Ally Grusky and Alex Quizon: Science (and other) Research Opportunities in the Williams-Mystic Program

This interview was conducted by Alex Quizon. Alex is a Spring 2019 Williams-Mystic alumnus and a member of the Class of 2021 at Williams College. He is writing these blog posts as a way to connect students in STEM with the opportunities at Williams-Mystic. Learn more about the opportunities available at Williams-Mystic.

Alex Quizon S’19: So how did you come to decide to apply to Williams-Mystic?

Ally Grusky S’20: Yeah, so I knew about Mystic before I came to Williams and it was one of the things that drew me here! I’ve always been interested in marine biology in particular – I did a science research class in high school and an independent project on fish and oyster aquaculture, so I’d already had some experience. When I was looking at colleges, I knew that the program was something I wanted to look into. On the other hand, by junior year I was still undecided about it: I knew I wanted to go away, but I didn’t want to go abroad to somewhere like Europe or Australia, but instead somewhere I could study both biology and history (since I’m a double major) as well as some other interdisciplinary courses. In my mind last fall, I realized that [Williams-Mystic] was a good combination of an away program, a little bit of a break, and classes that count towards both majors.

Alex: Wow, that’s awesome! [side conversation about classes and requirements for different departments] Could you talk a bit more about these independent projects you’ve done in the past and what else spurred your interests in marine biology?

Ally: I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was very, very young. But I’m also a swimmer and I loved biology, so the running joke in my family is that I combined the two! I used to go to oceanography camp up in Acadia National Park in Maine, and actually my classmate Emily Sun (S’20) and I both went to that camp in middle school – so we had a lot of fun reminiscing about it. That kickstarted my interests, and then later in high school I did a summer internship with NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) where I hauled some traps off the boat and did some data analysis for them. It was a really great introduction to the field, and I actually wrote and submitted my paper to a bunch of competitions!

Alex: That’s so cool that you started a lot of this so early on, and the swimming thing’s really funny!

Ally: Yeah – and then I sort of just kept going with it. I moved to Florida and so my freshman year of college I worked at the Smithsonian, essentially looking at invasive species around the area – a lot of field work. And then last summer I ended up taking classes in Seattle on marine invertebrate zoology, ecology, and conservation of marine birds and mammals out on the San Juan islands at Friday Harbor – a really cool marine biological laboratory. There I did a project on marine kingfishers (birds) and their energetic dynamics. So I had a bit of experience going into Williams-Mystic, but I’ve now since 180’d and now I work with bugs and plants.

Alex: It really does sound like you’ve had a bunch of great research experience going into Williams-Mystic! Given all of this experience, I’m guessing you had a fun time with research at Mystic –  what was the topic of your independent project and how did you decide what you wanted to study?

Ally: My partner was Dominick Leskiw (S’20), who is now a senior at Colby, and we took marine ecology with Tim [Pusack]. I was really interested in marine invertebrates, coming off the marine invertebrate zoology class and having done a lot of identification work. So we looked at abundance, diversity, and distribution of benthic invertebrates in Quonochontaug Pond – the pond right next to Weekapaug Point. There are some anthropogenic influences since the middle of the pond has several water sources going into it, and by looking at benthic creatures in mudflats we expected to see different organisms in places where there’s more runoff from the nearby inn and areas that are more inhabited. We expected to see more organisms capable of withstanding changes in pH, salinity, and nitrogen concentrations, and we had ~16-18 phyla that we were looking at. And then we left (due to COVID)! So we never actually did the project, which was really sad and I was pretty disappointed. But we did have 2 sampling days and had some fun playing in the mud!

Alex: Oh no, I’m so sorry you weren’t able to finish the project – but I’m glad you were able to work on some parts together! Was your lab partner also generally interested in marine invertebrate zoology?

Ally: Sort of – he comes from more of a science-writer background and worked with a professor back in California on white abalone. He’s a really good illustrator and writes for a bunch of magazines – I don’t know if you remember from reunion, but Tom [Van Winkle] was showing everyone the notebook he designed with all the sketches on the front cover.

