Food Insecurity Down in the Bayou

Chief Parfait-Dardar offers a traditional Native proverb, “The land was not given to us by our ancestors, it was loaned to us from our children.” There is a moment of silence between us and then she says definitively, “If more people understood that concept, we wouldn’t be in the state we are in today.”

By Ruhamah Tess Weil 

Ruhamah is a junior at Middlebury College and a proud member of Williams-Mystic F’19. She is majoring in Film and Political Science and hopes her academic experiences will inform a future career in socially-impactful storytelling. She was born in Washington, D.C. and moved to Switzerland when she was five. There, on the banks of Lac Leman, she discovered a love for nature and all things water. She is unabashedly obsessed with dogs and books and Netflix and tacos and art (of any form) and coffee. While at Williams-Mystic, she became a yoga fanatic and much, much more determined (than she already was) to learn how to surf. 

This piece is one of several examples of research conducted in the Williams-Mystic Marine Policy class. Ruhamah conducted her research in collaboration with Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. Chief Parfait-Dardar is one of our main hosts and co-educators on the Louisiana Field Seminar.

Click here for more example of how Williams-Mystic students engage in research on timely, real-world issues. 

image shows a steaming tray of boiled crawfish

There is nothing noticeably blue about a cooked Louisiana blue crab. Lying belly up on the table, its legs curl inwards like the talons of a raptor, its prey having just slipped free of their grip. Boiling water has turned its formerly indigo carapace a feverish orange. Against the milky white of the abdomen, this vibrance appears to bleed, as though something beneath the shell is still alive, trapped and fighting to break through its confining armor. To anyone unfamiliar with the dish, the blue crab is a formidable opponent. If not removed correctly, exoskeleton cracks and splinters, blurring the line between edible and inedible. Buttery meat hides unpredictably within claws, easily overlooked. Internal anatomy unrecognizable to the common inlander—stringy, spidery, sometimes green—challenges the desire of eyes sanitized by pre-prepared foods. Eating the blue crab is not intuitive, is messy, is delicious. But it is not something a fork and knife can dissect. It is not something you can simply figure out as you go along. You have to be shown how by those who know.

“That’s what’s so unique about us: our cooking.” Shirell Parfait-Dardar, Chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, does not sound like someone who’s had a hard week when she says this. She laughs, and it sounds genuine. “It’s just so unfortunate that we’re losing what we cook with, you know?”

Southern Louisiana is one of the most popular fishing destinations of the United States and is the nation’s second largest seafood producer, with an output of over 850 million pounds of seafood per year. The cuisine that characterizes the Gulf of Mexico has never been associated with restraint or subtlety. This is the home of Mardi Gras, of “Slap Ya Mama” Cajun seasoning, of the Po’boy, of the deep-fried, sugar-smothered, steaming beignet. And yet, with every passing year, the plates of coastal Louisianans are growing just a little smaller, just a little emptier.

The term “food desert” seems unusually cruel when applied to Terrebonne Parish in southeastern Louisiana, for of all the things the region is lacking in—funding, healthcare, social justice, and higher education, to name a few—water is not one. It is an uncomfortable truth that the bayou has become the butt of many a morbid joke. “I’ll be traveling south next week—that is, if it’s still there!” Land loss is not a debatable issue in this place. It is happening, happening visibly, and happening at rates that would seem astonishing in most other regions of the country. The popular fast fact is that every one hundred minutes, a football field’s worth of wetlands disappears into the ocean. Here, houses live on stilts. You don’t park your car at the very edge of the road—that is where ditch becomes moat and sinking mud masquerades as solid ground. Prized possessions sit well above those belongings you don’t mind gifting to the flood. Tall rain boots are kept within reach.

image shows a woman listening to a student with a piece of laminated paper in his hands; in the background, students and others look on. The group is at the edge of a verdant bayou

Flood control and water diversion projects all along the Mississippi River’s path have narrowed and sped up water flow, directing it straight out into the Gulf. Mark Twain, that authorial embodiment of the Mississippi, once described his relationship to its geography as altered by his becoming a steamboat pilot. “Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!” Although his attitude towards the waterway is clearly a tender and loving one, it equally echoes the belief that emerged in accordance with the systematic engineering of the river’s path in the nineteenth century: that the basin was a sedentary fixture of the landscape, that it could be tamed, confined, and memorized, that it wasn’t an evolutionary body subject to interminable change. This myth has resulted in the robbing of Louisiana. Sediment amassed in each state the Mississippi flows through should be deposited in the delta, where river becomes ocean. This sediment would, if left to nature’s own devices, be incorporated into the wetlands of Louisiana, strengthening and aiding the retention of a land that is at the constant mercy of erosion-causing wave energy. But this is no longer occurring.

In state, the structures impeding this process are there as urban protective barriers, keeping New Orleans dry. And after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, even those who now are holding the short end of the stick repeatedly say it’s okay, we get it. But Dr. Craig Colten, professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University, is not surprised by the sociopolitical parameters of this dynamic, explaining that the flipside of the understandable choice to protect the city is also a historically charged decision to ignore those rural communities on the southern coast. “Most of these people came in various diasporas, came in less than ideal circumstances, pushed out to the margins of society as well as to the literal edge of our continental land.” For that reason, he’s determined to shift the public perspective of the issue. It is not merely an environmental crisis, but a crisis of society too. “There’s lots said about coastal restoration,” he says, “but nothing is said about coastal culture restoration.” However, in order to restore something, it has to have been lost first.

