In Our Own Words: Off Campus Expeditions

Meal as Metaphor  

By Valeria San Juan ’16

Valeria San Juan
Valeria San Juan '15 in the Intag region of Ecuador.

Picture this: 20 hungry college students, a three-person restaurant staff, two very patient professors, a breathtaking view of the Ecuadorian Andean mountain range, and a street bustling with life unique to New Year’s Eve. Looking back at my experience with the service learning course IARD 4940: Special Topics in International Agriculture and Rural Development, I realize that our first meal in Ecuador was a metaphor for our month-long experience—hectic and confusing, but very fulfilling.

Before going to the restaurant, we planned, placing our orders two hours before arriving. When we arrived, few meals were ready, and missing ingredients forced some to make last-minute order changes. Likewise, fall semester was filled with preparation for partnering with community organizations in Ecuador working with handicrafts, eco-tourism, conservation and coffee production. We read, participated in activities and learned from guest speakers to help prepare us for whatever Ecuador had in store. But once there, our plans changed. My team had readied accounting software for the eco-tourism group Red Ecoturistica de Intag to help with their bookkeeping and reservation practices. However, when we arrived at their office, there was no internet connection to access the online accounting software. So, just like changing our orders, we changed our plans. We fumbled for a bit but quickly changed directions and focused on completing a marketing project to increase their international visibility and help them capture a new customer segment.

Despite our flexibility during our first dining experience, many dishes still arrived very late. My sautéed chicken in mushroom sauce arrived well after most of the class had their food, so team members shared theirs with me. This cooperation was crucial throughout our time in Ecuador; when the conservation team needed help with their reforestation project to prevent hill erosion, the other teams volunteered their time and labor to plant trees alongside a mountain hill. 

Throughout dinner, conversation flowed, a first hint of the comradery that would develop during the trip. Even though we had spent the past semester working in separate teams, everyone came out from that dinner extremely satisfied and ready to welcome the New Year. My time in Ecuador left me with a similar feeling of fulfillment. I worked toward something greater than myself; I worked to support the community’s efforts to develop sustainable economic alternatives to mining, and along the way I gained new skills and connections.

Valeria San Juan is a junior majoring in international agriculture and rural development.


Simian Census: Blogging From Balacha Sur 

By Julia Dagum ’16

Julia Dagum
Julia Dagum '16 on Bioko Island, Equarorial Guinea

We did a census of Balacha Sur, and the morning started off with some challenges. With low expectations for the census, we trudged up the muddy hill, slipping and tripping on thorny vines. Suddenly, we heard a loud cacaaaawww! It was the crow of a male Bioko drill monkey, one of the rarer primates found in this region. The sound was terrible but so exciting! When we finally heard a loud call again, we sat on the edge of a ridge that opened up into a foliage-filled canyon. Below there was a group of five Bioko drill monkeys ascending the hillside. I was able to see them clearly through my binoculars, and I even got of view of their colorful backsides. We were lucky to see them because they would have run away if they had not been fighting over a mate. It was the most amazing wildlife sighting of the trip so far and quite possibly one of the best moments of my life.

Julia Dagum is a junior studying environmental and sustainability sciences. She spent fall semester on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea, through a program offered by Drexel University.


Spawning New Scientists at Shoals

By Kate Bemis ’15

Kate Bemis
Kate Bemis '15 on Appledore Island, Maine

I walked into the first lab on shark biology at Shoals Marine Laboratory to find more than 30 species of frozen sharks, skates and rays on the tables. Wow—what amazing diversity! Each student chose a species to study, dissect and prepare its skeleton. The instructions: Go for it. No lab manual, just learn by doing. My species, the gulper shark, Centrophorus granulosus, lives in deep waters all over the world, but we don’t know the most basic information about its biology, lifespan, reproduction or range. How then could we expect to make reasonable decisions about its conservation or even know if the species is in trouble? Later that summer, in a small boat on the open ocean, we dropped our lines 60 meters into the water to fish for spiny dogfish,

Squalus acanthias. What else was below the surface? There must be so many living things—many yet unknown. Realizing this inspired me to start asking my own research questions.

Soon after my class at Shoals, I began collaborating with John Galbraith at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) in Woods Hole, Mass., to help identify rare fish collected by their survey cruises. After working with Galbraith onshore, I spent six wonderful weeks living offshore on the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow, the 208-foot research vessel used for NEFSC research, conducting bottom trawl surveys from Maine to Cape Hatteras. From the flying bridge, the sea stretched to the horizon. But if you were patient and observant, pilot whales, leatherback turtles and large sharks would appear. We sampled fish 24/7 at depths of 20 to 400 meters. During this time I collected samples for my honors research on two rare species of dragonets that live on the outer continental shelf at depths up to 350 meters, where the water is always cold.

My collaboration with NEFSC was the first of many marine opportunities: two summers at the Smithsonian working on fish taxonomy, traveling to work in natural history museums and field stations in Australia, learning to scuba dive in Honduran coral reefs, and studying fish tooth replacement using CT scanning. None of this would have happened, of course, if I had not had that first exciting experience at Shoals Marine Laboratory that got me to start asking questions about fish. The chance to be immersed in marine biology and to learn hands on by direct experience is difficult to duplicate on campus. In its nearly 50-year history, Shoals Marine Laboratory has offered such chances to thousands of undergraduates. Making scientists is what Shoals is all about.

Kate Bemis was the winner of the 2014 John M. Anderson Prize for Excellence in Natural History at Shoals Marine Laboratory.