April 24, 2014

Hands-on Marine Science Study

Hands-on Marine Science Study
A Duke University Marine Lab boat in Beaufort, NC—Photo by Brent Bennett
September 6, 2012

This summer offered a remarkable experiential learning opportunity for junior biology majors Hilary Frandsen and Brent Bennett through the Marine Sciences Education Consortium (MSEC) at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina.

Principia College is a member of MSEC, developed by Duke to provide curriculum in the marine sciences to students from colleges and universities that don’t offer a specialized program in the subject (often because, like Principia, their campuses are landlocked). Students from MSEC member schools may participate in Duke Marine Lab semester, summer, and travel-study programs.

Hilary’s summer included a Marine Mammals class, while Brent took Marine Ecology. Both students completed Conservation Biology and Policy. “We studied whales and bottle-nosed dolphins, and saw them frequently during our boat explorations,” Hilary says. “We constructed hydrophones for acoustic recordings and learned the structure of these amazing marine mammals. We even had the opportunity to dissect a six-foot pygmy sperm whale that had been stranded nearby.”

“I learned so much about designing and implementing scientific experiments,” Brent notes. “For example, we designed an experiment about crabs, and I found that my understanding of statistics grew by leaps and bounds because I saw real-life scenarios for interpreting data.”

Hilary and Brent also attended a speaker series that included renowned authors and scholars. “The speakers were outstanding and provided an excellent framework for further discussion,” Hilary says. “We heard from a marine biologist about the interplay between local communities and eco-agriculture, a geographer about Louisiana’s economic response to its rapidly changing near-sea-level coastline and marshes, a leading rainforest biologist about gaining location access for observational study, and a media expert about developing effective communication on scientific topics for policy decision-makers and public audiences.”

The lab’s location on the “Crystal Coast” of North Carolina offered Hilary and Brent opportunities to sail, kayak, canoe, paddleboard, and visit nearby Shackleford Island to view wild horses. Hilary also went scuba diving. But it wasn’t all play by any means. “We worked hard!” she exclaims.

Hilary and Brent both plan to pursue graduate study and, ultimately, careers in marine science. “I made some great contacts in the marine science field, and that alone made the summer study worthwhile,” Brent says. Hilary found similar benefits. “The MSEC program included Global Fellows from all over the world—Poland, Vietnam, the Cook Islands, and Germany,” she comments. “These individuals have established careers in marine biology, and I learned a great deal just talking with them about how they got their start.”

Principia Professor Dr. Scott Eckert, chair of the Biology and Natural Resources Department, taught at the Marine Lab before coming to Principia in 2010. Once at the College, it was natural for him to propose that Principia join MSEC. “The academic capabilities of our biology and environmental studies majors are every bit as good as those from the other member colleges and universities,” Dr. Eckert says. “In some cases our focus on ecological science and experiential learning supports their time at Duke even better than more traditional biology programs.”

Brent confirms that assessment. “My biology, chemistry, environmental science, and math classes at Prin were outstanding preparation for MSEC,” he says. “It felt great to be a contributing member in classes alongside students from Duke . . . Oxford University, Princeton, . . . and Swarthmore College . . . .”

“I appreciate that Professors Scott Eckert and Chrissy McAllister [also in the biology department] encouraged us to attend MSEC this summer,” Hilary notes. “It was a great continuation of the field study I’ve had at Prin.”

“It just goes to show,” Brent concludes, “that no matter what your area of interest, Principia will find a way to work with you and make something happen.”