“My mother remembers community gardens down in Dulac. She remembers when you really didn’t go to the doctor: you went to my great grandmother. She was a healer, and she did it all naturally.” Chief Parfait-Dardar is speaking of recent times—of her own lifetime. Today, because of a lack of space for gardens due to acute land loss, because of saltwater intrusion as a result of wetland destruction, traditional foods and medicinal plants can’t grow. “We’re an oil and gas state. There’s tons of pollution of the water, of the environment.” Although she would be the first in a room to stand up and decry the death of vegetation in her town, she isn’t ready to say that it has been lost. That’s thanks to her kids.

“We teach [the next generation] hands-on how to plant, protect, preserve, and then utilize. We teach them that everything works together.” The order of those lessons is crucial to proper stewardship. Even if there is no current planting or harvesting happening on the lands of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band, they are hopeful and perseverant. They keep the knowledge alive through sharing.

On the other hand, the tribe is realistic. Careers are no longer expected to be in the fields that have traditionally supported them. Subsistence living is totally out of the question too. Not that long ago—until Hurricane Andrew of 1992 pushed environmental stressors over the edge—families could raise livestock, chicken and goats, could hunt for meat, deer and rabbit, could fish and grow produce. Today, you need an income. You need to pay for your flood insurance and for your groceries and for your electric bill so you can freeze most of the groceries (to hold you over until you can spare the time for another shopping trip) and for the car that you need to drive to get to the groceries and the bank and the doctor and the pharmacy at least fifteen miles away.

If you worked in the area in 2010, you remember the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. “Pardon my language,” Chief Parfait-Dardar warns, “but Deepwater kicked our asses and it’s still kicking them today.” Many of the local fishermen don’t even break even because of how steeply catch and quality of catch has declined since the disaster—and they certainly can’t afford to keep any to feed their own.

The chief, like Dr. Colten, argues for the young to migrate north. But critically, she does not envision this as a permanent move. She wants the young members of her tribe to go and educate themselves on things that have not yet found a place in southern Louisiana, such as green energy. “You may need to leave the state to get the proper training but bring it back. Just because it’s not here doesn’t mean you can’t bring it back.” Over and over again, Dr. Colten warns against disaster dispersal: unorganized migration north following disaster. However, due to the dire living conditions and degrading environment of the present, virtually any migration could be defined as disaster dispersal. According to Dr. Colten, NGOs working for the area despise the idea of migration. They call it “retreat” and they “spit it out like the term is toxic.” Dr. Colten underscores how geographic mobility, coupled with the transportation of culture, is key to the very character of the people of Terrebonne Parish. Many residents here came from elsewhere and recreated their communities in the bayou.

Chief Parfait-Dardar acknowledges her adaptive roots and stresses once again the role formal training has in future evolution. As the bayou fails to support careers, people head to the nearby city of Houma for business opportunities. But those aren’t common for Native Americans, who often lack access to the formal business training needed to succeed.

“Right now, the adaption hasn’t worked,” Chief Parfait-Dardar says. “We’ve had to turn to grocery stores, and we can’t pay for organic diets. ‘Yucky’ foods are the least expensive, are what we can afford.” This has led to rampant cancer, diabetes, and heart disease in her community. Relying on the safety net that is currently in place hasn’t meshed with her community’s way of life either. SNAP benefits, the food assistance program many in the area partake in, come with stringent work requirements. For many tribal community members — the elderly, those who lack GEDs, and those who were trained in fields that  are no longer viable due to environmental devastation — these work requirements are nearly impossible to fulfill. While adaption is accepted as the way forward, it won’t save them if only Chief Parfait-Dardar’s tribe evolves. Serious rethinking and adaptation of local, state and federal efforts is needed too. The first step towards this goal may simply be a shift of mindset.

As inspiration, Chief Parfait-Dardar offers a traditional Native proverb, “The land was not given to us by our ancestors, it was loaned to us from our children.” There is a moment of silence between us and then she says definitively, “If more people understood that concept, we wouldn’t be in the state we are in today.”

From Shark-Tagging to Climate Change Law: Eric Laschever’s (F’77) Williams-Mystic Story

By Meredith Carroll

Image shows Eric smiling aboard a small sailing vessel, evident from the lines neatly pinned and coiled behind him. He is wearing sunglasses
Eric Laschever (F’77) aboard the SV Elizabeth Jean

Today, Eric Laschever (F’77) is an environmental attorney and law professor who recently contributed to a landmark federal climate lawsuit. 

When he participated in the very first Williams-Mystic semester in Fall 1977, Eric was part of an educational experiment. 

“It was the hardest semester I had at Williams,” Eric says. “[Founding director] Ben Labaree had to prove to the College that this was going to be rigorous.”

