Students travel to the Caribbean to conduct research


They went snorkeling at Waterlemon Cay and explored the ruins associated with St. John's sugar plantation history, but for eight undergraduates their trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands was much more than a tour of the Caribbean over the spring break - it was an opportunity to conduct advanced research.

According to their professor, Dr. Anne Goodwin, students in her "Field Studies in Marine Biology" class, working in teams of two, designed novel studies, then carried out and trouble-shot research projects. All wrote grants for the projects they designed.

Morgan Nankivell '14 of Shirley, Mass., an environmental studies major who minors in biology and chemistry, collected data on the long-spined sea urchin to determine if there's a relationship between the depth of the ocean where this species is found and the density - or abundance - of algae at that level.

"The long-spined urchin, as well as many other urchin species, has a profound impact on coral ecosystems." Nankivell explained. "These coral ecosystems, specifically the ones in the Caribbean, are changing at a fast pace and are a very good indicator of the overall health and biodiversity of a specific ocean region. This study would not have the same implications if done outside of the Caribbean or in areas where coral systems are not present."

Alison Croteau '16 of Sharon, Mass., focused her research on seagrass beds and sandy substrates. Initially, she and her partner decided to look at the population density of various species of snails. But, once in St. John, they discovered snail populations to be quite low.

"So, we decided to change the aim of our study from snail species to algae species - same project, just a new focus," Croteau explained. "Specifically, we examined populations of Flat-Top Bristle Brush algae. This mushroom-like algae is abundant in the Caribbean, especially in and near seagrass beds, which are also very abundant in the Caribbean."

"This was an outstanding group of participants, very motivated and willing to try new experiences," Goodwin said of the students. "They were inquisitive and respectful of the marine habitats. They came to their research sites with specific experimental procedures in mind, but easily made modifications to their plans to adapt to the on-site conditions."

One of the most important aspects of the trip, Croteau said, was the opportunity to learn how to keep good field notes that will aid her in writing a valid lab report later.

"In addition, I learned techniques to use while collecting data in order to take valid notes later on," she said.                                                        

For example, Croteau - a biology major with a concentration in biotechnology who plans attend graduate school to study marine biology or microbiology - used cameras to take photographs to provide visual evidence for additional recounts of algae and to double-check her data collection numbers.  

"I switched my major to the science field last semester, and these skills will be invaluable while completing the rest of my college career, and will surely be used in my career after college," Croteau said.

Back on campus, Goodwin said the students will prepare lab reports and describe their findings in the context of published studies related to their work. They will present their findings next month at the MCLA Undergraduate Research Conference.