Arriving in Mystic in the Fall of 1977, Eric Laschever could never have anticipated how much the program would impact his life moving forward.
A senior history major from Williams College, Eric was looking for ways to spend part of his final year away from Williamstown. Seeing a poster with a picture of Charles W. Morgan and Joseph Conrad docked at the Seaport, Eric was spurred to talk with WM Founder Ben Labaree, who encouraged him to apply for the program. Having grown up sailing on the New Jersey shore, Eric was drawn in by a program that focused on the ocean.
Thus, Eric joined 20 other students from colleges across the country to become the guinea pigs in Williams-Mystic’s inaugural class. That class became known as the Leeward Railers, named for their collective seasickness aboard the SSV Westward during the program’s very first Offshore Field Seminar. Their offshore experience served as an early bonding agent for the Leeward Railers, one that would only grow throughout their time in Mystic, and one that remains strong to this day.
“I think the bond among our class was strong and has remained strong among many of us,” Eric said. “We have so much affection for the program and the original director and his family. Over the years, we’ve gotten to know the successors to Ben, as well as key faculty members who have been here.”
The impact of Eric’s time with Williams-Mystic took shape shortly thereafter, as he began to pursue a Master’s degree in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington. His thesis work on a then new 200-mile Alaskan fishery zone led him to his first “real job” working for the state of Alaska on a variety of coastal and environmental issues. More recently, his continued connection to the program allowed him to work alongside Katy Robinson-Hall and Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar to pursue federal recognition for the Grand-Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw.
Fast-forward to Fall 2021, feeling a deep connection to the program, Eric talked with WM Director Tom Van Winkle about a way for alums with time and capacity (e.g. older) to use their talents to remain connected to Williams-Mystic. In particular, Eric wanted to use his expertise in marine affairs and relevant knowledge of Louisiana to serve as a resource for students in their policy course. A year later, Eric arrived back in Mystic as the program’s first Senior Fellow, donating his time to the program.
Eric immediately noticed the differences he saw between Williams-Mystic in 1977 and Williams-Mystic in 2022. While he noted similarities in academic rigor and use of the Museum as a teaching tool, Eric valued the program’s current devotion to interdisciplinary education, citing the ways in which professors intentionally weave topics together to make for a more well-rounded curriculum. But, above all, Eric was struck by the remarkable relationships the program has built with stakeholders and community leaders in Louisiana, as he got to see firsthand when the program returned to The Bayou State last October.
“Underneath the intellectual rigor is the emotional feeling of connecting to people in places who are experiencing the challenges of living in coastal communities in real time,” said Eric.
One of Eric’s responsibilities on the Louisiana Field Seminar was to give a talk to students about the criteria a Native American tribe must meet to be federally recognized, a subject he is deeply immersed in on behalf of one of the program’s Gulf Coast hosts. Adding another dimension to the talk, Eric gave his talk at a graveyard that is said to have buriedTribal Ancestors, one of whom received land on the Gulf via the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty, the infamous treaty that launched the Trail of Tears for most of the Choctaws to west of the Mississippi.
“The idea of being in what may have been his final resting place, and talking to students today about the history and how it comes to bear in the effort to achieve federal status, is very poignant and powerful,” said Eric.
When reflecting on his experience with the students of F’22, Eric was continuously impressed by the way students grappled with and discussed very complex issues. When advising students for Moot Court, Eric remembers being amazed at how the students mastered and argued complex legal issues in front of a judge with just 4-5 days of preparation. In Louisiana, Eric remembers being impressed during van rides and the ways students balanced fun moments, like singing to oldies and more contemporary tunes from the students’ play lists, with serious moments and interesting discussions.
Having the chance to connect with a younger generation of students was another big motivator for Eric to return to Williams-Mystic. Eric noted that when he was their age, he was able to witness many of the early environmental laws being put into place. 45 years later, Eric understands that the world his generation is handing off to the next is not in the place it should be.
“One of the important things to me in this chapter of my life is to spend time with young adults, to share some of what I’ve learned, and to give them tools to face the challenges that my generation is leaving them,” said Eric.
In this regard, Eric encourages future students to remain hopeful about a better world, advising them to cultivate hope and use it to channel action.
