A Virtual Science Research Experience and Building Community During a Pandemic

Hayden Gillooly S’19, Williams College ‘21

Hayden is a senior Geoscience major at Williams College, with concentrations in Spanish and Maritime Studies. She is a Spring 2019 alumni of the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program. Hayden is enrolled at Williams remotely in her hometown of North Adams, MA this semester, adapting to new ways of learning sparked by the pandemic. She is writing a thesis with Professor Lisa Gilbert at Williams-Mystic titled, “The Changing Climate of Maritime, Experiential, Place-Based Education in the Time of COVID-19.”

Since fall 2019, I looked forward to Summer 2020 in Mystic, CT working with Professor Lisa Gilbert and labmates in the Marine Geosciences Research Group (MGRG). I was eager to have meals together while discussing our projects; go on adventures, and soak up all that the Mystic Seaport Museum has to offer. It sounded like a dream summer, so I was undoubtedly disappointed when I found out that our summer work would have to be done remotely. “How would we build a research community virtually?” I thought, while admittedly tearing up a bit. Having never created a community virtually, nevermind started a friendship with someone from square-one virtually, it was hard to wrap my head around the possibility of having these ‘out of the classroom,’ connections via Zoom.

After our initial MGRG Zoom meeting, all of my worries dissipated. Lisa said that the thread that linked us all together, among our academic interests, was that we were all kind people. She said that was a prerequisite for working in her lab, and from the very first moment I saw the other four students’ bright smiles and enthusiasm, I could tell that this was true. After our first meeting, I ran downstairs after to my mom, and started speaking very quickly (as I always do when I’m excited) about how neat everyone seemed, and how it everyone was excited to be a part of the group and grow and learn in whatever way possible; even if those ways would be different than how we were expecting pre-COVID. 

During our first week of work, my research mates and I went in with full force, scheduling get-to-know-you Zooms, where we just talked for hours about everything from majors and paths that lead us to our schools, to hopes and dreams and bucket lists. Over the next 10 weeks, we philosophized over what it meant to have a meaningful life, and about chasing our wildest, greatest passions. Our friendships evolved smoothly and naturally; it was quite magical, actually, feeling these relationships take shape over a computer screen, from hundreds of miles and states apart. In fact, when I met Maggie and Jenn in person later in the summer, it felt completely natural, as if we were picking up where we left off. It felt like we already knew each other. Because we did! 

Lisa assigned us what she called, “Paper Discussions” each week. She chose a paper for us to read and discuss with one of our labmates via Zoom. Sometimes the paper lined up with our own topic, other times, that of our labmates. These meetings served as a perfect starting point for getting to know each other, and was always something that I looked so forward to. After a few weeks of working together, we all had a strong grasp of each other’s projects, to the point where we frequently exchanged articles, podcasts and relevant resources with each other, accompanied by messages saying, “this reminds me of your project!” It always made me smile to know that someone else was thinking of my project as well. Other students’ projects ranged from creating earth science systems thinking modules for a site called Teach the Earth, to analyzing the differences between in-person and virtual communities and ecosystems; to studying intra pillow hyaloclastite to analyze its porosity and biomass within the cracks. 

I am thankful that Lisa was intentional about not only giving us a rewarding research experience independently but how she so acutely recognized the value of community and learning from the people around us. Having an interdisciplinary range of projects made for fascinating conversations, with intersections between education, literature and hard science. 

Even some projects, which at first seemed to have little overlap with mine, encouraged me to think about the world from a different perspective. Much of my thesis topic’s progression has been shaped by conversations with Lisa, Lily, Jenn, Cam, and Maggie.

It was everyone’s intentionality that made all the difference. Had we all worked on our own projects, without regard to the potential connections with our labmates, I believe that my summer work could have felt incredibly isolating and unfulfilling. Having to share progress and thoughts with others helped motivate, even on long days when I felt a little lost or overwhelmed. Our excitements all grew, not only for our own work, but for each other’s projects as well. We all became a small ecosystem, as Lily’s project could argue. And through the lens of Cam’s project, we were truly a system, each understanding our role in the larger picture: MGRG. Jenn and Maggie’s projects made me think about all that happens in between the cracks (both physically in the basalt of course, but mostly in the cracks of life). The kinds of learning that happen in the cracks of structured meetings and work. 

There were in fact some silver linings to a virtual summer; one of which was having the opportunity to attend virtual conferences. The unexpected transition from in-person to remote for these conferences made them incredibly accessible to people who may not have been able to otherwise attend due to possible time or financial constraints. 

In June, I attended an event called “Building a Meaningful Remote Internship Experience,” through the Society for Women in Marine Science (SWMS). There were about 60 attendees, composed of both mentors and mentees. Strategies were shared for building communities, as well as the challenges and opportunities that a virtual environment presented us. One main takeaway from the event was that in a virtual mentoring space, we often miss out on spontaneous updates with our mentors. I wanted to change this, so I sent Lisa an email with the subject line, “A Little Victory!” and wrote, “In the SWMS meeting from the other night, something that stuck out was how in a virtual internship experience, we sometimes miss out on sharing the exciting moments of research and discovery, and may tend to just touch base with questions or concerns. So I just wanted to share with you that I just found an article that is so relevant to the ideas I’m grappling with for my thesis, that it literally made me smile!” 

