For many of us, summer is a time to relax and decompress from the academic and social stressors of a typical semester at Cornell. For rising juniors and seniors, the stakes are a little higher. Many upperclassmen spend the fall and spring semesters vying for and, often, securing some impressive-looking job, internship or research experience for their summer.
As a general rule, I like to keep my summers free from academic coursework. Before this year, I’ve so fortunately been able to avoid summer courses during my time here at Cornell. But with one more bio lab to take and with very little desire to take a bio lab during the semester, I was left with no other choice but to turn to Cornell’s Summer course list. Attending BIOSM 1500: Investigative Marine Biology Laboratory at Shoals Marine Laboratory has since changed my mind about summer courses at Cornell and beyond.
My discovery of SML is not one for which I can take full credit. A friend in my Old English class introduced the course to me, and she had mentioned it could count for a biology lab all pre-med students are required to take at Cornell. I was skeptical at first, as I am with most things, but Tara Atluri ‘24 suggested it would be more fun if we do it together. That way, we’d already have our lab partners set (each other).
When she passed away that semester, I couldn’t imagine going alone. I’m so glad I did, though, because my time at SML offered me some of the most special experiences I’ve ever had (and probably will ever have). It’s not every day that you get to study with such a unique group of students on a small island off the coast of Maine.
To be honest, I didn’t anticipate enjoying my time in this course. Without my lab partner, I was dreading my departure date. In fact, I almost didn’t go. Tragically (or not so tragically, I was thinking at the time), I had contracted a stomach bug that kept me in and out of the bathroom for days prior to leaving for the island. I took this as a sign from the universe not to go.
Several gut-rebuilding antibiotics later and a super light breakfast the next morning, I somehow prepared myself to attend this course. At the port, a boat had recently docked, returning the students who had previously been on the island. These were the survivors of Appledore — slightly sleep-deprived from their accelerated courses at SML, with greasy hair from a lack of showers and bronze skin from the strong sun. Maine’s high UV index, I was able to appreciate. Limiting showers to twice a week, not so much.
I boarded the boat in my white Nike Air Force 1’s, with my eyeliner and acrylics done. Surely, I must have looked out of place. I was completely out of my comfort zone. There were island rules that I wasn’t used to, but I learned to quickly acclimate to them in order to make my time on the island as peaceful as possible. Composting toilets was one such unfamiliarity. But I came to appreciate the toilets that didn’t flush, especially when I learned that the island swore by the saying, “If it’s yellow, keep it mellow,” for the ones that did flush. Showers only twice a week was another big one for me, but I soon came to appreciate a slick-back, ballerina bun for the two weeks of the course — albeit with grease instead of hairspray.
On an island completely isolated from civilization, all we had to entertain ourselves was each other and our school work. As someone who is not naturally enthralled with marine biology, I chose to entertain myself with my peers. We were a small group of students, some from Cornell, others from different universities and one even still in high school. A small group with a bunch of big personalities. Spending two whole weeks with the same group of students, from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sunday to Sunday (no weekends off), teaches you more about yourself than it does about the people you spend so much time with.
For one, I learned that I — and many others too — can’t tolerate people for extended periods of time without breaks in between. I became skilled at recognizing when my patience was running low — when I needed to step away from the group — before I let myself react in ways I wouldn’t be proud of later. I realized that it’s way too easy for us to put our own personal needs on the backburner when we’re thrown into situations that are unfamiliar to us. But neglecting these does no one good — neither you nor those around you. Once I honored my own needs and found a routine that worked for me, my experience (and probably everyone’s too) became much more enjoyable.
My time at Shoals taught me about more than just hagfish. I learned to step outside of my comfort zone — mudflatting isn’t exactly my idea of a field trip. Not only that, but to do it with grace and a good attitude. At times I faked a smile, but after a few days, I didn’t need to. Because Tara would have liked it there, and she would have wanted me to like it too.
Throwing yourself into wild, new, and sometimes, even scary, experiences isn’t so bad once you get into it. Old me would have been hesitant to go without a familiar face. New me is grateful she got to experience Shoals for both Tara and myself.
Isabelle Pappas ‘24 (she/her) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Like It Iz runs every other Monday this semester.