For Eric, Williams-Mystic proved to be the beginning of his career. Eric conducted marine policy research on the Law of the Sea conference, then ongoing in New York. In the course of his research, he visited the United Nations, where a staffer at the treaty negotiations recommended an interdisciplinary master’s program in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington. 

Eric ultimately attended the program. Afterward, he worked for the State of Alaska for several years before landing in Washington, DC, where he earned his law degree from Georgetown. 

From there, Eric pursued a career in environmental law and land use law. It was through this work — and through his former advisor at University of Washington ‚— that he developed an interest in how the law can address climate change. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Eric remembers climate change-related issues cropping up around statues throughout his field: The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and more. 

At around the same time, Eric and his wife, Eulalie Sullivan, became involved in sailing education. They began volunteering with a science under sail program geared at middle– and high-school students. The program was founded by two Williams-Mystic alumni, Ellie Linen Low and Sophie Johnston. 

Near the end of the decade, Eric proposed a course on climate change law, which he taught at Seattle University Law School for several years. Eric resumed teaching again in 2018 — this time in the same University of Washington program where he’d gotten his master’s degree. 

As Eric renewed his focus on climate change litigation, he encountered Juliana v. United States: a major climate lawsuit to which he would ultimately contribute. 

Juliana v. U.S. began making its way through the federal court system in 2015. In the case, 21 youth plaintiffs (including Kelsey Juliana, for whom the case is named) assert that the federal government, through its affirmative actions in creating a national energy system that causes climate change, has violated the constitutional rights of its youngest citizens to life, liberty, and property as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources. 

In the five years since it was first brought, the case has been wending its way through the federal courts system. During that time, Eric became involved with Our Children’s Trust, the non-profit law firm that is advocating on behalf of the defendants in Juliana. In fall 2019, Eric arranged an introduction to one of the lead lawyers on the case. 

Early this year, Eric wrote and filed a brief on behalf of the expert witnesses in the case. 

As Eric describes it, Juliana draws on two areas of law: constitutional law and public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine stands for the idea that the government holds certain resources in common for everyone. Attorneys drew on constitutional law, meanwhile, to argue that the government had a special duty to protect these resources on the behalf of children — a group both uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change and unable to act to protect itself from these effects. 

Neither area of the law has historically been applied to climate change. That’s a common theme, Eric says, in legal actions brought to address climate change. 

“We talk a lot about climate change adaptation and it’s not only the natural world that needs adaptation if we continue on our current trajectory. All of the institutions that we have created to deal with other issues are going to need to adapt” as well, Eric says. In most legal action addressing climate change, he says, “lawyers [have] had to come up with novel legal theories” that expand the scope of existing environmental legislation to include climate change. 

It’s a valuable strategy, Eric emphasizes. But as he sees it, this need for adaptation also highlights the lack of any federal regulatory framework specific to climate change. The private sector, he says, could play a crucial role in changing that. With enough climate change-related legal action brought under a variety of regulatory frameworks, he suggests, industry may well decide it is preferable to be regulated under “a federal scheme that actually is tailored to address” climate change and its effects. 

When it comes to Juliana v. US, the fight continues. On January 17, the most recent panel of judges to hear the case issued a divided 2-1 ruling to dismiss it. The brief that Eric wrote is part of the latest round of efforts to urge the federal courts system to reconsider the case. 

For Eric, a journey that began with Williams-Mystic’s first semester has led to the front lines of climate litigation. It’s a journey, Eric reflects, that also has to do with his connection to the ocean. 

Image shows three college students slumped side by side, napping in a cozy, wood-paneled nook belowdecks, with two bunks just visible in a wall to the right
Eric and his classmates about the Westward during their Williams-Mystic semester. From left to right: Carrie (Green) Yardley, Eric Laschever, Deborah Costa McKew, Andrew Mitchell, and (above) Lani Peterson.

“The thing that brought me to Williams-Mystic in the first place,” he says, “was that I had grown up in New Jersey, and spent a lot of time at the New Jersey shore. I had salt water in my veins, as it were. I’d grown up sailing, and I’d really had that connection to the water.” 

In Williams-Mystic, Eric saw an opportunity to retain and strengthen that connection. He participated in a boat-building lab where he and his classmates built a dory. In the back of his mind, he dreamed about “sailing off” in a boat like that. 

In 2010, he got the opportunity to fulfill that dream. He and Eulalie bought a sailboat: the Elizabeth Jean, named for their daughters. Together, they spent four years sailing from Seattle to Maine via the Panama Canal — a trip that included a stopover in Mystic, Connecticut. 

“It reconnected me to my first loves of sailing and the ocean,” Eric says. 

His recent experiences with sailing and sailing education have given Eric a new perspective on his own memories of sailing at Williams-Mystic. 

“When you are taking other people out on sailboats,” Eric reflects, “you’re taking a risk that you think is justified because the educational experience is going to be something that you could not provide them without taking the risk.” 

This lesson applies to Eric’s own education.

Even now, Eric’s Williams-Mystic offshore voyage stands out as his “most memorable college experience.” He recalls standing under floodlights on deck at night, pulling sharks out of the Atlantic Ocean as part of a shark-tagging experiment. They brought a tuna on board, too, feasting on tuna steaks later that night. 

