June 25-July 8, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 12
Back Issues
Boldness: Characterizes diversity, fund-raising goals
Immersed in science — Students get their gills wet in ‘Academical Village Tropicale’
Heating plant gearing up for growth
Faculty Actions from the June Board of Visitors meeting
Back to the Books: How to be a successful adult college student
World War II Revisited
Workshops to improve supervising and other skills
June 11-24, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 11
Immersed in science
San Salvador, Bahamas — Students get their gills wet in ‘Academical Village Tropicale’
Environmental Sciences Professor Dave Smith (left) and student members of Bio 350
Photos by Fariss Samarrai
Environmental Sciences Professor Dave Smith (left) and student members of Bio 350, a course in marine biology and
coral reef ecology, snorkel on a reef in the Bahamas.

“Bring your heart, your spirit, your mind ... bring the best of yourself to get the most out of this course. This can be a life-changing experience.” Fred “Doc” Diehl, lead instructor

By Fariss Samarrai

Fred Diehl, (above) professor emeritus of biology, lectures in a classroom converted from an old Navy Quonset hut. Diehl prepares to snorkel, (below).

It is a warm Saturday evening in May and most U.Va. students have left Grounds for the summer. But 30 undergraduates are seated in a circle in a room in Gilmer Hall, about to begin Biology 350, an intensive three-week, four-credit study abroad course in marine biology and coral reef ecology.

By the end of the evening they will all know each other’s names. By the end of the course — when they return from San Salvador island in the Bahamas — they will know the names, popular and scientific, of hundreds of corals, sponges, algae, invertebrates and fish.

Fred Diehol

And they will learn, through independent research projects, that science is much more than learning the names of things; that it is a process, individual and collaborative, revolving around an endless series of questions asked, answers gained — and always more questions to ask.

But first, they have to name each other.

“Who’s this?” says lead instructor Fred Diehl. He points randomly at a young man.

“Ross,” the class says in unison.

Diehl has already gone around the room once, having the students introduce each other. He keeps pointing now, at random, asking, “And who’s this?”

He and his co-instructors will do this many times in the coming days on the reefs surrounding San Salvador.

Karen McGlathery, (above) associate professor of environmental sciences, and co-instructor Mads Thomsen (above right) discuss the ecology of a brackish lake. Students observe and study an assortment of organisms, such as this hermit crab (below).

“What’s this?”

“A stoplight parrotfish.”

“And the genus and species?”

“Sparisoma viride.”

But to get there from here the students will first sit through lectures, study from colorfully illustrated texts of fish and corals and “creatures” of the tropical reefs, and they will spend half a day in a U.Va. swimming pool learning to use their masks and snorkels.

They will learn to work together. They will dive with their “buddy” on the reefs, they will study together in groups, they will work on their research projects in two-person teams. For more than two weeks on the island they will live closely together, eat together, work together, and when there’s time, party together. Many of them will even go to church on Sundays with the Bahamians.

hermit crab“You will have to work hard to help each other learn,” Diehl tells them. “And in this way, each of you will learn a great deal about yourselves.”

He tells them to bring to the course everything positive about themselves. “Bring your heart, your spirit, your mind — your religion if you have one,” he says. “You will need to bring the best of yourself to get the most out of this course. This can be a life-changing experience.”

Diehl is a 67-year-old professor emeritus of biology. He has been teaching biology for more than four decades, and has been teaching Bio 350 in San Salvador since 1978.

Nearly 700 students have taken the course.

The faculty is made up of veteran researchers and teachers, as well as graduate students. Most have known Diehl for some years, returning to teach this course year after year like Diehl.

Dave Smith, a professor of environmental sciences, has been teaching in San Salvador for eight years. Brian Silliman, a U.Va. graduate who recently earned a Ph.D. in marine biology from Brown University, has been to the island several times and had his “life changing” experience there. He wanted to be a lawyer, but after taking Bio 350 he decided on a career studying the sea. “I realized I could do this for the rest of my life,” he says. Karen McGlathery, associate professor of environmental sciences, and her graduate student Kim Holzer also teach the students.

students snorkel
Students snorkel, (above) and dive on the reefs daily. Rising second year student Eric Liebrecht, (below right) holds a hawksbill turtle he briefly captured in the shallows.

With eight faculty members in all, the faculty to student ratio is about one to four. Not every student can get into this class. Months before the course starts, Diehl and Smith interview the applicants. The professors are looking for students who are mature, have a strong thirst for knowledge, and are inclined toward sharing and collaboration.

San Salvador, one of the easternmost islands of the Bahamas, is located about 400 miles southeast of Miami. It is surrounded and protected by nearly pristine coral reefs, with a drop off to mile-deep water on its eastern flank. Many archaeologists believe this small island was the first place in the New World where Columbus landed. About 1,000 people inhabit the island, living mainly in a scattering of small towns along the perimeter.

Eric LiebrechtOn the northeast shore is the Gerace Research Center, an old U.S. Navy facility now owned by the College of the Bahamas. It provides the basics for research and education in biology, archaeology and geology. Students live in the old barracks, faculty in the old officers’ quarters. Everybody eats in the mess hall when they’re not in the field. Classes are held in laboratories that have been converted from Quonset huts. There are aging trucks and a van for transporting students to the drop-off points where they can snorkel to the reefs.

The students begin snorkeling almost as soon as they arrive at the station. “We get their gills wet right away,” Smith says.

On a windy afternoon, they are heading to Fernandez Bay, a sheltered harbor on the western shore where Columbus is said to have anchored. This is their first dive in deeper water. On the truck, heading toward the site, the students talk quietly, anticipating the adventure. The sky is partly cloudy, and the sea is a beautiful blue, dramatically turquoise and teal in patterns where the sun shines through spaces in the clouds.
“ This is the Academical Village Tropicale,” says Ross Kimbel, a rising fourth-year bio
logy major. “It’s what Jefferson was all about; small classes, living with the faculty, close interaction.”

