SRU students learn ‘down by the seaside’
Students doing fieldwork research at the Marine Science Consortium at Wallops Island, Va., examine a stingray. Slippery Rock University students have been researching marine biology at Wallops Island since 1970.
Aug. 13, 2015
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Stephanie Case, a 2013 Slippery Rock University graduate who studies marine biology, remembers her three-week research journey to a remote part of Tidewater, Virginia, where fiddler crabs, jellyfish, saltwater marshes and other aquatic life thrive.
Her fieldwork unfolded 'down by the seaside' during a program offered at the Marine Science Consortium at Wallops Island, a six-square-mile stretch of land where seashells outnumber people and tourists flock to see wild ponies in nearby Chincoteague. SRU partners with the consortium to provide ocean-related research supporting the University's biology major and marine science minor.
"Wallops Island is a wonderful place to learn marine science," said Case, a biology graduate who minored in marine science. "With having Assateague Island, Chincoteague Bay and the Atlantic Ocean close by, there is an abundance of wildlife, marine life and landscapes to facilitate learning."
The Marine Science Consortium is an environmental learning center that focuses on marine science and coastal history education. Children, college students and adults study there. SRU is a founding member of the consortium and has been sending up to 10 students there annually since 1970.
Professors from more than 15 partner intuitions, including Simon Beeching, SRU professor of biology, and Tamra Schiappa, associate professor of geography, geology and the environment, teach classes.
Creeks zigzag through the island, with Bogues Bay to the northwest and Atlantic Ocean to the east. With rubber boots on feet and salty air to breathe, students said Wallops Island differs from anything western Pennsylvania has to offer.
"My favorite activities were boat trips to the bay and ocean where we trawled, allowing for catch and release of many different marine species, including a variety of fish, jellyfish, squid, sting rays and sharks," Case said. "The island is the perfect location to study the changing topography of the coastline. I went on field trips from Delaware to Virginia Beach and everywhere in between."
Case said her research examined the habitat preference of fiddler crabs, an abundant species on the island.
"Being in the field and collecting your own materials was a fun divergence from typical research done back at the university," she said. "This was also a great introduction to what was expected when I did my independent research project at Slippery Rock University. In a few other classes, the research done by the students contributed to multi-year research projects performed by the professors."
During "down time," Case said she kayaked, visited the Virginia Aquarium, hung out on the beach and watched wild horses. She even had time for an ice cream run.
Each class lasts three weeks. Topics covered include marine geology, oceanography invertebrate zoology and marine mammals.
"The best way to learn is through hands-on experience, and that's exactly what you get at Wallops Island," Case said. "Not only did I get to take classes that aren't offered at SRU, I had a ton of fun doing so. The fieldwork is a nice break from the typical lecture and classroom courses."
Shane Duda, a 2013 biology graduate, said directly experiencing what you're studying in class enhances your understanding of a topic.
"We didn't only learn about bioluminescent jellyfish, we went out at night and actually saw them," he said.
In his marine geology course, Duda said the professor shared research findings he contributed to with a group with NASA.
"In marine biology, we did individual research," Duda said. "Depending on what your research topic was, you got to go out and collect all of the materials you needed from the island, or actually perform the experiment entirely in the field."
Duda said his favorite moment occurred offshore.
"We saw a wide diversity of species, including stingrays, turtles, sharks, sea horses, jellyfish, crabs and snakes," he said. "We got to bring some of the animals we caught back in to the lab and observe their behaviors and how they interacted with one another."
He said the beach at Wallops Island is unlike other beaches because it's closed to the public.
"We had special privileges with the consortium to enter the marine refuge," he said. "Since the land is basically untouched, the beach was filled with different types of seashells. It was really cool to see what an environment looks like without human intervention."
For some SRU students, the Wallops Island experience impacted their career trajectory. Corina Wack, a 2002 biology graduate and associate professor of biology at Chowan University, said she references her Wallops research with dolphins when talking to students and colleagues.
As an SRU undergraduate, she studied dolphin behavior in an attempt to determine how group movement correlated to feeding and playing. She presented her Wallops findings at a marine mammals conference.
"The experience really solidified that I wanted to do research," said Wack, who has a doctorate in biological sciences from Duquesne University and researches salamanders. "I wanted to get that research experience, learn about the scientific method and understand that field work is what science is all about.
Wack said her colleagues and students are impressed with hearing about her dolphin work.
"I was teaching a field class this summer and boom, I had to talk about my dolphin research," she said.
Beeching, who has taught marine biology at Wallops, said students benefit from fieldwork ¬in a marine environment, including work in three feet of water, because "there is no other way to duplicate that with classroom curriculum."
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