Every fall, the Institute of Marine Sciences welcomes UNC undergraduate students to study at the coast for the term through the Institute for the Environment Field Site program. As part of her Independent Research project, Environmental Studies major Larisa Bennett will be sharing weekly blog posts on her semester by the sea. Check back as she shares salty stories of research, classes, and field life.
Ever sat in marine class daydreaming about actually being the marine scientist in the scuba suit, the one up there in the on screen slide exploring the marine environment, swimming with sharks, and making exciting discoveries about life under the salty sea? The Institute for the Environment at UNC Chapel Hill offers semester-long programs that allow undergraduates to work outside the controlled environments of campus classrooms and get hands-on experience in various field site locations around the globe. One field site program, based in Morehead City, North Carolina, focuses on marine sciences. I am beyond excited to be one of the lucky students right here on the coast of North Carolina (literally just steps away from the water) this semester!
Morehead City is a shipping port located on the peninsula bordered by the Newport River’s navigable channel on one side and the Bogue Sound on the other, over which lies the barrier island Bogue Banks and beyond that the beautiful big blue deep of the Atlantic Ocean. Close by are the Rachel Carson Reserve and Neuse River Estuary, among other marine research locations, that can be utilized to facilitate learning. This area is geographically located in between the tropical, warm waters of the south and the cold waters of the north. Species from both regions live here, making this area extremely rich in biodiversity and an important study site for researchers. During our field site semester at the coast, my fellow students and I actually get to collaborate and conduct solution-oriented research, known as a Capstone project, while engaging in classes that incorporate substantial time out-of-doors doing experiential work. It is an incredible opportunity to get experience doing practical hands-on research at the Institute for Marine Sciences (IMS) where world-class researchers we get to know on a first name basis are around every corner to guide us.
I am attending the field site along with ten fellow Carolina undergraduates ranging from sophomores to seniors with majors in environmental sciences, biology, and geology and minors in marine sciences, stats, and music. Yes, music! Our first hectic week at IMS began on August 23rd. Initiation began on our first day as we boated out under a beautiful Carolina blue sky and disembarked to explore the protected natural terrain of the Rachel Carson Reserve for an orientation to the area and the species that live here.
Classes geared up the next day at IMS. We began with lectures by Dr. Steve Fegley on statistical methods and Dr. Rachel Noble on different types of estuaries. We also met to discuss this year’s Capstone project – marine debris – and brainstormed possible directions we could take that theme. Capstone projects involve the entire field site group acting as a consulting body on the topic of the year. Our goal this year is to devise practical solutions to the mounting problem of human originated marine debris present in the world’s oceans. At the end of the semester we will present our research, conclusions and a solution we hope will be implemented to the public.
On Thursday morning, right outside of IMS on the floating docks, we engaged in our first field research. Stretched flat out on our bellies with necks craned over the edge, we took a look at the myriads of organisms residing in the dock habitat – called “fouling communities”. We gingerly held a spiny urchin while trying to avoid getting punctured with its needle sharp spines, caught a female blue crab to look at, and squirted water at each other with squishy barrel shaped tunicates, commonly known as “sea squirts”. Fun Fact: Our tunicates, being Chordates, were the organisms we saw on the docks that are actually most closely related to humans. Friday was the start of our independent research and we enthusiastically mapped out semester goals with our mentors and topped off the busy week with a reception for the IMS students, faculty, and staff. This semester I am getting to live my daydream of being a real field scientist! I cannot wait to share my stories with you!