Immersed in science
San Salvador, Bahamas — Students
get their gills wet in ‘Academical Village Tropicale’
by Fariss Samarrai
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,
By Fariss Samarrai
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.
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
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?”
and his co-instructors will do this many times in the coming days on
the reefs surrounding San Salvador.
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).
the genus and species?”
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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.
starts, Diehl and Smith interview the applicants. The professors
are looking for students who are mature, have a strong thirst
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
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
in the New World
landed. About 1,000 people inhabit the island, living mainly
in a scattering of small towns along the perimeter.
On the northeast shore is the Gerace Research Center, an old
U.S. Navy facility now owned by the College of the Bahamas.
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
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
to have anchored.
This is their
dive in deeper water. On the truck, heading toward the
site, the students talk quietly, anticipating the adventure.
sky is partly
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 biology
major. “It’s what Jefferson was all about; small
classes, living with the faculty, close
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
On the reef, Diehl, called “Doc” by the students,
Smith, and the other instructors are pointing out organisms
to the students, encouraging
to take notice of everything and anything, to give thought
to what they are seeing.
around, dive down, peer into holes, watch how the creatures behave,” Smith
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.
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 . . . 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
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
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
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.
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,
and include intricate descriptions,
of the organisms encountered. By
the end of the course, each student
will have produced a lengthy and
document about the way they were
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,
and more adventures.
the class snorkels a long mangrove-fringed
tidal creek. They have lunch on
a magnificent beach under the coconut
play catch with oranges while wading
do a wall dive
at the very
edge of an
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
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.
All of this is leading to their final projects when they will
pair up into 15 teams to do the creative work of science;
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?”
Each team will pick an organism to study. They will come
up with a hypothesis, and set out to disprove it by testing
of questions with observation and experiments. This is
the process of science that the faculty has been leading the
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.
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;
spirit, their mind, their best.
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
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.”