Alex: I remember someone showing them to me – those were so good! The wide variety of talents and skills that people bring to Williams-Mystic is just fantastic. In terms of the project, were you able to do any data analysis together, or was there just not enough?

Ally: I did do some data analysis, but not for that project. There’s this group called the LTER (Long-Term Ecological Research Project), which is a national/international organization of long-term ecology projects, so 20, 30, 40 years old. So basically you choose a site – I chose the Northeast Atlantic shelf – and you can download the data as CSV files and do data analysis. I looked at forage fish feeding habits to see if there were any patterns, and I made some pretty cool conclusions out of it. They ate more and had more diverse prey (e.g. copepods) in the spring versus the fall, which they don’t think is historically accurate and is only a trend that developed in recent years. It’s likely caused by large phytoplankton blooms in the spring caused by increased pollutants and runoff into the ocean combined with warming temperatures. There’s an earlier bloom of phytoplankton and zooplankton, so fish are eating more earlier, but that also means that fish in the fall are not having as much of a varied or abundant food supply in their diet.

Alex: Did you get a chance to present your results?

Ally: In class we did do a big presentation and went into the data analysis and food web, which was fun! Do you remember making LOOPYs in class?

Alex: Oh yeah, the diagrams to model different systems and how the parts interact!

Ally: I decided to put like every single species and Tim was like there’s a thousand different species of copepods on your figure! And I said, “Sorry Tim, the copepods are important!” (laughing)

Alex: Haha, love that! And I’d love to ask more specific questions off the record, but what you were able to do given the circumstances is amazing. I guess this would mostly apply to the offshore trip since you were unable to go on the other field seminars, but what were some of your other favorite science experiences at Mystic aside from the independent project (e.g. offshore, class trips, etc.)?

Ally: I had a lot of fun offshore. Since I had a lot of experience, they put me to work identifying different sargassum species along with my science officer Olivia. I remember one night, past 2AM during dawn watch, sorting through miniscule sargassum pieces on the [Corwtih] Cramer and looking for different identifying markers. It was also really nice to work with Lisa [Gilbert] before I moved over to Tim (for class) because she’s really cool. I had taken oceanography my freshman year but of course not with her, and I wish I could’ve taken every single class at Mystic!

Alex: Can definitely relate to that. How did your interests and skills as a scientist change from before to after you had done the program?

Ally: I loved that I could do hands-on research at Mystic when we went to Weekapaug Beach, when we went to the river and estuary environments – that was just amazing. It was a change from just doing work over the summer to being in the mountains during the winter here. I’d been in a genomics lab working with cyanobacteria, so it was nice to go back to working with marine creatures. Tim is really good at working with data analysis and breaking down common statistics, so it was really useful for me going into my thesis this summer since I had a refresher in statistics using tools like R (programming software) and Excel. And I did switch my interests, partly because there isn’t much marine ecology work done on campus – I applied to Prof. Joan Edwards’ lab for a thesis working with plant pollination networks.

Alex: Any other comments or things you’d like to add?

Ally: No, not really – I think you got my whole life story!!! You’re focusing on reporting science research, but I do think that the other research aspects are really important too, for the history and policy. Putting yourself into that interdisciplinary mindset is a unique experience, and all the disciplines play into each other. That’s the beauty of Mystic: you can talk about clams in history because they were important to the history of New England and whaling history, and then there’s the policy behind it as well. I’m thankful for being able to go to Williams-Mystic, as short as it was!

If you are interested in interdisciplinary education, our oceans and coasts, and doing research across disciplines, Williams-Mystic could be the place for you!

Learn more about how you can request information and apply to the program.

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 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. 

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.’”

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.”

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.

 

Science, sketching, and life at sea

From learning to sketch as a mode of scientific observation to learning how to steer a ship, our offshore voyage is full of hands-on learning experiences.

January 31, 2020 

Another exciting couple of days at sea here on the Corwith Cramer!

Yesterday we had a sketching workshop led by Sketch Biologist and Williams-Mystic alumna Abby McBride (F’04). Abby’s work as a science communicator combines her love of biology and sketching. Even students who were unsure at first were soon eagerly sketching sails, coils of rope, and each other. Following class, B watch gathered with Abby for a small group tutorial, where they continued sketching and discussing the uses of drawing and careful observation.

