Sean AlexanderI am an undergraduate student at Rutgers-Camden studying Biology, and have been working overtime to secure myself a position in veterinary school in the near future. I have spent my past two summers interning at a local wildlife rehabilitation center, conducting research in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in Texas, and now in Dr. Vagelli’s field marine ecology class. My goal as an undergraduate student is to experience every unique branch of science that I can; to get a little taste of everything. My background is diverse so that I may find my true passion, and grow that passion into a career. That is a large reason I chose to take this class, and it has lived up to and exceeded my expectations.

Our trip was a month’s worth of activities smushed into the short time we had, and I loved it. From the moment we woke up to the second we crashed, the days were full of snorkeling, learning, field work, and good times. There were a few key aspects to this class that made it so meaningful, and that is the actual research, the hands-on field experience, and the comradery.

Dr. Vagelli had designed an experiment for our class to work over the length of the trip, and that was marking sponges and keeping track of their respective lobster inhabitants. All of the students helped to find and mark sponges that contained one or many lobsters, and we worked together to tag each of those lobsters. Over the next few days, we checked the marked sponges and those nearby to determine if the tagged lobsters stayed at their one specific sponge, or moved around to different sponges each day. The experiment not only gave us the (extremely fun) skill of catching lobsters, but taught us how to design and think about experiments, and how important seemingly simple questions can be. Another aspect of research was performing a transect. This consisted of observing and recording things like vegetation cover, ground substrate, invertebrates, and any fishes in a small section of the environment. This technique is very important in field work, and a basic skill if we decide to pursue marine, or any, branch of science. We also had a small “lab” some nights that Dr. Vagelli had set up using some microscopes and other equipment, so we were able to see and learn about these interesting topics in the flesh.

The hands-on experience was the most beneficial aspect of the class in my opinion, and it is what makes this so unique and appealing. To learn about transects and design an experiment in a classroom is one thing, but to do it while standing out in the water while swimming with octopuses, nurse sharks, and countless fishes is another. I never expected to enjoy myself quite as much as I did when chasing after those pesky lobsters, or leaping up into the mangroves to wrangle a fish who jumped out of the water and got stuck, or seeing the beautiful bioluminescence of the seafloor after dark. My time in this trip gave me stories after stories, but most importantly it made me realize why I do what I do. It gave me the sense that everything we do is to preserve that beauty, and keep it that way for all future generations to experience the same things I did. Getting out into the field is an experience you cannot begin to replicate in labs or the classroom. Spending eight hours a day in the water, nine days in a row, is not a vacation. However, it is joy in its own way. I’ve worked with animals for years, and I have never felt as accepted into nature as I did when snorkeling while immersed in a school of fish. I felt like I belonged there in the ocean alongside those fish, and that is a feeling I wouldn’t trade for the world. Getting to be there, in the Florida Keys, makes me appreciate what I learned more than I ever would have otherwise.

The comradery is something you never would have expected after only a week and a half with some strangers you just met. However, you are all there under the same task: to complete some field marine ecology. It is astounding how quickly we became friends and created stories we will remember for a lifetime. Dr. Vagelli and our class became a small little family, and it means a lot to work with people you enjoy to be around. Overall, this trip started as a way to get some new experience in my repertoire and expand my interest in marine ecology. However, I learned a ton about the ocean and its inhabitants, loved every second of the hands-on work, and will remember the class for the years to come.