November 1, 2011

University Offers New Concentration in Marine Biology

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Starting in fall 2012, Cornell’s biology department will offer a new concentration in marine biology. Prof. Ian Hewson, microbiology, assistant director of the Shoals Marine Lab, said the concentration will give new opportunities to students interested in sustainability and conservation. “We recognized that there’s an enormous interest in marine sciences, and now is the right time for students who have these interests to be able to follow them,” Hewson said. Hewson added that recent deep-water oil spills, declining whale populations and global temperature increases make now an ideal time to pave a new academic path for students with an interest in sustainability and conservation. He said that because oceans cover 75 percent of the Earth’s surface, studying the effects of oceanic systems can help people plan for a more sustainable fu­ture. “This degree will give strong quantitative training to students interested in conservation and marine sciences,” said Prof. Jed Sparks, ecology and evolutionary biology, academic director of the Office of Under­graduate Bio­logy.According to Hewson the program’s short-term strategy is to utilize existing faculty. However, strong interest from students could potentially draw more marine researchers to Cornell, he said. Cornell’s biology department is home to many marine scientists, most of who are currently faculty members in the departments of microbiology, ecology and evolutionary biology, and science of Earth systems, Sparks said. “Hopefully in the future we’ll bring people in,” Hewson said.Though the concentration will not be officially offered until next fall, Hewson says the biology department already has a list of “20 potential advisers” and is willing to plan courses of study with interested current students. Luke DeFisher ‘13 and Alexa Hilmer ‘13 emphasized that student interest has been consistently strong for a long time. DeFisher, an undergraduate biology advisor, said “there’s always a pretty decent section of incoming students with an interest in marine biology.”“I always knew that I wanted to do marine biology,” Hilmer said. Hilmer spent two summers at Shoals, taking classes, working as an intern and helping with whale watching on the island. Hilmer said that she thinks the new concentration will make marine biology more accessible to students on campus, giving them a set of core classes to guide their interests and connecting them to the marine scientists at Cornell.“Cornell is in a really great position,” DeFisher said. “We essentially have an island set aside for undergraduates to go out and do fieldwork. It’s an awesome resource.”Many marine biology classes are already offered at Cornell, Sparks said, in addition to summer courses and internships offered through Cornell’s Shoals Marine Lab, located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Sparks said he sees this new concentration as a way to utilize existing resources, including the marine scientists on faculty and the Shoals lab.“Shoals has helped me out in so many ways,” DeFisher said. “The vertebrate class I took at Shoals really immersed me in biology. It showed me that you can practice biology in the real world. You can really go hands-on at Shoals. It connects what you read in the book to what you see in the field.” The concentration will include a fieldwork requirement, which students can fulfill in a number of ways, including Shoals classes, internships at aquariums or volunteer work at the Long Island Sound. “The ocean is five hours away from Ithaca, but it’s still doable to study marine biology at Cornell because it’s five hours away from a bunch of different ocean habitats,” Hewson said. Students can also fulfill the fieldwork requirement through study abroad programs, like a program at the University of Queensland’s Moreton Bay Research Station. Sparks also talked about the Sea Education Association Semester, based out of Massachusetts, in which students spend four to five weeks taking classes, and then six weeks performing fieldwork on a research vessel.“It’s imperative that students get their feet wet, figuratively and literally,” Hewson said. “Field-based experiences are really unparalleled.”When planning this concentration, faculty members had to figure out how to introduce the fieldwork requirement while still allowing students to keep their summers free if necessary and without incurring any additional financial burden for the students. However, Shoals offers many scholarships and financial aid, and the flexibility of the fieldwork requirement makes it more than possible to complete during the academic year, Sparks said. Both Sparks and Hewson voiced their excitement about the many opportunities that the new concentration will allow interested students. “I’m really excited for people who love the ocean to be able to pursue their dream major,” Sparks said.

Original Author: Sarah Meyers