Image shows a group of students on the deck of a ship. They are focused on their journals or on a woman who stands in front of them gesturing as she lectures

Wednesday night was another starry one. Ever since we turned to head toward the Virgin Islands, the Southern Cross had come into view. The watch schedule here — each of the three watch groups spends 6 hours on watch followed by 12 hours off — means that students get to see different times of day and night throughout the voyage. Though we take turns sleeping, the ship never sleeps; at least one eight– to nine-person watch group is always awake to steer, look out, sail, and collect scientific data.

Today, we completed our third and final Science Super Station. At 700 meters, today’s station was shallow enough to get a sample of cold, tan mud from the ocean floor. We also collected water from 12 different depths in the ocean, which we are currently analyzing for pH and chlorophyll-a, among other properties.

Image shows a group of students and faculty gathered around a bin filled with pale, gloopy mud. Behind them, you can see the side of a ship and beyond that, the water.

During yesterday’s science station, we lowered Styrofoam cups and a wig head down more than a mile (1,682.3 m) while collecting temperature and salinity data. We had carefully decorated the cups with sunsets, zooplankton, and mythical creatures before sending them down. Afterward, the cups were the size of thimbles due to the pressure in the deep sea. Some of our cups may even be placed on display at Mystic Seaport Museum’s upcoming exhibit on sailor art, which will open in June 2020!

Today’s academic class was an interdisciplinary look at “Ways of Knowing” taught jointly by Lisa, Kelly, and Abby.  We examined what it means to “know” something: Who has knowledge? How is knowledge acquired and how we use it? Each instructor offered examples from her experiences within her discipline. (The opening discussion question: “Before underwater cameras, how did we know what a live whale looked like?”) The class was interactive, with a kinesthetic exercise, drawing, and several discussions.

During class, we were fortunate to observe an enormous bait ball bobbing off the port side of the ship, first spotted by the swarm of seabirds (brown boobies and shearwaters). As we approached, we could see fish flying and flopping and feasting on the tiny baitfish, and even a shark cruising by to eat the bigger fish. The food web in action!

In nautical science class, we practiced gybing several times. A gybing ship shifts its sails so as to trace a zig-zag pattern in the direction of the wind — a pattern that allows it to gradually chart its course in the desired direction using only wind power to move forward. Just a few days ago, all the terms and tasks that go into gybing felt so foreign. Now, these maneuvers are starting to feel natural. We are starting to feel at home.


You can follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

An Interdisciplinary Dance Class

It’s not hard for us to see now that “maritime studies” isn’t merely a discipline with facts for us to learn. It is a way to see and understand the world — including some of the most intense and scary changes the world is going through. 

By Zach Arfa (F’19). Zach is a senior at Oberlin College, where he’s studying dance and psychology. He grew up in Shelburne Falls MA, and is excited to find more interdisciplinary intersections between dance, psychology, and the environment after graduation.

picture shows a group of students and a professor crouching in marsh grass, focusing intensely

This semester, we have been doing a huge amount of learning about the world. It’s not hard for us to see now that “maritime studies” isn’t merely a discipline with facts for us to learn. It is a way to see and understand the world — including some of the most intense and scary changes the world is going through. 

This Thanksgiving, I flew out to Oberlin for the first half of our break. I went to see my friends there, but I was also invited to guest teach a dance class. I study a dance form called Contact Improvisation, a partnering form created at Oberlin College in 1972. It’s based on momentum and weight sharing. When you lean into a partner or partners, a shared center of gravity is created. The technique of the form is keeping and manipulating that point of contact throughout an improvised dance together. I absolutely love it. There are lifts and rolls and falls. It can be so fast and wild that you can’t look where you’re going, and so slow and intimate that an entire hour can go by with only your heads touching ever so lightly. I’ve been dancing this form for three years now, with fairly intensive classes every semester so far. I’ve taught beginner classes on campus, and facilitated more advanced practicing groups. A great friend of mine has been teaching a beginner class while I’ve been at Williams-Mystic, and so when I told her I was coming to campus for a few days, she asked me to guest teach an evening.

