variety of instruments to gather data and perform experiments when they weren’t climbing ratlines (the rope ladders hanging from the ships masts), swabbing decks, and taking care of the vessel. Upon returning to University Park for the spring semester, the students were tasked with analyzing their data and creating poster presentations of their results.

On the ship, and below it, data were being collected at all hours. Students had to form teams and create schedules. Equipment breaking down or not being used properly could result in the loss of data that could affect their experiment’s outcome. Cramped quarters and infrequent showers added a sense of shared hardship to some and potential frustrations to others.

“I have great respect for people who have to work in those conditions,” said Jackie Hensler, a third-year biochemistry and molecular biology major. “You are looking at a specimen under a microscope, and the ship is moving and so is the specimen. You can get seasick just from looking through the microscope.”

Hensler is one of those students who challenged herself on this course. A transfer to University Park in the fall of 2017, it was in her first few weeks on campus that she received an email from Miller about the course. As someone who enjoys travel, she applied, but was disappointed when she could not find the finances to cover the trip. Fortunately, the Eberly College of Science’s Office of Science Engagement was able to find scholarship money for her to enable her to have the experience.

A biology 497 student BIO 497 students on deck

“I had never sailed or even been in a laboratory before,” said Hensler. “But there I was one night when we pulled in our nets and found some bioluminescent organisms. I was so excited, because I heard that since the hurricane we might not find these, but there they were.”

As Hansler indicates, there was real science happening onboard. SEA, the non-profit organization operating this laboratory ship, has been sailing these waters for decades and collecting data with the various student groups it has hosted. The BIO497 students added to those data and were able to benchmark against them. SEA staff trained the students to use a CTD instrument that measures the conductivity, temperature, and pressure of seawater at different depths, so they were able to gather data on water chemistry as well as on organisms such as algae and on plankton they collected using dragnets.

“The students were able to make some interesting observations,” said Medina. “An interesting one was the amount of microplastics they found in the Caribbean.”

Another observation made by Medina, who is an expert on corals, was the destruction of the coral reefs around Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria. The hurricane had an impact on this trip, as well, even though it had been four months since the storm struck the U.S. island territory. Students had subscribed to the course early in the fall semester, but the storm and its aftermath forced them to make hard decisions about whether they would participate in the course. Large swaths of the island were still without power when the course started, and while most of those accepted into the course chose to participate, there were some who decided not to take the risk.

After a brief stay in San Juan, the students and faculty made their way back to University Park, where the learning continued. During the spring semester, the students were required to analyze their data and write papers about what they found. In April, all 22 students participated in the undergraduate research poster presentations in the HUB–Robeson Center.

“I’m very proud of these students, the science they did, and this course in general,” said Medina. “I’m inspired to offer this course again in the future and hope for similar results.”

The next offering of BIO497 is expected in the winter of 2020.

By Joel Ranck