“Hope is different from optimism,” said Eric. “Optimism is when you think, statistically, that things will be better in the future. Hope is not based on a calculation that things will be better.”
Williams Mystic remains a critical part of this equation, in Eric’s eyes, as it provides important information and tools to inform and ground such action.
For our final field seminar of the semester, we left for the land of lazy lagoons, bountiful bayous, and plentiful pelicans that they call Louisiana. To make our Monday 6 a.m. flight to New Orleans, however, we had to depart Mystic at 3 a.m. Thus it was not without a great deal of willpower and some choice words that would make a sailor blush that at 2 a.m. I pulled myself from the warm embrace of my bed and prepared my Williams-Mystic™ duffel bag. Leaving the house and joining the rest of my bleary-eyed, coffee-powered companions, we boarded the bus to the Hartford Airport.
We landed in New Orleans around midday and not wasting a moment, split up into our rental vans and headed southwest for Houma. We stopped along the way at our first of many levees along the Mississippi River. For decades, the levees were the pride of the US Army Corps of Engineers, shackling and controlling the river and preventing the regular flooding that had once characterized Louisiana. Unfortunately, that same flooding was the main mode of laying sediment and building back land in the state, and with these levees, all of that sediment was being washed out into the Gulf of Mexico. These paradoxical levees, along with rising sea levels, were the primary engines behind the coastal land loss we observed at all points along southern Louisiana.
Our first guided experience was at the Whitney Plantation, one of the few preserved plantations focusing solely on the experience of the enslaved people there. We learned how everything we saw, from the opulent house of the master to the rows and rows of sugarcane, were the product of backbreaking, inhumane labor. The names of the slaves and the interviews of former slaves, etched in stone around the plantation, told a history too terrible to be believed, but such is the truth of America’s history. We reflected on the day over dinner before turning in early for the night.
Tuesday began with festivities for one of our classmates, and we celebrated their twenty-second birthday with all the pomp and circumstance one could find in a hotel lobby. Our celebration completed, we boarded the vans and set off for the swamps. Zam’s Swamp Tour was about as close as any of us could ever hope to get to live alligators, giant snapping turtles, and even more giant boa constrictors. Safe in our pontoon boats with cypresses and mangroves hanging over us, we motored through the narrow, murky waterways as our guide, ZZ Loupe, told us about the history of alligator hunting and local foodways. It was a spectacular tour that left us with more swamp smarts than the average bear—which was one of the few animals we didn’t see while we were there.
We returned to the vans for a shorter drive to the La Butte Mound, a cemetery and place of great significance to the Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. It was hard to imagine that the mound, with its edges only a few feet from the rapidly encroaching waterline, had once been thought to be unassailable by flooding. Within a few decades, it seemed La Butte would only be visible at low tide. Continuing southwards, we arrived at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, or LUMCON, our gracious hosts for the remainder of our time in Louisiana. (Most gracious of all was Chef Michael Lloyd who returned to LUMCON just to cook for some of our meals, outdoing himself with every dinner and providing us with the food that powered us through our often packed schedules!) That night, we listened to local shrimper, alligator hunter, and LUMCON vessel operator Carl Sevin about life this far south and creative circumventions of the law. Some of us immediately retired to bed while the rest tried their luck at fishing to cap off the night.
Wednesday was once again punctuated by festivity, as yet another one of our classmates celebrated their twenty-third birthday. Before it could be properly celebrated, however, we first had to trek out into the marsh near LUMCON. In clouded waters that were just shallow enough to stand in, we paddled into the surrounding spartina. While kayaking was no problem, disembarking onto the muddy shores that swallowed some of us down to our waists like quicksand proved a more difficult venture. With some help (and, for one of us, a great deal of cursing,) we successfully clambered onto land, stood in the tall spartina, and took cores of the marsh down to sediment that was likely 6,000 years old. After showering off the inches of mud that coated everything we wore, we prepared our most flexible attire and shiniest shoes for a night of authentic cajun dancing at the Jolly Inn. There, we had a shindig fit for a king with enough spinning, two-steps, and waltzes to make the hours we spent there pass by in a whirl. When the band played “Happy Birthday” for our classmate, we were surprised to find that our classmate had a birthday twin! With such serendipity secured, we returned—elated but extremely exhausted—to LUMCON.