The days are long, beginning at about 7 a.m., and continuing with lectures, fieldwork and discussions until well after 10 p.m. “Each day feels like three,” one tired student says. “But it’s four credits in paradise.”

On the reef, Diehl, called “Doc” by the students, Smith, and the other instructors are pointing out organisms to the students, encouraging them to take notice of everything and anything, to give thought to what they are seeing.

“Look around, dive down, peer into holes, watch how the creatures behave,” Smith says.

Professors Dave Smith (above left) and Fred Diehl
Professors Dave Smith (above left) and Fred Diehl use microscopes to get a better look at tiny creatures gathered from the reefs, such as baby octopus.

The students are learning fast. There’s plenty to see in the clear blue water. Look, a big Nassau grouper. And there, a school of mutton snapper. They hold impromptu conferences in 30 feet of water. “Did everybody see that big barracuda at the edge of the reef?” And there are damselfish and gobies, and wrasses and parrotfish, and . . . these are only the fish. There are several species of beautiful corals, the elk horns and stag horns and brain corals . . . and sea stars, mollusks and . . . most amazingly, the students are naming the individual species in Latin.

In the days to come, one rising second-year student, Eric Liebrecht, becomes famous among the students for his ability to find, and briefly capture, animals that have gone unnoticed by everybody else — huge hermit crabs, a pygmy octopus, an assortment of lizards, a scorpion, an iguana, a lettuce sea slug, and most impressively, a young hawksbill turtle.

How does he do it?

“It’s just a matter of taking the time to look,” says Liebrecht, who has been observing creatures his whole life while growing up on a farm in Galax near the New River. He’s pleased to have discovered a classroom full of friends who share an interest in nature. “It’s cool here to be a biology nerd,” he says. “It’s socially acceptable to be excited about nature.”

The students like the close interaction they have with each other and their professors, on the water and in the labs. They find themselves applauding at the end of each lecture, a sort of personal appreciation for the faculty’s time and effort.

“I will return to the sea,” one student wrote in his journal while watching the sun set over San Salvador island.

There are several requirements for the class — participation in the snorkeling trips, quizzes, tests, a significant research project, and, perhaps most time-consuming of all, a log of each day’s events. The logs are detailed accounts of experiences, thoughts, ideas, questions, and include intricate descriptions, with drawings, of the organisms encountered. By the end of the course, each student will have produced a lengthy and remarkable document about the way they were during an important three-week period of their lives.

Kimbel has always kept a journal, but this one is special, he says. “I get up early and stay up late to work on it. I get a lot of specifics into it, events, jokes, things that would slip from memory. Someday I hope to share it with my son or daughter. It’s a hard document that won’t fade away like memory. I’ll be able to see how I was when I was here, and how I will have changed.”

As the course progresses, each long day brings more dives, more lectures, more formal and informal discussions at all hours, and more adventures. One day the class snorkels a long mangrove-fringed tidal creek. They have lunch on a magnificent beach under the coconut palms. They play catch with oranges while wading in the turquoise water. They do a wall dive at the very edge of an elaborate reef where the ocean’s depth drops to hundreds of feet. Looking down into the blue, the bottom simply disappears despite the incredible clarity of the water. Some students dive down with only the air in their lungs, to as deep as they dare go, 30 feet maybe, and look up at the wavering sunlit surface where water meets atmosphere. They do a night dive, too, flashing beams of light on nocturnal creatures and turning off the lights to watch the sparkle of luminescent microorganisms.

A Nassau grouper peers from its hole
A Nassau grouper (above) peers from its hole on the reef as a sergeant major swims by. A U.Va. student (below) explores coral on the reefs of San Salvador.

“So beautiful.”

All of this is leading to their final projects when they will pair up into 15 teams to do the creative work of science; the research.

“Stretch your minds,” Smith tells the class during a lecture. “Become insightful in terms of what you see. Pose questions: Why does this fish move in this way? Why is this coral facing this way? Why are there similar but distinct organisms in the same area?”

U.Va. student snorkels byEach team will pick an organism to study. They will come up with a hypothesis, and set out to disprove it by testing a series of questions with observation and experiments. This is the process of science that the faculty has been leading the students toward from the start.

The students will spend five days on their projects, often working day and night. One team, studying the nocturnal ghost crab, is up all night, each night, conducting experiments on the beach. Other teams are studying creatures in the intertidal zone. Some are studying reef fish, some corals. They will have to be creative in planning their experiments. They will handle the logistics of getting equipment to the field sites, improvising as needed. They are on their own now. Then, almost too quickly, it comes to an end. They spend a morning presenting their findings with plenty of data to back it up.

“Some of the projects are quite elegant,” Diehl says. “Some of them could be developed into a master’s thesis.”

On the last night, faculty get personal. Instructors share with the class their love for teaching, and the deep appreciation they have for their students. They open up, bringing forth everything positive about themselves; their heart, their spirit, their mind, their best.

The last night is a unique opportunity to bond with the students, personally and intellectually, Diehl says. “It shows that we’re not embarrassed to be passionate. We’ve been telling them all along to be passionate.”

On the flight back to Virginia, students become introspective. Kimbel is looking out the window at a spectacular orange sunset. “I know that it is too early for me to specifically see how I have changed,” he writes in his journal, “but I am confident that the interactions, relationships and intellectual maturation that I have experienced over the last three weeks is going to set my sail for a refined direction in my life. What that is, I am not completely certain at this point, but I know…I will return to the sea.”


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