Teaching in the Tropics

Since 1978, more than 300 students have set aside four summer weeks to participate in Wittenberg’s intensive marine biology program on the sun-soaked beaches of the Bahamas. Working side by side with their professors, these adventurous students have sought to understand the complexities of marine life on a natural stage.

Together, they witnessed the impact environmental recklessness has on the San Salvador Island landscape and the sea that surrounds it. They touched the aquatic organisms that textbooks and academic journals could only convey in words and pictures. In the process, the students gained a professional confidence reflective of that found at leading scientific institutions across the country. They also discovered more about themselves through the experience, an experience that changed at least one Wittenberg student forever.

Now as the program celebrates its 25-year anniversary, Wittenberg Magazine takes a closer look at the program — the people who created it , the research being conducted and the difference it has made in the lives of those students who once called the Bahamian coast home.

by Karen Saatkamp Gerboth '93

photos by Ruth Lewis and Tim Lewis

Surrounded by ocean souvenirs in his beach-styled office, complete with a personal floor-to-ceiling picture of his favorite tropical spot, Professor of Biology Ronald deLanglade — “Dr. D” or “Doc” as his students affectionately call him — still remembers where he was when he first started thinking about establishing a marine science field studies program for interested Wittenberg students.

Following his review, deLanglade started to organize the field study experience on San Salvador for students, and in 1978, he returned to the Bahamas for a week of field studies with a small group of Wittenberg students interested in marine science. That was 25 years ago, and deLanglade has returned every other summer since then.

Throughout that time, the program has evolved considerably. When Robert Morris, professor of geology, co-taught the program with deLanglade for the first 10 years, it had more of a geological focus. When Tim Lewis, associate professor of biology, and Ruth Lewis, biology lab coordinator, joined deLanglande 12 years ago, they brought a student research emphasis. Kathleen Reinsel, assistant professor of biology, and James Welch, assistant professor of biology, joined the team two years ago and now bring more marine expertise to the mix.

The number of students has also increased with 20 to 30 now accepting the challenge as well as the length of stay from one week to four. Professors’ spouses also make the trip to assist the diverse mix of students.

Currently, 19 other colleges participate in the program at the field station, including Miami University of Ohio, the University of South Carolina, Kent State University and Youngstown State University.

“It’s unique for a school our size to offer this kind of program in Ohio,” deLanglade said. “It’s also a great time and a neat experience for all of us and our students. Every time, I learn something new.”

Although the clear blue tropical waters splashing against the white sandy Bahamian beaches may tempt the students to spend their days sun-bathing and swimming, the majority of their time is actually spent out in the field conducting research and collecting samples or in the classroom. Students earn nine credits if they complete the program’s requirements, so the classroom activities, research components and field trips are intense.

“Field trips had us scale small cliffs, both up and down, climb through holes in overhanging rocks onto small islands covered in plant life, visit a cave partly underwater and inhabited by bats, and swim out to numerous cays to view some of the most spectacular reefs in the Atlantic Ocean,” explained Christina Dierkes ’05 and Megan Porter ’03, both of whom participated in the program last summer. They also joined faculty and fellow students in cleaning up a beach as part of a long-term faculty-driven research project on trash accumulation.

“Last summer, a rusted 50-gallon drum of oil washed up on the shore,” deLanglade said. “We also found hospital waste andbottles from around the world just to name a few items. It’s a real eye-opening experience for everyone.”

In addition to varied research-oriented field trips every day, which can include numerous snorkeling adventures, participants are also required to attend hour-long lectures every night, Monday through Saturday, and prepare for group presentations and lab tests. At the same time, they must conduct research on individual topics of their choice for a final research paper.

The students are then expected to present their findings at conferences sponsored by the Ohio Academy of Science, the National Conferences for Undergraduate Research (NCUR) or during a poster session upon their return to campus. Among the topics tackled by last year’s participants were fire coral, response of sea urchins to external stimuli, nesting habits of tropicbirds, snail migration, hermit crabs, fish-feeding behavior and the culture of native San Salvadorans.