On Thursday, we drove over elevated highways of rebar-reinforced concrete to Port Fourchon. The primary nexus of oil and gas pumped out of the Gulf of Mexico, it was here that almost all of the offshore rigs we’d seen at all points along our Louisiana journey depended on for transport to the greater United States. Guided by Thad Angelloz, we learned about the economic importance of the port to the state and the measures taken to ready the port for the oncoming effects of climate change. We then traveled to Grand Isle, a barrier island on the frontlines of climate change. There, we met Chris Hernandez, who for decades fought to safeguard the island against some of the worst hurricanes this country has seen. The industry of Port Fourchon seemed to pale in comparison to the years of tireless work he put in for nothing more than love for his home. After lunch in his home and a few hours at the beach, we returned to LUMCON for our final night in Louisiana.
We awoke early Friday morning for the long drive back to New Orleans. When we arrived, we were allowed to explore the French Quarter of the city for two hours. My friends and I spent those hours sampling traditional confectioneries, hot sauce shops, Harley Davidson stores, and Cafe DuMonde beignets. As we were waiting in line for Cafe DuMonde, a line band was performing “Down in New Orleans,” to which I had to bust out a few moves from the Jolly Inn. Returning from our escapades, we boarded the City of New Orleans riverboat for a riverside tour of the city and its parishes. After a lunch of red beans and rice with the sights of the Big Easy drifting by our windows, we disembarked the ship, embarked on the vans, boarded the planes back to Baltimore and Hartford, and finally bussed back to Mystic.
Battle-hardened by our trials and tribulations throughout the semester, our 17-strong cohort was now as thick as thieves. The many hours we spent in the vans whisked by me as I sang, joked, and learned alongside the rest of my friends. Even as we were up and about from dawn to dusk, the entire field seminar seemed to breeze by. If I learned anything from my time in Louisiana, it was the overwhelming power of joy. Even in the face of a bevy of natural and unnatural disasters, most everyone we talked to spoke about the happiness they found in their work, community, and family. In our strange bunch of college kids from all walks of life, I think we found our own happiness-finding family.
Emily is a recent graduate of Williams College. Her time in Mystic included long walks around the seaport, last-minute kayaking, and a wholehearted attempt at blacksmithing.
Katy Newcomer Lawson (F’12) has traveled far and wide. It’s one of the first things I notice in the About section of her website: the list of places where she’s worked spans coasts, countries, and even continents. In the course of her work as a marine scientist, Katy has been everywhere from the Chesapeake Bay to the coast of Maine, the Pacific Northwest to Panama, Alaska to Australia. When I give her a call one Thursday afternoon, I’m lucky enough to catch her while we’re both in the same time zone — I’m at school in Massachusetts; she’s working from home in upstate New York — and I can’t help but ask: which of those many places was her favorite?
“Favorites, that’s so hard!” Katy says. “There are so many good ones.” There’s the semester she spent studying abroad in Australia, just a hundred miles inland from the Great Barrier Reef. (“It was really immersive, because I took four classes on coral reefs,” Katy tells me. “I was like, if I’m going to be in Australia, I’m going to do it!”) There are all the times she’s gone scuba diving in the kelp forests off the coast of California. (As she describes the experience, I feel like I’m right there underwater with her: “It’s almost spooky,” she says, “but also very pretty, because the sun shines through and [it’s like] you’re swimming through a forest.”)
Then there’s the summer she spent in Florida, patrolling beaches for sea turtle nests. (“That was the hardest I’ve ever worked, walking on the beach in the morning every single day for miles.” “When you say morning,” I ask, “do you mean, like, 9 AM morning or 5 AM morning?” “5 AM morning,” Katy confirms, telling me she had to wake up at 4 to get to the beach on time. “But, I mean, I also got to see baby sea turtles that summer,” she says, smiling, “so pros and cons, really.”) There’s also the work she’s done in St. Paul and Sitka, Alaska, which Katy says might be her two favorite field sites of all time. (“It was so interesting to go there,” she says. “Very surprising ecosystems, very diverse — [with] starfish and giant urchins and all these fun invertebrate species.”)