They couldn’t have been far, Eric now realizes, from the waters where they’d swum earlier that day. It was thanks to the Gulf Stream that the class could swim in the Atlantic in mid-October — the same system that sustained the organisms that the sharks fed on. 

The memory seemed so incredible that Eric questioned whether it was accurate. On a recent visit, Founding Director Ben Labaree confirmed that Eric’s recollection was correct. 

“Professor Labaree took a lot of risks in setting up the Williams-Mystic program,” Eric now realizes. “For one thing, he had to give up his tenure at Williams College … But it was also risky to take a bunch of students out to sea” — to allow them to swim in the Gulf Stream by day, then pull sharks from those waters at night. 

“And I’m sure that that’s how Ben approached not only the sailing component of what we did but the whole thing. I think he concluded [that], unless he took the risk that he did to set the program up, he couldn’t provide the educational experience that he thought was needed at that point in time. As a nation, and really internationally, we were putting this renewed focus on the ocean and on ocean resources.”

For Eric, the result was an experience that not only launched his career but also helped sustain a lifelong connection to the ocean. 

As Eric remembers Ben Labaree advising him: “‘It’s not what you remember that’s important. It’s what you do with what you remember.’”

Six Things I Wish I’d Known When Applying to Williams-Mystic

Before I attended Williams-Mystic, I was stressed, unsatisfied, and wanted to do something new and fulfilling. I didn’t know where my path was headed, what kind of career I was looking for. But Williams-Mystic — through all the random, fun, and new experiences — changed all that, giving me the inspiration to explore and discover my true passions and interests.

By Alex Quizon (S’19) 

Alex is a junior at Williams College studying chemistry with a concentration in maritime studies. Alex participated in Williams-Mystic during the spring of his sophomore year (spring 2019), and now serves as one of Williams-Mystic’s alumni ambassadors

  1. How awesome the field seminars are.
Alex grins while cradling a baby alligator (about a foot long)
Alex during a swamp tour on the Louisiana Field Seminar.

Everyone at Williams always asks about life on the tall ship, and although that experience is amazing in itself Williams-Mystic is not just that. Some of my favorite moments were the smaller ones in California and Louisiana: Watching a classmate eat an In-and-Out burger for the first time in San Francisco, casually hiking the redwoods on a beautiful morning, Cajun dancing in Louisiana at night, and listening to Pitbull, Kesha, and Taylor Swift classics from our childhood in the vans going from place to place. When I was applying, I was nervous about maintaining and making friendships. These moments are joyous friendship-building memories I’ll never forget.

 

  1. How freeing the campus feels. 

Everyone has their own conception of ‘college’ based on the institution they attend: a small isolated campus in the rural Berkshires (me at Williams), a medium-sized campus in a Midwestern suburb, an enormous campus in the heart of New York City. Once we settled into the town of Mystic, I realized that learning doesn’t have to take place on a traditional campus. I don’t have to spend most of my time studying inside Spring Street Market or Sawyer Library or a Schow study room. At Williams-Mystic, I could do policy research on the docks near the drawbridge, or read poetry with friends for English on the lawns facing the Mystic River. And, I have to admit, I indulged in far too many treats from Sift Bakery and Bartleby’s Cafe for my “study breaks.” It was so nice truly being part of the hometown community.

  1. How everything fits together and just “makes sense.”

There’s no type of enlightenment that matches reading about Emily Dickinson’s “divine intoxication” upon traveling to the sea in English class and then actually sailing on a tall ship, feeling this exultation for yourself. I thought the interdisciplinary aspect would be sufficiently captured at “liberal arts colleges” like Williams, but Williams-Mystic takes it to a whole new level with experiential learning. One day you’re reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for English and the next week you’re actually walking along Cannery Row in California and discussing the novel. Or you’re learning about coral reefs in Marine Ecology and then you’re actually in St. John’s (Virgin Islands), walking on coral and snorkeling with them. There’s no feeling like it.

  1. How you can make your own interests fit with the interests of the Williams-Mystic program.

20130105-DSC06539Many of my classmates at Williams have a hard time differentiating the “water” component from “maritime studies.” You do not have to be interested in marine science or marine policy to find this program fulfilling; my classmates had majors in Classics, Math, Biology, History, and many other subjects.

For my history final research paper I learned more about my cultural identity, writing about the movement and subsequent treatment of Filipino immigrants in America. For my English final project, I incorporated my musical expertise by writing a Broadway-esque original composition inspired by Moby-Dick. Whatever your interests and passions are, there’s a way to make it work.

  1. How there will be so many delightful surprises and new experiences.
image shows two students laughing as they crawl onto a dock while wearing life jackets
Alex and sailing partner Jonna recover from some minor capsizing

I learned some sea chanteys. I not only went sailing in the Mystic River for my first time but accidentally capsized at the very end of the regatta. I ran out of the van in a pouring thunderstorm with Stephen and Lisa at Grand Isle Beach to collect seashells for our science project. And I got to steer a tall ship at 2AM with the compass light turned off, guided only by the stars in the night sky.

