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.

Collaboration Is Key: Julie Shapiro’s (S’02) Williams-Mystic Story

Williams-Mystic helped Julie Shapiro (S’02) see that learning and working in an interdisciplinary way was what was best for her — and helped set her on a career path at the intersection of science and policy.

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. 

Julie Shapiro’s (S’02) Williams-Mystic adventure began in the Williams College cafeteria.

It was December 2001. The whole country was reeling from the lasting effects of September 11. Julie made it through the semester and felt like she needed a change in her college experience.

In the cafeteria, she was talking to another student when he said Williams-Mystic had a few spots left for the Spring 2002 semester. An ambitious English major, Julie was enrolled a few weeks later.

For Julie, her semester at Williams-Mystic helped her go from feeling disconnected from her studies to feeling invigorated and engaged by academics.

“My geosciences degree came after my semester at Williams-Mystic,” Julie said. “I came back to Williams for my senior year and was in almost all geosciences classes with a little bit of English.”

Williams-Mystic helped Julie see that learning and working in an interdisciplinary way was what was best for her.

During her semester, Julie enjoyed sailing from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba.

“I probably won the award for being the sickest on the trip, but the whole journey was great,” Julie said.

From the markets to the waterfalls, the Pacific Northwest was another memorable time for Julie. In Mystic, she learned how to sail and remembers going on numerous runs through the town and on the museum grounds.

In her classes, Julie enjoyed diving into policy and science.

“The science piece of everything [at Williams-Mystic] helped me decide to add geosciences and, in turn, helped me explore a post-graduate fellowship,” Julie said. “The fellowship helped me see that I didn’t want to be a scientist but that I wanted to teach science and work in science policy.”

As her career progressed, Julie worked in science education and then chose to pursue a master’s degree in environmental studies. Now, as  Senior Policy Director at Keystone Policy Center in Keystone, Colorado, Julie works at the intersection of science and policy.

“Keystone Center is a nonprofit, non-advocacy organization that tries to help diverse stakeholders reach common ground on big issues like the environment, health, education, etc.,” Julie said.

Julie works on natural resources, agriculture, and emerging technologies, like gene editing, at the local, state, and federal levels. She has worked with governor’s advisory boards and has facilitated regional and national conversations related to landscape conservation. Internationally, she is working to bring people together to talk about what the future looks like for gene editing technologies like CRISPR.

At its core, the purpose of Keystone Center is to bring together diverse opinions and help people find common ground and shared solutions.

“Even if you don’t agree on everything, you can respectfully understand people and there may be things you can agree on,” Julie said. “We try to meet people where they are. Sometimes just listening, sharing and understanding is an important step towards having better solutions in the long run.”

From her love of interdisciplinary learning to her career path, Williams-Mystic has left its mark on Julie.

“To this day, I always look for chances to do field trips with the groups I work with and that principle is something Williams-Mystic instilled in me,” Julie said.

A Spanish Major by the Sea

“When we all ran to see the dolphins, or when we came face-to-face with the coral reefs during a snorkeling excursion, our majors became blurry, no longer the focus of our academic identity.”

By Hayden Gillooly

Hayden Gillooly is one of our student bloggers for Spring 2019. She is a sophomore at Williams College, studying Spanish with a concentration in Maritime Studies. She is from North, Adams, MA. 

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Members of B Watch on the bowsprit. From left to right: Samuel (University of Rhode Island ’19), Chris (Clark University ’19), Phoebe (Smith College ’20), and Hayden (Williams College ’21).

I am a Spanish major at Williams College and have always loved the sea. I decided to come to Mystic because I was craving an immersive, hands-on, full-wonder type of learning. I wanted to run on the beach and explore tidal pools. I wanted to travel with my classmates and learn while doing. I wanted to play.

One month ago today, I moved into my room in cozy Carr House at Williams-Mystic and was greeted by a journal with a note from Executive Director Tom Van Winkle. Included was this quote by Rachel Carson: “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” Wonder.  

As we sailed off the coast of Puerto Rico for our ten-day Offshore Field Seminar aboard the Corwith Cramer, I fell in love with the sea immediately. I fell in love with the way the ocean seemed to change colors from deep blue to aquamarine. With the way everyone on the ship paused for sunsets and sunrises, and the way my soul felt while staring into the vastness. With the way the sun danced on the water droplets on my skin and on the waves. My thoughts flowed so naturally as I journaled, perched on the bowsprit:

1/29/19: I am watching the tail end of sunset. This stillness is incomparable. I’ve never noticed before now how the night grows hungrier and consumes the colors so gradually. There are impeding dark clouds approaching on either side, enveloping the pink and blue hues. Soon, the night will be here, and the stars and moon. Amazing how the colors & stars can coexist in perfect harmony, even if for a moment. It feels as if I am in a dream—staring at the masts, the stars, the sky. There are so many stars, untouched by the light pollution. A natural night.

