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.”