Before I attended Williams-Mystic, I was stressed, unsatisfied, and wanted to do something new and fulfilling. I didn’t know where my path was headed, what kind of career I was looking for. But Williams-Mystic — through all the random, fun, and new experiences — changed all that, giving me the inspiration to explore and discover my true passions and interests.

  1. How loving and understanding the community is.

This cannot be overstated. Everyone — faculty, administration, Mystic Seaport staff, Mystic residents, classmates, etc. — is cheering you on through this program. There is an unparalleled amount of overwhelming support. Your professors are right across the street and they’re more than happy to chat and help. You can always pass by Laurie’s office (Lab Manager) and say hi, you can talk to Tom (Director) about any of your problems, and if you ever want to see sunshine in its purest form you can pass by Mary O’Loughlin (Deputy Director) for a warm smile and piece of chocolate. Everyone is there to help you learn and succeed, and I’m forever grateful for this love and support.

Research With an Impact at Williams-Mystic

By Todd McLeish

Two students gaze intently at a small marine creature (not visible) held in one student's hand. A rocky shoreline is visible in the background.

When Henry Roman (F’17) heard that the U.S. Navy vessels USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald had been involved in collisions within two months of each other in 2017 and 17 sailors had died in the incidents, it reinforced what he had heard was the Navy’s reputation for poor seamanship. As a student at SUNY Maritime College, where he received in-depth training in ship navigation and related disciplines, the Navy’s reputation was a frequent topic of discussion, and the collisions cemented this idea in the minds of his professors and classmates.

The Navy’s official reports about the collisions were issued during Roman’s semester at Williams-Mystic, so he decided that his independent research project for marine policy class would be an analysis of the collisions and the Navy’s protocols for training its sailors in proper seamanship. So he read the Navy’s reports, arranged interviews with the Government Accountability Office and several Navy officers, and discussed the issue with others he knew in the Navy, as well as with some of the ROTC staff at SUNY Maritime.

“Whether or not it was a failure of naval seamanship, I just wanted to get at the underlying cause of the collisions,” said Roman. “What I found was that Navy seamanship was lacking, their training was lacking, and perhaps the lack of specialization in their training was hurting their naval officers. These two collisions, which were deadly, were evidence of this.”

Independent research has been an integral part of the Williams-Mystic experience from its earliest days. Students in marine policy, maritime history, oceanographic processes and marine ecology classes are assigned an original research project to conduct each semester, and the results are always enlightening.

“We have 43 years of research conducted by our students, and for some of them it’s the first time they’ve done their own research project,” said Tom Van Winkle, executive director of Williams-Mystic. “In contrast to most research on college campuses, which is tied to their professors’ research, the professors here let their students decide on their topic and they collaborate with their students about how to go about it.

“For many students, it’s an introduction to what graduate school is like,” he added. “For others, they discover that they’re interested in something they had no idea they’d be interested in.”

The assignment in marine policy class is usually to select a project based on a current controversial policy issue that has not yet been resolved. Most of the science research projects are investigations of local environmental conditions, while the history class assignment requires that students visit the Mystic Seaport archives and conduct research based on some of its original sources.

As part of his final report, Roman recommended that the Navy require specialized surface warfare training for naval officers that focuses on either navigation or engineering rather than a general training course that tries to turn every officer into a jack-of-all-trades.

“I found some previous reports that said that naval training was not up to scratch, and I also found some minor unreported collisions and incidents that highlighted the failings of the training and that made the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions seem inevitable,” he said.

Roman submitted his report to the Government Accountability Office and to several of the naval officers he interviewed.

“It was a 50/50 reaction,” he said. “It was mildly approved by the officers, but the GAO thought it was an intriguing possibility that they hadn’t considered. We had a long conversation about it, and they said it was an excellent idea.”

Roman will soon be an ensign in the Navy and a surface warfare officer aboard the USS Green Bay, which will make it difficult for him to pursue his recommendations.

“As of now, nothing has changed with the Navy’s training structure, and I’m not expecting it will any time soon,” he said.  “I doubt they’ll take the word of a then-cadet and now-junior officer very seriously. But they have amped up the training time.”

Image is a headshot of Morgan Michaels; she is smiling with a rocks and greenery in the background

Not every Williams-Mystic research project reaches so far into the inner workings of a large institution like the U.S. Navy. But all have an impact in one way or another.

“We often find that several students end up doing a research project that suddenly becomes their senior thesis,” said Van Winkle, “and they come back in the summer for an internship or they continue doing that research through their senior year. Their experience here aligns with their major and enhances and defines their senior thesis.”

That’s what happened with Morgan Michaels (F’18) and her maritime history research. An English major at Williams College with a concentration in public health, she chose as her maritime history research project to investigate the nautical history of medicine after finding photographic negatives in the Mystic Seaport Museum archives of a pediatric hospital ship docked in New York harbor in the early 1900s.

“That set me off on a larger research project about the floating hospitals that dotted the Atlantic coast and parts of Europe during the Progressive Era,” she said. “Instead of treating children in hospitals on land, doctors chose to treat them at sea, which is logistically a much tougher place to practice medicine.”