1/30/19: On lookout tonight at the bow, I could see the bioluminescent plankton below me, feel the salty spray of waves breaking against the bow. I even saw a shooting star. I marveled at the way the dark waves looked: as if someone was shaking a sheet—fabric ripples. A sheet of stars and a sea of glowing foam. A while later, we went through a squall, and the wind was blowing my yellow rain-jacketed body.

1/31/19, 11:11am: I am sitting on the bowsprit and staring at the ocean below me. Ten feet below me lies water that is a shade of blue unlike anything I have ever seen. It looks icy, but it is warm. My heart feels full—it feels so ‘right ‘to be here. Crazy to think how many millions of creatures are under me right now. Heck, there were over 100 alien-like creatures in one Petri dish from a sample we took last night. With antennae and long legs.

1/31/19 1:03 pm: WE WERE JUST WITH A POD OF DOLPHINS!! Watching them flop and swim and dive and play alongside the ship—a real show. And all of our faces, so joyful, so childlike. Hands down one of the best moments. This is our classroom. We were the happiest. I think I shall hold this moment in my pocket, and take it out whenever I need a smile.

2/5/19 On our last day on the bowsprit, we were watching sunset, and three dolphins appeared out of the golden sidewalk right under us. Like something out of a movie. Later while on night watch, we went onto the bowsprit again and were read a passage of Moby Dick by one of our professors. And I saw a shooting star.  

When we all ran to see the dolphins, or when we came face-to-face with the coral reefs during a snorkeling excursion, our majors became blurry, no longer the focus of our academic identity. We are learning skills that can be applied to any classroom, field of work or study, and situation. We are learning to love our wonderful world, to get re-excited about learning, and how to build a community.

 

Now, back in Mystic, we are continuing to build community. We’re learning how to improve communications skills, as our houses of four to six students each manage weekly allowances, chores, and cooking. We’re learning how to be more inquisitive and curious learners, as our classes begin in earnest. We’re learning to ask questions, lots of them: to be curious about how the world works.

Williams-Mystic and the Mystic Seaport Museum are filled with people who are remarkably passionate about their fields. It’s inspiring. From them, I am learning the value of loving what I do, and of sharing that passion with those around me. Our professors make themselves very accessible, and it is so special to build relationships with them outside of the classroom. Last night, the whole community—students, faculty, staff—came together at Tom’s house for a chili cook-off. We laughed, played board games, and just talked. One of our classmates played lovely piano music in the background.

I have re-read Tom’s letter to me numerous times in the past month, and I have concluded that my ‘good fairy’ is Williams-Mystic, for she has given me a sense of wonder that I feel will reside within me for years to come. I can think of no other program in which the phrase “interdisciplinary learning” more truly comes to fruition. It is more than just a phrase here; it is a way of life.

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Passion, Photography, and Policy: Haley Kardek’s (F’17) Williams-Mystic Story

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. 

A Vassar College pre-med student with a passion for photography finds out about an ocean and coastal studies program and chooses to take a leap and participate…and then change her course of study to focus on international studies.

For Fall 2017 alumna Haley Kardek, the story of how she found Wiliams-Mystic is poetic.

“For most of my life, I had spent my summers sailing or coaching sailing in New Jersey. However, the summer of 2017 was the first summer I had been working an apprenticeship up in New York. At the beginning of August, I finally had the opportunity to sail a weekend,” Haley said. “My first day on the water felt so good and, when I got home that evening, I had an email waiting for me from my advisor encouraging me to look into a last-minute opening at Williams-Mystic for that fall. I try to live my life being open and receiving to every door that opens and the moment was too perfect to turn down the opportunity to apply.”

Haley spent some of her time while she was in the program photographing the world and people around her. A few of her photos are featured on our website as well as on our social media platforms.

“Photography and anything outdoors is my “escapes.” I feel most at peace with myself when I am photographing the world and people around me,” Haley said. “Some people say to be human is to be a storyteller – for me, I feel most human capturing and sharing stories through my photography.”

Williams-Mystic gave Haley the opportunity to personally experience the causes, symptoms, and effects of large maritime issues, such as Climate Change, marine bioinvasions, social justice inequalities, fisheries, and more.