Through such immersion in interdisciplinary education this semester, it’s been impossible for me not to make connections to the disciplines I’m familiar with. I’ve been thinking of psychology and music, but connections to dance have been running through my head and my body. Through movement, we can teach embodied concepts. Think of an anatomy class where you don’t just learn what a bone/muscle/tendon is called, you also learned to feel it in your body and feel how it helps you move. Movement bypasses skepticism and abstraction. It is only concerned with the intimate. And intimacy in an educational setting is deep understanding. It brings a relevance and connection that most people don’t find in school. It’s why it’s important not just to learn the names of animals in the intertidal zone, but to actually go to the beach in Rhode Island and see, hold, and touch them. 

All semester, I’ve been inspired by what we’ve been learning and I’ve been creating scores. A score is a movement prompt. Choreography is concerned with how you move your body: an arm goes here, and then there at this point in the music. A score is a structure within which the exact movements are improvised. A score could be as simple as “take one minute, start high and end low.” It is just a structure that helps to focus an improvised dance. The scores I’ve been creating aren’t just about movement. They are about what we’ve been learning and experiencing this semester: climate change, natural disasters, environmental ecosystems. That is what I brought to this dance class at Oberlin. Four scores.

picture shows a grinning students holding a baby alligator
Zach holds a baby alligator during a swamp tour on Williams-Mystic’s Louisiana Field Seminar.

The first score was a variation on a very common score in Contact, the Earth Water Air Fire score. This score is normally a warm up, and a way to tap into different energy levels. You start on the ground, embodying the earth, feeling grounded and supported, moving and shifting so minutely, as the earth does. That transitions into water, flowing and spreading out. The speed may increase, and the resistance in your body is zero, like a gentle stream parting around the rocks. Then air, similarly low resistance but now standing, using more space in the room you’re in. Finally fire, fierce and hot. Strong, direct, movements. All the actual movements are improvised, but the score helps guide the energy through the warm-up. This score is quite common, and it inspired the first climate change score I created. 

I took that score, but I set it in Louisiana. Instead of the earth being supportive and grounding, what does it feel like in our bodies if it’s literally eroding out from underneath us, sinking away? And what if water, instead of being flexible and passive, is flooding and destroying homes and lives? The air is also gusting fiercely, throwing things around and is quite devastating. And then for fire, I brought it to the people we met in Louisiana. I thought of Mr. Chris saying that as long as there was one grain of sand on Grand Isle, he’d come back and rebuild and keep living there. The fire was the fierce love and commitment these people have for the land despite all the ways in which the elements can be hostile. These elements guided the improvisations, instead of the nurturing and peaceful versions.

The next score brought us to somewhere we love. Everyone was in pairs, and there was a supporter and a leader. The leader’s prompt was to imagine a place that they love, an outdoor place with living things. They then project that place they love onto the room, and guide their partner through it with their dance together. The leader can’t tell their partner where they are thinking of, but instead must convey what the place is and how they feel about it through the dance. The supporter does just that: supports their dance. Then they switch.

The third score was one that I created last year with a few friends of mine. It’s an animal embodiment wrestling score. I created it because I was watching a lot of Steve Irwin videos (he’s not just my absolute hero — I first started watching his videos because he’s an unbelievable mover) of him rescuing crocodiles by wrestling them. So in this score we bring out a bunch of mats, and we embody crocodiles or lions or any animal you want, and we wrestle. But instead of the goal being to pin your partner (as in normal wrestling) the goal is to keep them moving. I added prompts about connecting with the animals and really thinking about how they would move: not mechanically, but energetically. What does it feel like to become these animals?

picture shows students clambering on a rocky shore, posing and grinning in front of a pristine bay with evergreen forests and mountains in the background