It’s a project she continued to pursue during her senior year at Williams.

“I wanted to know if this idea of treating kids on a boat was a publicity stunt or a one-time novelty event or a legitimate ongoing medical practice,” she said. “It turns out it was a genuine attempt to do medicine – really innovative medicine for the time because they didn’t have access to all of the medical tools on the boats.”

Based on her research, Michaels found that many doctors of the period prescribed fresh air and visits to coastal environments where the salt water would provide recuperative benefits for a wide variety of ailments, especially ailments afflicting children.

“Rich people would pay for vacations to recuperate at the seashore, and doctors decided they could charge patients for the same kind of service,” explained Michaels. “There were seaside hospitals for children in dozens of cities, and social workers and community organizers would refer kids to spend a couple days or a week there.”

Michaels continued her research when she returned to Williams for her final undergraduate semester.

“Most of my sources were visual, because there was so much photography from that era, so going to the Library of Congress website and seeing hundreds of photos allowed me to piece together the stories of the patients from photos, since most patients didn’t have their stories written down,” she said. “Telling the story from the pictures was challenging and exciting.”

Research projects like those conducted by Roman and Michaels often provide benefits beyond the classroom and research experience.

“The value of these kinds of research projects is sometimes having an impact that you didn’t think you would have,” concluded Van Winkle. “In other cases, the value is in learning these different research skills that students haven’t necessarily learned yet at the undergraduate level and getting a taste of grad school. Regardless of the result, we’ve found that these independent research projects always help our students grow in so many ways.”

Life On Campus: Three S’19 Students Reflect On a Williams-Mystic Education

By Meredith Carroll

IMG_1138

Before Williams-Mystic, Spring 2019 students Emily Tran, Alex Quizon, and Hayden Gillooly saw the ocean as something separate from their daily lives. Alex and Hayden, both sophomores at Williams College, grew up inland: Alex in central New Jersey, Hayden in North Adams, Massachusetts. Emily, an Oregon native and a sophomore in the process of transferring from Vassar College to Vanderbilt University, had never considered studying the ocean before.

As Emily put it, “I’ve always thought oceans were very cool and really beautiful and just, very mysterious.”

After nearly 17 weeks of immersing themselves in the ocean — literally as well as figuratively, outside the classroom as often as within — all three students still regard the ocean as a source of mystery. Only now, they’ve also come to understand the ocean as profoundly connected to today’s most pressing environmental challenges. Williams-Mystic, all three students say, has empowered them to pursue solutions to those challenges in their remaining time at college — and beyond.

Q: You’re all sophomores. Did you declare your major this semester, and how did Williams-Mystic influence that decision? 

Hayden: I’m studying Spanish at Williams. On the Louisiana Field Seminar, my friend Angus asked, ‘Is what I am studying good for others?’ That really stuck with me. I’m learning about people’s stories and how their lives are affected so deeply by a changing world. At the end of the day, if I’m helping people in some way, I would consider it a life well-lived. So I decided to add the geosciences major in addition to Spanish. I think those coupled together, particularly because a lot of Spanish-speaking countries are on coasts, will be really interesting. I’m so excited to go back to Williams now and study those two subjects.

Emily: At Vassar, I was leaning toward a double major in environmental studies and biology. I’m transferring schools to Vanderbilt, which doesn’t have an environmental studies program, only environmental science or environmental sociology majors. Being at Williams-Mystic, being able to interact with people who have been directly impacted by climate change, helped me realize that I care more about environmental sociology.

Alex: I think what’s important to underscore is that this program really is for everyone. It’s for everyone because the ocean necessarily creates the connection between all these fields that society tells us are different. If you don’t have a major in mind coming into Williams-Mystic, you’re certainly going to have a more clear understanding of what your major is by the end of it.

Q: What will you bring back from Williams-Mystic to your home campuses?

Emily: Even though this is a maritime studies program, a lot of what I took from this program is actually the structure – the small classes and interactions with professors, making our own research projects. That’s not something I did at Vassar, and I gained a lot from the nature of this program. I learned how to see my professors as real people. I learned how to do research.

Hayden: I realized that there is as much value in non-academics during a school semester as there can be in academics. I’ve learned so much this semester in between classes, in those van conversations and over coffee with friends. Those moments, too, are times that change us and allow us to view the world differently. It’s important for your life and your soul to go watch a sunset and to take a walk and recognize the beauty of the place that’s around you.

Alex: I agree with you completely. Work and life — we shouldn’t make them separate, even though it seems like we have to allocate them that way. That frame of mind is also what I want to bring back. What’s so unique about this program specifically is that it tells you why the academics apply to real life, why the academics ought to be brought into life.

Hayden: This semester, more than ever, schoolwork has become something I really want to do. It makes me think about life, and how I want to live a life. I want a life in which what I am doing is something I’m excited to do.

Q: What’s your relationship with the oceans and coasts like now that you’ve been through the semester? 

Alex: It’s so funny. Before coming to Mystic, the sea was this thing that we don’t know. By the end of this program, the sea is something we still don’t fully know. It’s still the unknown. In the end, you’re still learning.