“It is one thing to learn in a classroom or read about an issue; it is a completely different opportunity to physically see a roadway that has become covered by water, to listen to a fisherman talk about competition in the scallop industry, to estimate the population size of new fiddler crab communities or look for microplastics in shellfish,” Haley said. “At Williams-Mystic your experiences from traveling to maritime communities and conducting your independent research projects become the cornerstone of learning about maritime issues. This is what I wanted to experience with the program and I was not at all disappointed.”

Haley’s participation in Williams-Mystic changed her path in academia and career trajectory.

“Williams-Mystic very drastically changed my life, path-wise. Up until that semester, I had set my eyes on pursuing medical school; however, a variety of different trains of thought and feelings came together during my semester at Williams-Mystic and I decided I wanted to address the large, systemic issues that contribute to many health issues such as political agency and voice and social inequalities as well as connect more with my passion and love for the environment,” Haley said.

The offshore field seminar Haley’s class embarked on left from Erie, Pennsylvania on Lake Erie. For Haley, this was her favorite field seminar experience.

“The offshore field seminar in Lake Erie was my favorite as it revealed both the hardship and beauty of sailing a tall ship away from the sight of land. Throughout the semester, especially when reading Moby-Dick, I would re-live my time on the U.S. Brig Niagara and be able to relate to the general experiences of living on a ship at sea: struggling to find sea legs, getting an “all hands on deck” call, being so physically and mentally tired you could literally sleep standing up, watching the sun rise and set on a horizon not lined with land,” Haley said.

Williams-Mystic taught Haley the complexity of issues and that you cannot get frustrated when you are trying to solve problems.

“Solving these issues requires working through the many values and differences of experience embedded in one issue. It requires collaboration and connecting scientists with politicians and artists with industry workers. Most important of all, addressing these issues requires active and genuine connection with the people affected by and affecting the aspects of larger issues – a skill very much encouraged and taught during my semester at Williams-Mystic.”

Luis Urrea (S’15) on Interdisciplinary Learning and his Williams-Mystic Semester

“I was definitely surprised by how effective a hands-on experience was at teaching me as opposed to a solely classroom-based course. Only in practice do you realize how much this approach actually works.”

A headshot of Luis Urrea (S'15)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. 

In the fall of 1977, Williams College and Mystic Seaport Museum embarked on a journey to bring ocean and coastal studies and interdisciplinary education together in one place in order to build leaders for generations to come.

For Williams College student Luis Urrea (S’15), Williams-Mystic challenged him and completed his vision for his undergraduate experience — even though he had to drive through a blizzard to reach Mystic.

“I found out about Williams-Mystic through the geosciences program at Williams College,” Luis said. “Williams-Mystic is one of my favorite, if not my favorite, semester of my entire college experience. It was extremely rewarding, interdisciplinary, and consistently satisfied my itch to travel to parts unknown of the U.S.”

Luis’ experience in the program was made richer by the Gulf Coast Field Seminar.

“My favorite field seminar was the one that took place in Louisiana. Apart from delicious food, we had a wonderful opportunity to really connect with community members and establish relationships with many people who had firsthand experiences of what it meant to live in the coast and be affected by natural/manmade disasters,” Luis said.

When asked what his favorite memory of Williams-Mystic was, he wasn’t able to choose just one.

“Meeting my housemates, blizzard(s), meeting my significant other, all of the field seminars but especially our voyage aboard the Corwith Cramer, looking at the stars while on lookout duty, eating alligator, visiting the Spiral Needle, coring the bayou in Louisiana, watching the Super Bowl, being in Puerto Rico, going for a run in Seattle, and so many, many other memories,” Luis said.

Luis, like many alumni, was surprised by the benefits of learning in an interdisciplinary setting.

“I was definitely surprised by how effective a hands-on experience was at teaching me as opposed to a solely classroom-based course, Luis said. “It’s one of those ideas that sound good, but only in practice do you realize how much they actually work.”

Luis is now a seventh- grade science teacher at Juan de Dios Salinas Middle School in Mission, TX, about 40 minutes north of the Mexican border. He tries to have his lessons include a hands-on approach while also tying in several other disciplines.

Williams-Mystic made Luis much more aware of how we are damaging the coasts of our nation.

“I am also much more aware of the different organizations that are fighting to protect those same coasts,” Luis said.

As for his future, there are so many things Luis wants to accomplish.

“I am happy with the impact I’ve made as a teacher, but I don’t think that I will stay in the classroom forever,” Luis said. “I will likely teach one more year, then write a biography on my parents, and afterwards attend law school. However, I would also like to someday have my own business, become an international translator, and travel the world.”


Want to discover how Williams-Mystic fit into the lives of other alumni? Explore our alumni stories here.