In July, I attended the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous 2020 (EER20), which is a conference that includes panel discussions, talks, poster presentations and workshops. At the two poster sessions that I attended, I was the only attendee, and had the opportunity to ask in-depth questions of the researchers, and connect their work with my thesis topic. It was so wonderful to be able to discuss my project with a wide range of faculty from universities across the country, and hear their encouragement. One faculty member I met, Professor Steven Semken at Arizona State University, is an expert in place-based education, and shared relevant articles with me; I realized after our conversation, that I had actually read many of his pieces, which were incredibly formative in my understanding of this type of education. Attending EER20 reaffirmed my desire to pursue academia, not only for my unwavering love of learning, but also because of the incredible networks and communities in the field. 

In one of our last MGRG meetings, Lisa invited an alum from the research group, Caroline Hung who graduated from Williams College in 2019, to join us. Caroline is a Ph.D geochemistry student at UC Riverside. Caroline is so passionate about what she studies, and it was incredibly inspiring to hear about her experiences, especially since a research article from her Geosciences thesis was recently published.

After we wrapped up our MGRG summer work, we had a Zoom meeting with all of the other research students who worked with Williams College Geosciences professors this summer. We all shared our project topics, and had the opportunity to ask each other questions. It was a lot of fun to hear about what everyone has been working on, and to see the diverse range of topics. My favorite part, however, was realizing that we are all a part of something greater than ourselves. We are now a part of a whole network of students and faculty who all love Geosciences and education. 

We often grow when we least expect it. Summer 2020 ended up taking a drastically different shape than how we were expecting, but it was rewarding in more ways than I could possibly measure or explain. Summer 2020 showed me the immense potential of human relationships. It showed me that no matter how different two people or projects seem at first, there are always possible grounds for understanding and connection. Maybe it just takes an ice breaker like, “What song has been on your playlist recently?”, but after that, you realize that you’re both just people trying your hardest to contribute in a meaningful way to the scientific community and the world at large. And that is often enough commonality to build a friendship. 

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.

Williams-Mystic Associate Professor of Geosciences Lisa Gilbert to Lead Community Workshop for Earth Educators

“The act of coming together could result in a lot of smaller projects that add up to something big. Sometimes when we talk about something being at a national scale, what we’re talking about is a bunch of little things that share a vision.”

At Williams-Mystic, students from a wide range of majors come together to discuss some of today’s most pressing environmental challenges — and to explore, as they go through the semester together, how we can address these challenges. Underlying this approach is the belief that, simply by bringing these students together as part of a close-knit community centered on a single topic, new ideas and approaches can emerge that might never occur otherwise. 

A similar philosophy undergirds The Earth Education for Sustainable Societies Community Workshop, a project led by Lisa Gilbert, Associate Professor of Geosciences and Marine Science at Williams-Mystic, in collaboration with Cathy Manduca (Carleton College), Rachel Teasedale (California State University, Chico), Felicia Davis (Clark Atlanta University), Margie Turin (Columbia University) and others. 

“I see it as a way to, on a national scale, get a lot of different people with different perspectives sharing together about the future of the planet, and the role education has” in that future, Gilbert said of the workshop. 

Held at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota on October 14 to 16, the workshop will welcome educators from a wide variety of institutions: museums, school districts, outreach organizations, colleges, and more. It will be funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation totaling nearly $100,000. Gilbert is the Principal Investigator (PI) on the grant, with Manduca as her co-PI. The workshop will be free to participants, and lodging, meals, and select travel costs will be covered as well. 

With funding secured, Gilbert and her collaborators are now exploring how to reach a wide variety of educators in advance of the August 5 deadline for applying for the workshop. As part of this effort, Gilbert and her collaborators on the project will hold a town hall during the 2019 Earth Educators Rendezvous, a gathering co-hosted by Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee on July 15–19, 2019. The town hall will take place on Wednesday, July 17 at 5:30–6:30 pm. 

The goals of the workshop itself, Gilbert said, are intentionally open-ended. Bring educators together who might not otherwise have met, she believes, and ideas will result that might have been impossible to predict in advance. 

“People live in silos and don’t have many opportunities to come together around the shared goal of equipping students to build a more sustainable future”, Gilbert said. Small-scale partnerships around sustainability education are already happening, but “what would that network look like if we could set it up?”

It’s an approach that comes from Gilbert’s own experiences, both as a geosciences educator and at Williams-Mystic. 

As Gilbert worked on projects seeking to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue geosciences, for instance, it became clear to her that such efforts also had to begin earlier than college; these projects had to involve educators working with students throughout their lives, and had to think broadly about how to make students aware of the many forms that careers in sustainability can take.

At the same time, Gilbert herself experienced the power of coming together with a variety of sustainability educators by attending the Earth Educators Rendezvous, a gathering open to a wide range of educators. The Rendezvous began in 2015 as an outgrowth of InTeGrate, another NSF-funded project led by Manduca, along with a large leadership team including Gilbert, that provides tools to sustainability educators. The idea for the community workshop, in turn, arose at the Earth Educators Rendezvous, as attendees discussed how to build on the success of InTeGrate. 

