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.