Students island hop and dive into science research around the globe

From the Island of Roatán in Central America to the archipelagos of Southeast Asia, students from the College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) visited island countries across the globe during j-term this January to explore rich cultures and dive into experiential learning opportunities. The mini-semester, which runs during the winter break, gave students from diverse academic disciplines the opportunity to work with marine mammals, learn about aquatic food production, and understand geologic hazards.

Kianna Taylor and Gabby Bonofiglio, junior animal science majors in the pre-veterinary track, engage with bottlenose dolphins while in Honduras.

Off the coast of Honduras in the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, dozens of bottlenose dolphins swim in pods. Known as one of the most intelligent mammals, dolphins exhibit intricate social networks and complex communication patterns that intrigue scientists to this day. To better understand how these marine mammals “make a living,” Justin Richard, Teaching and Research Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Sciences (FAVS), led a group of twelve students to the Island of Roatán. The expedition gave students an opportunity to engage in a hands-on experience with marine mammals in their natural habitat.

“It’s easy to talk about marine mammals and read text books and discuss their habits in class, but it is something entirely different to be able to see what we talked about in class and experience it,” reflects Rebecca Provensal, a junior animal science major in the pre-veterinary track.

Before embarking on their journey, students spent time at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut gaining experience with marine mammal research techniques and working alongside marine mammalogists. While in Honduras, students studied bottlenose dolphin behavior at the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences, ideally located along the northwest coast of the island where 30 miles of barrier reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and shoreline boast an abundance of sea life.

CELS students visiting a commercial marine fish hatchery in the Philippines.

“During this experience we were able to witness first-hand the natural behaviors of these animals and apply everything we had learned on their behavior and physiology up until that point,” adds Provensal.

Halfway around the world in Southeast Asia, CELS students learned about aquaculture practices in the Philippines on one of its 7,101 islands. Dr. Michael Rice, professor in the FAVS department, led a group of six students to Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the Philippines, where students met with professionals in the aquaculture field and experienced day-to-day coastal living in the Philippines.

“Aquaculture is a hugely important industry to the Philippines and it provides a large food source for the country,” explains Travis Gluckman, a senior aquaculture and fisheries technology major in FAVS. “It was enlightening to be able to see so many different species of fish and techniques for implementing aquaculture,” he says.

Based at the Asian Fisheries Academy at the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), students engaged in lectures on various cultured species in the Philippines, experienced hands-on work with different species of fish and invertebrates, and attended field trips to commercial and research aquaculture facilities. As part of the program, students also visited the BFAR Lucap Marine Aquaculture Research Station near the Philippines Hundred Islands National Park, an internationally recognized marine protected area.

Reflecting on his j-term trip, Gluckman is grateful for the invaluable hands-on experience he gained out in the field, as well as the close relationships he built with his classmates. “This trip was really a great experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” adds Gluckman, who plans to work in fisheries management after graduating this spring.

Ryan Sheffer (left), geosciences major, and James Masse, sophomore environmental science and management major get up close with a native lizard species in Indonesia.

Dr. Thomas Boving, professor in the Department of Geosciences, and Dr. Nancy Karraker, professor in the Department of Natural Resources Science, led their fourth trip to Indonesia with the same excitement as their very first trip to the island. Comprised of over 18,000 islands, Indonesia has unique topography teaming with biodiversity hotspots, active volcanoes, and over 50 national parks, making it an ideal destination for scientific research and cultural immersion.

The j-term trip introduced students to key factors threatening biodiversity and water in Indonesia, which is home to an abundance of freshwater wetlands, rivers and 34,000 miles of coastline.

The group of fifteen undergraduate and graduate students visited an active volcano on the Island of Java to learn about geologic hazards, and explored the cultures and religions of the highly diverse tropical country. One student recalls traveling aboard a houseboat and waking up to breathtaking views of Komodo Island. Students also studied the effects of ocean pollution on water quality and tourism, which is a key component of the island’s economy.

“I experienced a change in perspective in Indonesia that was driven by everything we learned there,” says Lesley Howard, a senior who’s double majoring in wildlife & conservation biology and animal science.  “It was very impactful to be learning about geology, plant and animal species, and culture while fully immersed,” adds Howard, who hopes to pursue graduate studies in conservation biology, and looks forward to visiting Indonesia again.

This spring students returned to the classroom with a deeper understanding of diverse cultures and the environmental and social challenges facing coastal communities around the world.