And the next destination on her list is equally exciting. If all goes well, next summer, Katy will be headed to Fiji, where she’ll continue to work on her PhD with conservation biologist Joshua Drew. The focus of Katy’s PhD research is marine biodiversity; she’s particularly interested in the invertebrate species that call Fiji’s coral reefs and mangrove forests home. Though her trip to those very sites was originally scheduled for this summer and had to be postponed, Katy has still been able to make progress on her project. She’s currently doing mathematical and statistical modeling work from home, while also looking forward to getting back out in the field. “That’s the part I really like,” Katy says, “is how hands-on it is. [With] marine fieldwork, when you’re out on the beach or on a boat, you feel like you’re [having] a very tactile experience.” Not to mention, she adds, of her upcoming trip, “I really enjoy traveling for work!”
But before most of that traveling — before Fiji, before Alaska and California and Australia — there was Williams-Mystic. Katy came to Mystic as an environmental studies major at Williams who had been interested in marine science since high school and a self-described “ocean girl” since long before then. “When I was looking at Williams as a college, I [wasn’t sure] if I wanted to [take] the liberal arts route or do a very marine-heavy undergrad,” she explains, “so Williams-Mystic helped convince me that I wanted to go to Williams.” It’s something the two of us have in common; as a senior in high school, I had the same dilemma and made the same decision. Something else we share: both of us remember the field seminars as one of the best parts of Williams-Mystic. We exchange stories about the offshore trip, which Katy tells me was her favorite, “because it was the most unlike anything I’d ever done before.” I’ve never really been able to put the magic of that trip into words, but Katy does it perfectly: “To keep waking up at sea was [just] an amazing experience.”
“And then [the] Louisiana [field seminar] was [also] great,” she continues. During that trip, “we stayed at LUMCON,” the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, “which is a field site that’s also a lab. Basically, it was like a professional field location, and I’d never been to one before. [So] to experience that, where it was like — here are the scientists who work at this lab, and they do science for their job, 9 to 5 — I [just thought], that’s really cool! That’s a dream!” Back in Mystic, Katy had the chance to try out that dream for herself. She began working as a research assistant in the lab of professor emeritus (and former Williams-Mystic director) Jim Carlton. “Jim was a huge influence,” Katy tells me now. “You know, I still [study] invertebrates, which are his specialty. And I started [my career] in an invasive [species] lab that he helped found, so I’m definitely super thankful to have gone to Williams-Mystic and learned from Jim and everybody else there.”
One especially memorable learning experience, Katy says, was the research project she did when she returned to Mystic the following summer, to continue working with Jim and one of his then-PhD students. “We’d found something in the field that was really interesting,” she says, “which was that anemones were producing eggs for a reason we didn’t understand, because they were asexual. And we were like, ‘Why? We thought you were asexual!’” So Katy used her histology skills — which she’d recently honed in Australia, studying corals (what else?) — to analyze the tissue of the anemones and “figure out if they had eggs, if they had sperm, what was going on.” She pauses for a moment here, and, enthralled, I ask: What was going on? Were they really asexual?
“Yes, they were really asexual!” Katy says. “It was a totally female population — there were no sperm-holding anemones. We think it’s because they’re invasive, and they probably haven’t lost the capability to reproduce sexually from their original population — but that only one individual was transported to Mystic, [and] it was a female. And so now every single anemone in Mystic is a female,” she explains. “Other researchers also discovered this around the same time, and found other populations that are only male, [or other] female-only populations. [But] there are [also] populations that have both, and so people are trying to see if they’re going to reproduce sexually. It’ll be interesting,” she continues, “because they’re so successful [as a species] without [sexual reproduction]. But if they recombine and are able to adapt and evolve as a [typical] population might, then they [could] become even more prevalent — who knows?”