This led us into the last score, a kind of environmental education score. I broke the class up into levels on the food chain in the Alaskan coastal ecosystem. One person was an orca, the apex predator. Two were sea otters, two were sea urchins and abalone and the rest were kelp, the foundational species of the ecosystem. As in the last score, we moved throughout the room as our animals. First, we simply embodied them — not mechanically (we didn’t flop like an orca would) but energetically, with the power and fearlessness that an apex predator would have. Then we had short dances with each other, between five and ten seconds, as our animals. The orca might be direct and forceful, where the shellfish might be slower but very purposeful, the otter would be quick and light, and the kelp wouldn’t move a lot through the room, but move a lot through their upper bodies. We put the ecosystem into the room, and felt the relationships between all these animals that share space. After that we ran out of time, so we stopped there. My idea had been to then go through the history of that ecosystem. What happens when the Russian hunters arrive and kill basically all the sea otters? The shellfish have no predators so their populations rise, so the dancers embodying otters would become shellfish. But then, they would eat all the kelp, their populations would crash, and then the kelp would rebound. And the orca would also go without the otters to eat. And so on. I’ll have to test that part out in a future class.

I left that class feeling like each score could be its own semester’s worth. The first score was an investigation of the changing climate and natural disasters, and a reckoning with the fear and grief that evokes. The second connected us to the world, and might inspire more love for it, and perhaps more of a drive to help it. The third helps connect with other animals, letting their movement really inspire and unlock the animal in us (for we are wild animals!). And the fourth was environmental education, an embodied way to teach people how the natural systems of the world work. There are so many scores that could do each of those things. I feel like I’ve just opened up a whole storm of possibilities for this work! I’m planning on leading a class and exploring it with a lot of intention next semester.

For me, this was just another lesson that the world is interdisciplinary. It’s not enough to only do things one way. An environmental education class or a normal dance class would not have been able to create what happened that evening. We must be able to translate concepts, and create hybrid models (of learning and of cars) if we want to make a difference in the world. This is exactly what we’ve been learning to do this semester. We are able to go and work with people in ways that I certainly didn’t think I could do before. I’m not bold enough to say that this class, or this approach, will “change the world”. But I’ve heard that big change, like the change we need around the environment, is like an overflowing bucket. It may only be a few drops of water that tip it over the edge, but they accumulate atop thousands and thousands of other drops. We can be those drops.

History and the Sea: Drew Lipman’s (F’99) Story

“You become very aware of your impact on the planet. That circle of blue is what the planet truly looks like.”

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

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Growing up around boats and sailing set Drew Lipman (F’99) up for a career involving the ocean. While a student at Vassar College majoring in history, he also developed an interest in environmental history.

He saw advertisements for Williams-Mystic and kept the program on his radar.

“I looked up Williams-Mystic and Sea Education Association. Williams-Mystic had a more humanities-based approach and I was excited about using the museum and its archives,” Drew said.

Drew’s semester began with a short orientation. Soon, the group was embarking on their Offshore Field Seminar.

“We were around for a week and then headed out onto the SSV Corwith Cramer,” Drew said. “We went from Woods Hole, Massachusetts through the Cape Cod Canal and then into the Gulf of Maine. We ended in Rockport, Maine.”

Drew remembers bonding with his watch and the mate who was in charge of his watch.

He still thinks about this offshore experience regularly. After you have sailed offshore, he reflected, it is hard not to become invested in the environment.

“You become very aware of your impact on the planet. That circle of blue is what the planet truly looks like. I loved my time at the sea,” Drew said.

As he expected it to be, the maritime history class was a highlight for Drew.

“A close second was marine ecology with Jim Carlton. I loved the field seminars in particular: the marsh, the rocky intertidal. Being able to see ecological principles at work was exciting,” Drew said. In this class, he discovered how much he enjoyed doing fieldwork.

His Williams-Mystic courses also helped Drew gain a new perspective on his history major. Prior to Williams-Mystic, Drew thought maritime history was elite naval history and white-bearded men.

“Maritime history includes Native maritime history, Black maritime history, female maritime history and so much more. The way it was taught at Williams-Mystic, especially using the museum, showed [that maritime history] is one of the most interesting approaches to talk about the origins of capitalism and race. It was intellectually exciting.”

Visiting the West Coast and Nantucket as a Williams-Mystic student helped Drew learn to appreciate place-based education.