Hayden: Before this program, I viewed the ocean as just this place I loved to visit, and that made me feel so happy and so full. And now I view it as a subject. It’s more than just a place: It’s the unknown, and it’s a subject I want to continue studying for an indefinite amount of time.

Emily: Before, I definitely did just see the ocean as a place and a mystery. Like Alex said, it’s still a mystery. But I’ve been able to study it in ways I would not have imagined before. It makes me think about all the possibilities out there that I have not yet seen.

Research with an Impact: Four Fall ’19 Students Share their Williams-Mystic Marine Policy Research Projects

At Williams-Mystic, students tackle real-world issues — and get out into the world as part of their research.

Independent research is at the core of the Williams-Mystic experience. There’s nothing quite like venturing into the field to help you understand how science is made — nothing like delving into the archives to understand how history is written. And with upwards of 13 different majors in a typical class of 18 students, independent research projects give students the opportunity to draw on their pre-existing interests and expertise.

In the Marine Policy course, each student chooses to study a current unresolved question impacting America’s coastlines and oceans. They then interview a myriad of stakeholders with a vested interest in the outcome of the issue; examine relevant federal and state laws, regulations; and conduct cross-disciplinary research in order to develop credible policy strategies and solutions to their real-world problem. A student researching a lobster fishery, for instance, might talk to lobster fishermen as well as NOAA fishery scientists. Someone studying the Asian carp invasion in the Great Lakes might interview activists as well as state government officials. Indeed, students often share their resulting policy briefs with the stakeholders they interviewed — many of whom include Williams-Mystic alumni. 

This problem-based approach empowers students to gain the knowledge, confidence, and skills to address major questions and issues in all fields. Communicating directly with coastal and ocean-based stakeholders to seek solutions to real-world issues instills a passion for learning that drives excellence, fosters a sense of purpose, and enables creative problem-solving. It also provides the coastal stakeholder community with an opportunity to benefit from capable research, objective investigations, and collaboration with the only undergraduate college program that examines the ocean from an interdisciplinary lens, while seeking opportunities to empower global problem-solving.

Below, four students from the Class of Fall 2019 share their policy briefs and discuss what they learned from the experience. Click any of the links below to read the full brief.

The Future of the Liquified Natural Gas Facility in Tacoma, WA

By Hazel Atwill

Image shows a student smiling in the middle of a grassy salt marsh. She is wearing a life jacket and a baseball hatOriginally from Tacoma, Washington, Hazel Atwill is a junior at Smith College studying conservation biology and coastal and marine science. Her favorite part of the Williams Mystic experience was sailing on tall ships.

Hazel on her research: 

“I gained a lot from doing this policy research, in that I was able to more meaningfully connect with my home community even though I was on the other side of the country. Because I completed this project, I feel more comfortable interviewing people and expressing how I think change should be happening.”

Excerpt from the brief:

Puget Sound Energy and Port of Tacoma are proposing Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) as a transitory solution to bunker fuel for large ships. With the climate changing more and more rapidly, there is the constant hope of new solutions to mitigate some of the damage caused by fossil fuels. However, LNG is primarily methane gas which is sourced from fracking.

One current approach to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is building the proposed LNG facility at the Port of Tacoma. LNG is a fossil fuel but considered cleaner than diesel. However, if the facility, or any of the equipment to get the LNG to the facility were to leak or break it would cause serious environmental issues. There are also treaty rights that have not been considered. The Puyallup Tribe of Indians has the right to meaningful consultation, and the City of Tacoma has not met this requirement yet. Port of Tacoma should not build this facility, but if they go ahead with the plans, there should be more meaningful consultation and more investment in truly clean fuels.

Read the full brief here. 

Protecting New Jersey’s Meadowlands and Local Communities from Floods and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Jeff Erazo

Image shows a student in a bright yellow rain jacket, looking off into the distance. He is standing in a small cove, with an evergreen-lined shore and other rain-gear-wearing students in the background.Jeff Erazo is a comparative literature major with a concentration in Spanish at Williams College. 

Jeff on his research: 

My policy research at Williams-Mystic allowed me to better understand sea-level rise in the greater NY-NJ metropolitan area — a place I call home. Being able to talk to stakeholders helped me understand how I can be more proactive in my community; I learned about many environmental groups in my area that I hope to join soon! This policy project also taught me the importance of listening — which is key to helping bridge competing interests between various stakeholders. 

Excerpt from the brief: 

Located in one of the nation’s most densely populated metropolitan areas, the New Jersey Meadowlands are one of the largest brackish estuarine systems in the northeastern United States. For decades, these wetlands were used as landfills, contaminated with toxic waste, and drained for urban development—the latter which has significantly reduced the size of the Meadowlands. … 

The Meadowlands will likely experience high-tide flooding in low-lying areas, even in the absence of storm surge due to sea level rise. Coupled with the projected six feet of SLR early in the next century, over 308,000 homes, 362,000 jobs, and 619 residents could potentially be inundated. The loss of life, homes, and businesses would be astronomical. The North Bergen Liberty Generating plant’s proposed site is located in a flood plain, right on the edge of the Hackensack; the Meadowlands, however, are unable to absorb storm surge from the Hackensack River. This is not solely a New Jersey problem, however. Rising sea levels threaten all coastal communities around the world.