The anemone project — which ultimately turned into Katy’s undergraduate thesis — exemplifies what she says she loves most about doing research: asking questions and finding ways to answer them. “I have a lot of fun designing research questions and thinking up what we want to test and why it’s important,” she says. “And going through the process of trial and error in the field — I really enjoy that part of it.” I’m curious about what that process is like, never having been through it on my own. Katy nods: “I think it’s hard to get experience doing that until either you have an independent project or you work on a project with somebody [else] from start to finish. But it’s definitely one of the most surprising things I’ve learned [about research], is that it’s very iterative. Because there are so many things in the field that can affect your project, like weather, waves, currents, other animals, other humans… So you have to kind of think of solutions on the spot and be ready for almost anything to happen.”
“And it can be really nerve-racking the first time it happens to you,” Katy tells me. “Like, [for] my first internship project, the animal I was trying to study didn’t come that year — they [just] didn’t settle in that location that year — so when I got there, [and] I saw barnacles instead of bryozoans, I was like, ‘Oh. Well, my study is now on barnacles!’” Katy laughs. Despite the challenges, it seems like everything worked out in the end. That barnacle project took place while Katy was an intern at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), where she later became a full-time lab technician. She gives credit to Williams-Mystic for helping her get that initial opportunity: “I definitely would not have gotten the internship at [SERC] without [my] experience working with Jim,” she says. “And then the research I did [with him] for my thesis” — the aforementioned anemone project — “turned into a paper, so that was my first big publication — which was probably [also] very impactful, [to have that] on my resume [when I applied] to grad school.”
I ask Katy if there are other ways in which she thinks Williams-Mystic has shaped her life since. “I mean, I met my husband [there],” she says with a smile, “and I made really great friends [who] I still talk to and hang out with a lot.” (She remembers paddleboarding on the Mystic River in the summer, going to Clyde’s for apple cider donuts in the fall — the foundation for friendships that are still going strong, even now, years later.) Though some of her favorite memories are from time spent outside of class, Katy tells me she really enjoyed her courses, too. She admits to having a favorite — “as a science person, I was obsessed with the ecology class” — but says she also appreciated “the way all [the classes] intersected, how they all built upon each other.”
Looking back on her coursework as a whole, Katy says, “I think the immersion of [all] the different courses helped expand my view of doing marine science. You know, it can be anthropological; it can be community-based. It’s not just science alone — there’s this whole other huge part of knowing about the marine world that’s not based in the research, it’s based in the human systems. So I think that’s had a big impact on the way I think about things.” For example, Katy recalls, “When we went to Louisiana, I was always amazed at how close the connections were between some of the professors at Mystic and some of the people [we met] in Louisiana. I thought that was so impressive, to have collaborators who they’ve [known] for like twenty years, who they’re friends with and who live in that community.”
Today, Katy hopes to build similarly strong connections through her own work. For the ongoing Fiji project, she says, “we do a lot of collaboration with the local indigenous community. [We] try to focus on what they’re interested in studying [and] develop research questions that might further their own interest in the conservation process. For example, there are a lot of services that they value more than the Western community [does], like sustenance fishing or traditional uses of mangrove wood. So we want to try to develop study questions that support those kinds of values.” It’s important, she says, to focus on projects that are not only of scientific interest, but also of value to the surrounding community — and it’s equally important to work with local collaborators, to ensure they are involved with and invested in the research being done.
Katy’s belief that science should be accessible and inclusive extends even beyond the immediate community, into the wider world. “I think [doing] outreach is a really important part of any scientist’s job,” she says, whether that means giving talks, using social media, or finding other ways to share science with the public. In addition to keeping people informed, Katy also wants to help them join in research efforts themselves, as citizen scientists. “I really enjoy that, connecting people to projects and getting them involved,” she says. “I think people are more keen than we think. There are plenty of people who [want to] help, and it’s super beneficial for science [for the public] to have a [better] understanding of what we do.”
While at SERC, for example, Katy helped develop an online citizen science project called Invader ID. The goal of the project is to study fouling communities, which are made up of organisms that live underwater on artificial surfaces, such as docks and ship hulls. As a volunteer, you can access photos that SERC has collected of these organisms, then try your hand at identifying them. Katy says Invader ID “gets people interested in [species] that they would maybe never see,” like tunicates and tubeworms. “But also,” she adds, “it helps us track [these] communities through time. So we can put up [photos] from the early 2000s that we never got around to analyzing, and if the public identifies [the species in them], then we have a data point that we would have never been able to get [otherwise].” To date, more than 5,000 volunteers have contributed to the project. And Katy thinks that, in general, participation in similar citizen science efforts is on the rise. When I ask her how she sees the field of marine science changing, either in the present or in the years to come, she says, “I think more people are expressing interest, and I think more scientists are recognizing that it’s important to [reach out to them] actively.”