“In Nantucket, we stayed in a field station run by the University of Massachusetts. You could see evidence of climate change in 2000,” Drew said. “While we were there, we measured the shoreline in Williams-Mystic students all linked together to the end of the point. We also went to a cranberry bog and the island’s famous whaling museum.”

Drew’s Williams-Mystic experience inspired his senior thesis topic and, in the summer of 2001, and did a research project with Williams-Mystic history professor Glenn Gordinier about Watch Hill, Rhode Island. It was a wonderful experience and got him ready for graduate school.

Williams-Mystic also provided Drew with a link to the Pequot War, a conflict between Pequot Indians and English colonists that culminated in a massacre of Pequots at a fort in what is now Mystic, Connecticut. During the first year of his Ph.D. program, Drew realized how much Kieft’s War, a war that happened in the neighboring Dutch colony just a few years later, was linked to the Pequot War. He wrote about the connection between the two wars for his master’s thesis and then decided to make the topic his dissertation. Throughout this work, Drew was able to draw on his Williams-Mystic experience.

Once Drew got a job, he revised his dissertation into a book called The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast. The book argues that Natives fought for space and independence through fighting on water and connecting with Europeans creatively and commercially.

Drew is now working on his second book, which focuses on “Squanto” and the Mayflower pilgrims.

“Squanto is a real person named Tisquantum and the reason that he was able to help the Europeans was that he had been taken as a slave by an English fisherman six years earlier. Patuxet, the later site of Plymouth, is where he grew up,” Drew said. “This story is well known, but I believe I’ve found some interesting new wrinkles in the story. It’s also just an irresistible epic. A young man encounters European ships, journeys to Spain, England, the Newfoundland, then comes home to find most of his home community had died in an epidemic. And his legacy was complex: though the Mayflower passengers celebrated him, many of his Native allies accused him of betraying them. Piecing together this story anew has changed how I think about this pivotal moment, and hopefully will change readers’ minds too.”

Place-based education is a big tenet of any Williams-Mystic experience. For Drew Lipman, place-based learning has paid off in an unexpected way, leading him to pursue a career studying the very places he encountered during his semester.

 

 

Life at Sea: Days One and Two of S’19’s Offshore Field Seminar

From how to steer or furl sail, to how to wake people up for class or sanitize dishes, we have been learning specific methods to allow 37 people to safely and happily travel, live, and learn together on a ship only 40 meters long.

Above: S’19 students Chris (Clark University) and Em (Vassar College) help recover sediment from the bottom of San Juan Harbor.

29 January 2019

19 N x 066 W, 30 nautical miles north of San Juan, Puerto Rico

two students, one playing guitar, sing aboard a ship
S’19 Oliver (University of Cincinnati) and Jonna (Middlebury College) serenade the ship’s company.

Greetings from SSV Corwith Cramer!

On Sunday, January 27, the Williams-Mystic Class of Spring 2019 joined SSV Corwith Cramer in San Juan just in time for lunch.  For the last 48 hours or so, we have been busy learning ship operations, getting used to walking on a rolling ship, and enjoying being out at sea.

For many, of us, it is our first time out at sea.  And as Melville wrote in Redburn, “People who have never gone to sea for the first time as sailors cannot imagine how puzzling and confounding it is.”  Unlike Melville’s protagonist, however, we have watch officers who are kind and patient teachers, and who allow us to ask lots of questions.  From how to steer or furl sail, to how to wake people up for class or sanitize dishes, we have been learning specific methods to allow 37 people to safely and happily travel, live, and learn together on a ship only 40 meters long with three heads and two showers.

During orientation, we got to know the parts of the ship and our responsibilities on board.  Everyone participated in safety drills and we also conducted our first science deployments in San Juan Harbor.

Then we headed out to sea, into deep water north of San Juan.  Two days in, spirits are high.  We are getting used to the routine and the warm tropical weather.  The food has been amazing thanks to our fantastic stewards and we have even enjoyed some entertainment thanks to some talented students.

Stay tuned for more updates from our Offshore Field Seminar!


Track the Cramer‘s progress by clicking the link below!

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER 

Important Note: Vessel tracking information isn’t updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.