Aside from their studies, students also must learn to adjust to their new environment and accommodations. During the last trip, deLanglade recalled, San Salvador endured 17 inches of rain, more than the island receives annually. The intense heat, absence of air conditioning, lack of dairy products and the millions of flesh-chewing insects took Jessica Straw ’04 a little by surprise. Lost luggage, ants and bug-sprayed nights were some of sophomore Lindsay Veit’s early memories. Participant Jennifer Biehl ’04 also remembers the phone not working.

“The phone worked whenever it felt like it, so it was difficult to keep in touch with people back home,” she said.

Despite these inconveniences, all three loved the experience. “The best part of the trip, other than experiencing a different culture and getting to know the other 27 students there, was seeing the vast diversity of creatures living in the sea,” Biehl said, recalling watching a bottlenose dolphin with her calves swim past her and fellow participants. “That was one event I’ll never forget.”

“The lectures and research we did were more of a desired activity than a grueling one,” Veit added. “The professors loved everything they taught us. The enthusiasm from them and the students was something I had never seen before.”

Veit also remembers the island’s beaches. “One particular beach we visited a few times, the Grotto, was the most perfect beach. The sand was perfectly white, the ocean a beautiful shade of light blue. I could have sat for days and just stared at the waves crashing against the rocks on the shore, the birds circling above our heads, gliding through the cloudless sky toward the distant skyline that kissed the ocean’s clear blue surface.”

For Straw, however, the experience completely changed her. She grew up in Colorado and always thought that compared to white water rafting, skiing, backpacking, repelling, fishing, hang gliding, mountain biking and camping, the beach sounded boring.

“I have never understood why anyone would want to spend their money on a trip to the beach when there are many other exciting places to be,” she said.

Well traveled, Straw had already visited 41 states and seven countries, so to her San Salvador merely provided an enriching opportunity to get some extra biology credits and work toward her scuba certification prior to a planned trip to the Caribbean upon her return. Her view quickly changed, though, after she descended into the deep blue sea for the first time.

“As I floated down the wall, which drops off for thousands of feet into la-la-land, I saw thousands of colors and countless fish,” Straw explained. “I have seen many things around the world, including the Swiss Alps, the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Versailles, downtown Brussels and the Empress in Victoria, British Columbia, just to name a few. There is no question in my mind that the overlook from the wall on my first scuba dive was more amazing then anything I have ever seen. It was incredible how small I felt looking up through 100 feet of seawater and swimming along the largest change in elevation that I had ever experienced. The view took my breath away.”

Straw also enjoyed her research because, as she said, “I found my subject interesting for the first time.” Now Straw, the same person who used to wear T-shirts that read “Life’s a Mountain, Forget the Beach,” is considering switching her focus.

“San Salvador was the best learning experience I have ever had. I have been committed to medical school for years, but my experiences on San Salvador have drawn in the possibility of marine biology. I didn’t think anything would ever change my mind about the beach or about medical school. I wrestled for months with the idea of looking into marine biology and putting my M.D. on hold. I felt pulled toward every aspect of marine science like a magnet.

“I think about my trip to San Salvador every day and am constantly dreaming about new things to learn and study. My head may be for medicine, but my heart belongs with the ocean. I am now trying to find ways to combine both aspirations into one career, but for now I am going to learn as much I can through graduate schools and internships.”

An assisting diver for Wittenberg’s scuba class, Straw is spending her spring semester studying in the Bermuda/Duke Marine Lab program where she hopes to learn more about possible careers in marine biology.

“Choosing to sign up for the Wittenberg-Bahamas summer program was by far one of the best decisions I have ever made,” she said. “Thank you, Wittenberg, for providing this unbelievable opportunity. I will remember and cherish those memories for the rest of my life.”

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