“And then with that,” she continues, “I think [science] is becoming more localized. People are realizing, like, to just go to a far-flung place, do research, and come back — and not learn about that place — is maybe a bad idea. You should be more aware of where you’re going, what you’re doing, and how that data is related to that place and those people. And [you should] really connect with the community there and the public in general.” It’s an area where Katy acknowledges that scientists, on the whole, have lots of room for improvement — but she’s optimistic that things will change for the better.
To me, it’s clear that Katy herself is at the forefront of that change, given how closely her work in Fiji is tied to the local community. In addition to the ecological fieldwork, Katy’s project also has a major sociological component. She says, “[One of the questions] that I’m asking is, in high biodiversity sites — assuming biodiversity is a proxy for healthy ecosystems — do people appreciate more ecosystem services, and do they value those [more highly]?” Through surveys and interviews, Katy will work to better understand the local community and its relationship with the environment, in order to make sure that local priorities are taken into account. When designing a research project, Katy says, “it’s important to make sure that you’re not doing [one thing] when the community thinks there’s something [else] that’s more important. So it’s a balance” — a balance she is working hard to achieve.
What’s next for Katy after Fiji? “I’m getting more into this idea of connecting the community with the ecosystem,” she says, “so I think I’m going to try to do projects that are more local to me. That could mean in the Great Lakes region, or it could mean coastal New York, [or even] up to Maine, where there are a lot of local towns that are really invested in the lobster, scallop, and [other] fishing industries. So that’s what I hope to do next, because I want to have that connection to place.” And at the end of the day, it’s that same connection to place that Katy emphasizes when she talks about her time at Williams-Mystic. One of the last questions I ask her is this: In just a few sentences, how would she describe the program?
“I think you just really live in that place,” she says. “You live in the world of [a] New England, ocean-based lifestyle, and you learn a lot about the ocean from the perspective of a coastal community, even if you’ve never been [part of that community before].” (Katy herself grew up in Georgia. “On the coast?” I ask her. “Nope!” she says, smiling. “Anywhere near the coast?” “Nope,” she says again, laughing now. “Central Georgia. My family went to the beach during the summer, but that was it.”) In Mystic, though, “you [really] experience the water,” she says. “You live there on the water, you learn all about the water, you go other places with water — and it’s great. I loved every minute of it.”
Immersed in the incredible culture of New Orleans and southern Louisiana, doing hands-on science in the marshes and bayous, it was impossible to not fall in love with the place. The people of Louisiana are incredibly resilient and strong — qualities they need to battle the impossible odds of a changing world.
This photo essay is by Fall 2019 student Johann Heupel. Johann is a Marine Science and Maritime Studies student at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and a long-time aficionado of the history of our relationship to the sea. Having grown up in Mystic Connecticut, Johann’s future interests lie somewhere in educating a new generation about the wonders of the sea and our fascination with it, sharing maritime culture through art, science, song, and story.
We began our semester by exploring the wilderness of the Pacific Coast and sailing a tall ship on the Atlantic Coast. Our last field seminar as a class was to learn about America’s Gulf Coast: a place where complex history and culture meets the science and threats of the modern age.
Flying into Louisiana in the pouring rain, our first hours in the south were spent coming to terms with the most difficult aspect of American history: slavery. Walking through the historic Whitney Plantation museum, the unpleasant, stark reality of slavery was poignant. As we peered into slave cabins, or heard from interpreters, it became clear that the basis for the bustling maritime city of New Orleans – and the entire state of Louisiana – was built on the backs of enslaved people.
(Above) Williams-Mystic students peer into cells at the Whitney Plantation that once held enslaved people.