“Through my involvement in that project, I started working with more K-12 teachers,” Gilbert said. “InTeGrate has been very successful and that model could be reimagined at a bigger scale.”

Indeed, Gilbert sees Williams-Mystic as a good example of a model that could be applied elsewhere — particularly the model of situating an experiential higher education program at a sprawling, world-class museum. 

“In the past week, I’ve had meetings in Education, in Exhibits, and at the Sailing Center about different ways in which science is important to a museum. That sort of connection between higher education and the public interface with how we think about the ocean is a really cool model for things that need to be happening at a bigger scale.”

For Gilbert, scaling isn’t necessarily about taking a program that works well at a local, community level and expanding it to a single program with a national reach. Rather, scaling means providing the opportunity for educators to come together, coordinate with one another, and share successful approaches. 

“The act of coming together,” as she put it, “could result in a lot of smaller projects that add up to something big. Sometimes when we talk about something being at a national scale, what we’re talking about is a bunch of little things that share a vision.”

At the end of the day, for Gilbert, the most exciting aspects of the workshop are also those that are the hardest to predict in advance.

“I’m trying to not have a specific idea for how this will go,” she reflected. “It’s a very process-centered outcome of new relationships developing between people and new and unexpected ideas that we can then turn into something coming out of it. I don’t know what those ideas are, I don’t know what those little or large communities are going to look like. What I’m hoping for is inspiration and connectedness, and that those two things together are going to bring out a bunch of new, actionable ideas.”


The Earth Education for Sustainable Societies Community Workshop will be held at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota on October 14–16, 2019. It is open to anyone with interests in sustainability education. There is no registration fee and lodging, meals, and some travel costs are covered. Applications for the workshop are accepted July 1 through August 5, 2019. For more information and to apply, visit https://serc.carleton.edu/integrate/workshops/sust_societies/overview.html

The Town Hall related to the community workshop will take place at 5:30–6:30 pm on Wednesday, July 17 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Town Hall is part of the 2019 Earth Educators Rendezvous; more information can be found at https://serc.carleton.edu/earth_rendezvous/2019/program/itg_townhall.html

Galápagos Islands Have More Than 10 Times More Alien Marine Species Than Once Thought

IMG_2892

Until recently, scientists knew of about five marine species that had been introduced to the Galápagos Islands from elsewhere.

A new study, authored by Williams-Mystic Director Emeritus James T. Carlton and collaborators from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the Charles Darwin Research Center, reveals that there are more than ten times that many nonnative marine species on the islands. The authors also say that there may be many more nonnative marine species yet to be discovered.

All told, the project documents a staggering 53 species of introduced marine animals in the Galápagos.

“This is the greatest reported increase in the recognition of alien species for any tropical marine region in the world,” Carlton said. 

The majority of the introduced species are sea squirts, marine worms and moss animals (bryozoans). Some of the most concerning discoveries include the bryozoan Amathia verticillata — known for fouling pipes and fishing gear and killing seagrasses — and the date mussel Leiosolenus aristatus, which researchers have already seen boring into Galápagos corals.

Many of the species the study identified are newly discovered. Seventeen of the 53 species identified, though, were previously thought to be native to the islands.

“This increase in alien species is a stunning discovery, especially since only a small fraction of the Galápagos Islands was examined in this initial study,” said Greg Ruiz, a co-author and marine biologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

The islands are already among the world’s largest marine protected areas, with some of the world’s most stringent biosecurity programs. Yet the study’s authors observed that most, if not all, of the introduced species likely arrived aboard ships coming from tropical areas around the world.

Carlton and his coauthors also believe that many of these species may have arrived recently. The built environment, they argue, could have played a significant role. Though vessels have been arriving in the Galápagos since the sixteenth century, it wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that the islands had extensive shoreline structures. These structures, such as wharves, docks, pilings, and buoys, may have provided an ideal environment for arriving organisms to colonize.

“This discovery resets how we think about what’s natural in the ocean around the Galápagos, and what the impacts may be on these high-value conservation areas,” Carlton said. For a protected area like the Galápagos — places long valued as “windows into [a] former world” — this news is especially troubling. 

Much work, the authors observed, remains to be done in the Galápagos. The group gathered data from a range of field sites, beginning in 2015, but nearly all of these field surveys were restricted to one kind of habitat (harbor biofouling).

Their work also has implications for marine protected areas and other important conservation areas worldwide.

“Our study demonstrates,” the authors concluded, “that tropical marine invasions deserve significant attention, not only in a biogeographical, historical, and ecological context, but also from a management perspective.”

In other words: When it comes to conservation, interdisciplinary collaboration is more important than ever.


The study, “Assessing marine bioinvasions in the Galápagos Islands: implications for conservation biology and marine protected areas,” can be accessed online here: http://www.aquaticinvasions.net/2019/AI_2019-G_Carlton_etal.pdf

In addition to Carlton, coauthors of the paper included Inti Keith, of the Charles Darwin Research Station, Gregory Ruiz, of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.