JohnI am a non-traditional student working towards my second career. After a successful career in restaurant management I decided that I wanted to do something where I could feel like I make a difference. I began taking classes, not even sure that I could handle pursuing a college degree. I wanted to become a high school biology teacher because I like biology and I’m good with kids. As I began finishing my general education requirements and began taking more biology courses, I found my passion in ecology, natural science, and conservation. I am now a masters student at Rutgers University Camden. I would now like to teach at the college level and/or marine ecology and conservation.

There is no substitute for experiencing anything first hand, and this class allowed us to do just that. We explored reefs, bays, mangroves, small channels and wetland areas. We observed interactions between animals and their environment, how a seemingly small change can have enormous impacts and what humans are doing both positively and negatively. We could see how change in substrate (a rare type of sponge for the area), could create a habitat for many types of animals that are not found anywhere else but around that substrate. We would then discuss what that observation could tell us about human impacts. We could see the difference in life between grassy and sandy areas right next to each other. First hand experience of bay areas that from above water look almost identical but below water the flora and fauna are very different. We would discuss what the driving force is behind those differences. While diving at Looe Key Reef we could see by the health of the reef and abundance of life that protecting an area like this works and should be practiced more. We also saw how an invasive species, the Lionfish, is impacting an area where it has no natural predator. Dr. Vagelli who has seen Lionfish in there natural environment made comment that he had never seen them so big. We were able to participate in and witness the rigors of doing research with sharks. From sea sickness, to catching and restraining a large shark (avg. 8′-9′), to doing a work-up while at the same time not injuring the shark or anyone else. Being able to see first hand how everything in a particular ecosystem is performing a function. During the entire time Dr. Vagelli was teaching and explaining what it was that we were seeing and what to watch for. This type of experience cannot be duplicated in a classroom which is why it is important to have classes like this. When working in the restaurant business I would get recent college grads that had degrees in hospitality management and none of them knew the first thing about effectively running a restaurant. It’s classes like this that help to bridge that gap. The only thing that I would have liked to have done would be a night dive to see the change in animal composition and behavior from day to night.

I feel the the most important requirement for this course is to have a passion for learning about and experiencing the marine environment. I say this because you have to be able to do fieldwork which includes being in the hot sun all day, mosquitoes, jellyfish stings, long walks carrying equipment, working long hours, etc… Then even though your exhausted, that night you go to discuss the days work and examine samples that you’ve brought back. Then the next day you get up early to do it again. For us, even though we were tired we couldn’t get enough. To take this class you must have that passion. You should also be SCUBA certified. Another requirement is that you are mature and responsible because you are in potentially dangerous situations that require you to be mature and responsible.

I walked away from this trip with a more clear vision of what I would like to do with my education. My understanding of both general and marine ecology and conservation, has been brought to a new level after taking this course, which shows me the advantages of taking a course like this.