Currents: August 2011
The PU-BIOS course is an intensive one-month program, and even though they only officially take one class -- marine biology -- the students cram an entire semester’s worth of experience into their four weeks at BIOS. Out of more than thirty applicants, the PU-BIOS program accepts roughly fifteen students per year. There is no specific marine biology major at Princeton; instead, the aspiring aquatic life scientists fall under the umbrella of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program (EEB). Still, the BIOS marine biology course isn’t only for EEB students. The Princeton group this year was split evenly between Ecology and Evolutionary Biology students and non-EEB majors. In fact among this year’s crew was a psychology major and an aspiring architect.
Students soon realize that, regardless of their major, the course load is demanding. The comprehensive program schedule contains roughly eight labs, some which include SCUBA diving. Students who are SCUBA certified get a more up-close and comprehensive look at the reef they’re trying to study. Prior to their “community structure” lab, students have already learned to identify common reef species of fish and corals on sight. In the lab, divers follow transect lines laid two to three feet apart where they count and identify each and every fish. In actuality, they’re not just counting, but studying the interactions on the reef. They don’t just study fish; they examine the algae and coral too. Some students count fish abundance, some lay and analyze quadrants, and others take video transects later used in class to determine coral cover. In the end they analyze the data and examine the health and structure of the reef communities.
For some of the students, these long labs are the first time they learn scientific procedure. The community structure lab lasts at least two days at sea and even more days to analyze what they’ve seen. Students also participate in an irradiance lab, where they look at the effect of sun exposure on the skeletal growth of Madracis auretenra, also known as “yellow pencil coral.” That demanding lab lasts between four and five days.
In addition to the intensive lab schedule, students also have presentations, homework, and like any other class: exams. “It’s absolutely worth the work,” insisted EEB major Chelsea Parker, “we wouldn’t get this sort of experience anywhere else.”
In what time is left over between studying or writing up lab reports, the PU-BIOS students make the most of their month in Bermuda. The class spent their weekends exploring caves and beaches and snorkeling around the island. “This year three of our students actually got wrapped up in man-of-war jellyfish tentacles,” laughed Gruendel before adding, “and while that wasn’t cool at all, it was dramatic enough to be the inspiration for our class t-shirt.” Talk about hands-on learning! Fortunately, other than a few painful stings, none of the students were badly injured.
The PU-BIOS program does more than just introduce students to the world of ocean sciences and acquaint them with the tentacle end of a man-of-war. It also affords them the rare opportunity to connect with some of the most prominent scientists in the field-- a connection many students are happy to bolster. Princeton student Alissa Sasso participated in the 2010 PU-BIOS program and this summer she returned to BIOS to study sea grass beds. As she put it, “I met people who were very passionate about their work, and I wanted the opportunity to work with them again.”
Reflecting on her time in the PU-BIOS program Sasso said, “At the time, it was really stressful and intense, but looking back and thinking about how much I learned, it was definitely worth it. It teaches you things they don’t offer in any other course.”
Alissa Sasso certainly isn’t the first marine biology course alum to come back to BIOS, and she won’t be the last. The academic partnership between Princeton University and the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences continues to grow and flourish.