Read the full brief here.

Towards Sustainable Native Hawaiian Access to Green Sea Turtle Take

By Colin Goodbred 

Image shows a grinning student sitting on the deck of a ship. He is holding up what appears to be a grill rack, and you can just barely see a large bucket in the foreground. Behind him, there is a series of coils of rope — lots of rope.Colin is a member of Dartmouth College class of 2021 and Williams-Mystic F’19. He is majoring in quantitative social science and minoring in philosophy, and he is interested in working at the intersection of science, government, and ethics, exploring how science can be used to inform ethical policymaking.

Colin on his research: 

Being able to do my own extensive policy research project at Williams-Mystic challenged me to interact directly with stakeholders – many with passionate beliefs on how to best protect their communities. Not only was I reading academic articles online, I was actually talking to people, hearing in their voices how much they cared about the environment, their culture, their livelihoods, and all of our futures. It was humbling to realize how many people have dedicated their lives to this issue, and while I cannot bring the expertise and lived experience to the issue that they can, I can offer my ability to listen and do my best to share their voices with others. 

An excerpt from the brief:

In May 2018, Native Hawaiian Bronson Nakaahiki was arrested for killing a green sea turtle and harvesting its meat, violating the Endangered Species Act as well as Hawaii state law. This arrest, one of several cases of harassing and killing sea turtles in 2018, intensified Native Hawaiian efforts to enact policy change and allow for the cultural practice of harvesting sea turtles, or honu as they are known in the Hawaiian language. Indeed, green sea turtle populations have recovered significantly recently, particularly in Hawaii, thanks to strict state and federal legal protections, but they have not yet reached the official benchmark set out by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998 of 5,000 nesting green sea turtles per year. With the increasing abundance of sea turtles, more Native individuals are pushing for access to harvesting honu, which was considered a mythological guardian of children and was utilized in the form of meat, bones, and eggs for ceremonial events and subsistence until the listing of green sea turtles as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1978. I recommend the amendment of the Endangered Species Act to permit Native Hawaiians the ability to take endangered and threatened species, modeled off of the exception granted for Alaskan Natives, as well as the passage of a bill amending Hawaii Revised Statutes, Chapter 195D-4-E and Hawaii Administrative Rules 13-124-9 to decriminalize such take.

Read the full brief here.

The Future of Maine Aquaculture: Growth and Sustainability in Fish Farming

By Zach Arfa 

Image shows a grinning student holding a baby alligator. The gator's body is about a foot long; it's mouth is slightly open to reveal minute, razor-sharp teeth.Zach Arfa grew up in Shelburne Falls, MA and is a fourth year at Oberlin College. He studies Psychology and Dance and, thanks to Williams-Mystic, will put these skills to use in solving the environmental crisis after college.

Zach on his research: 

The policy project isn’t just an academic assignment, it was a chance for me to immerse myself into a real issue, with real stakes. It embodies Williams-Mystic’s philosophy, that learning should be engaged and experienced, not just passively absorbed. The project also builds the confidence and skills to be able to actually talk and interview stakeholders, again making it an experience not just of learning an issue but engaging one.

An excerpt from the brief: 

Through the comparison of two large scale, Atlantic Salmon, RAS aquaculture projects in Maine, I will propose a framework for comparing such aquaculture facilities to each other, and to other, traditional, facilities. This system will weigh three factors: impact on the environment, the community, and the economy. I will also compile the ways that governments can regulate this industry through existing legislation. Through these methods, communities across the country can evaluate and regulate the growth of this industry over the coming years.

These two projects are similar, but even though they are planned to be located only twenty-five miles apart, they have had different receptions from the local communities. The community of Bucksport has welcomed the Whole Oceans facility. The company promises to bring many local jobs to the small town, and the operation is being advertised as having a strong mind to conservation, with the Conservation Fund as their partner. The Nordic Aquafarms project in Belfast has seen more opposition. Wastewater has been a point of contention, as Nordic Aquafarms will discharge about 7.7 million gallons of water per day, which would increase outflow into the Penobscot Bay by 90% (Hinckley, S.). With this outflow comes a concern for eutrophication, the increase of nutrients into the water that can cause harmful algal blooms.

Read the full brief here.

 

Williams-Mystic Director Emeritus Jim Carlton warns of devastating effects of budget cuts on invasive species management

image shows a verdant coastal marsh, with a channel leading out to the ocean

Recent actions by the Trump Administration imperil the ability of federal agencies to fight the devastation wrought by invasive species.

That’s according to a letter published in the February 7 edition of Science and written by Williams-Mystic Director Emeritus Jim Carlton, along with coauthors from around the country.

Jim and his coauthors point to the staggering scale and scope of effects that invasive species can have — an impact that can be just as devastating as climate change. They argue that, with such wide-ranging impacts, invasive species must be managed at the federal level. And a recent 50% budget cut to the National Invasive Species Council, they say, “crippl[es] the ability of federal agencies to work with each other and with nonfederal stakeholders to address invasive species.”

You can read the letter in Science or view the PDF at this link.