Biology students in Florida

Summer Class and Vacation: Marine Biology in the Florida Keys

Written by Victoria Nuñez

Some subjects lend themselves to hands-on learning outside the classroom. That’s why Dr. Anthony Swinehart teaches a summer class that takes students to the physical place of the content they are studying: the Florida Keys. Why the Keys? Because, as Swinehart says, “It is the only real subtropical environment in the continental United States.”

In this marine biology course, lectures and laboratories are complemented with boat and snorkeling trips to coral reefs and other marine habitats. This course puts students inside the ecology of shallow, subtropical, marine environments. Maybe the best part about it is, you do not have to be a biology major to participate. Additionally, students work together in groups and conduct independent research on a selected marine habitat.

“Everything is alien and novel,” says biology major spencer Bohlinger ’20. “There is stunning beauty and very real danger in every moment, so you can’t figure out which of the two is responsible for your racing heart as a shark swims just feet below you. Just the richness and diversity of life is awe inspiring.”

After days filled with exciting expeditions, students return to the lab and classify what they saw and found. The trip becomes an opportunity for many firsts. “From the first time you catch yourself being followed by a six-foot-long barracuda with dozens of razor sharp teeth,” Bohlinger remembers, “or the first time you find yourself floating in the ocean with no land anywhere to be seen; you feel overwhelmed with the sense that the ocean is a place that you do not belong.”

Dr. Swinehart started this course when he first came to teach in 2001. He had experienced a course similar to this in undergrad, and he wanted to replicate it for his students. Though preference is given to upperclassmen biology majors, he says some of the most enjoyable experiences have been with non-biology majors.

Psychology major Ethan Visser ’20 credits the trip for giving him, “an awesome hands-on experience studying biology and seeing the nitty gritty of how it’s done.” His favorite memory is seeing a sea turtle while kayaking with friends as well as exploring underwater with biology major Luke Woltanski ’20, who recalls, “Ethan and I went night diving in the canal at about midnight. The mangroves were all around; it was pretty much a salt-water river going through this forest of mangroves that was about fourteen-feet deep at its deepest.”

For Dr. Swinehart, it’s all about balance. “I’ll say, okay in a half hour we are going to go to the beach and play volleyball. Usually they appreciate that,” he says. “Sometimes, for instance, there will be a rainy day and we can’t get a boat, and instead we’ll go collect algae in the bay. That might not be the most exciting thing, but I find ways to make it fun and make teams form. We make the data gathering a competition between groups for the prize of ice cream.”

Late night jam sessions became the perfect way to unwind after long lab days, as Woltanski remembers: “The marine bio trip is a really busy time, so we go from around 8 a.m. to sometimes ten or eleven at night when we’re doing our lab stuff. Many nights, Dr. Swinehart and most of the rest of the group would be out there with us, and would sometimes sing along. That was really cool for me as a musician being able to connect with another musician and then be with the rest of the group as well while we played. We were a pretty tight-knit group!”

At the end of the day, the trip is a class where students get to grow academically and experience the adventure of the unknown with their classmates. Biology major Kara Johnson ’22 remembers, “It was a great thing for perspective on my life, making me reconsider what I wanted to do with the rest of my life as well. We were all from very different backgrounds both in studies and in walks of life, but we all shared that two weeks together, and we really enjoyed it. It was something profound like that; we became a family really fast.”

Victoria NuñezVictoria Nuñez, ’22, has a deep love for connecting people to people and is always up for an adventure. She writes because she has to, but she enjoys it more than she lets on. In her free time, you can catch her laughing, dancing, or people watching.

Published in January 2020