Soon we found ourselves in Thibodaux touring the bayou with ZZ Loupe, who has known Williams Mystic since he was a child. We searched the bayou for alligators and egrets, as ZZ shared his deep knowledge of all the local creatures and environment with us. Whether it was the baby alligators in his pens he let us hold, the alligator snapping turtle he deftly handled, or the large boas he draped over us, ZZ had a personal connection to the animals and habitat of the bayou.
(Above) ZZ Loupe, swamp guide and former wrestler, gives Williams-Mystic a swamp tour.
We spent most of the field seminar living at LUMCON, an innovative scientific and educational facility located directly on the marsh. With the expertise of Steven Goodbred — a specialist in the sedimentary dynamics of deltas and wetlands — we learned about the way the landscape had been shaped over thousands of years, and we got the opportunity to observe and study the local ecology.
(Above) Small American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) in the bayous of Thibodaux.
All around us the impact of sea-level rise on nature was clear, particularly was we talked to local people. We met with Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. She shared how erosion and flooding threaten her tribe’s way of life, as trees die from saltwater inundation and ancestral graves are washed away. In Grand Isle, a town on the state’s only inhabited barrier island, town supervisor Christopher Hernandez showed us how entire beaches have been washed away by wave action, as he demonstrated the pump system to cope with their dire situation. Carl Sevin, captain of LUMCON’s RV Acadiana, explained his fear that his way of life was disappearing, as he watches his town submerge and his subsistence lifestyle fade away.
The stories of the people we talked to were incredibly powerful. Hearing the fear and urgency of local residents underscored how climate change has universal impacts. Whether it was oyster processors struggling to fill their quotas due to freshwater inundation of the Gulf, local residents with threatened homes and livelihoods, or the residents of New Orleans coping with constant flooding, everyone faced the realities of a changing world. Immersed in the incredible culture of New Orleans and southern Louisiana, doing hands-on science in the marshes and bayous, it was impossible to not fall in love with the place. The people of Louisiana are incredibly resilient and strong — qualities they need to battle the impossible odds of a changing world.
Our trip to Louisiana showed me how climate adaptation, mitigation, and resiliency look different everywhere. In southern Louisiana, community itself is a form of resilience. Traveling there showed me the face behind climate change; there is no better textbook than a storyteller sitting in front of you.
by Hayden Gillooly
Hayden Gillooly is one of our student bloggers for Spring 2019. She is a sophomore at Williams College, studying Spanish and Geosciences with a concentration in Maritime Studies. She is from North, Adams, MA.
One sunny day, I was walking through the Seaport with my friend and science partner, Phoebe. We were on our way to deploy equipment for our science project: a series of ropes with plastic attached at various depths, to see how depth affects the diversity and biomass of sessile fouling marine organisms. Wagon in tow, filled with buoys, zip ties, and our ‘deployment chains,’ we weaved our way through the Seaport, and noticed that there was a sign in front of the Mystic Chapel that said there would be a chantey singing performance at 1:30. It was 1:27. Perfect! Sessile marine organisms could wait.
We parked our science wagon and went inside, only to find that the church was empty. A museum-goer entered, and we struck up a conversation. We ended up talking about our research projects, and the visitor knew something about all of our topics. He had read the same books we had read, and even knew the cases we had studied in Marine Policy! We exchanged emails, and I promised I would follow up to interview him for my Marine Policy project, which looks at sustainable fishing through a sociological lens. It was such a serendipitous encounter; Phoebe and I walked away feeling energized and excited.
I emailed him last week, and he responded, putting me in touch with another gentleman as well. That gentleman said, “We save what we love. We love what we know. We know what we experience” (a mixture of his ideas along with that of Jacques Cousteau and others). It made me think about Mystic immediately. Here, we are learning to love the planet through learning and experiencing it. How glorious.
Specifically, it made me think about our trip to Louisiana earlier this month. For years, I have learned about global warming, but nothing felt so relevant and necessary as learning about it in Louisiana and speaking with people directly impacted by climate change and sea level rise. No textbook can bring a story and concept to life like experiences can. We only know what we experience.
In Louisiana, driving in our rented minivans vans over a bridge, we could see wetlands disappearing. The bridge itself did not exist just five years prior; the road it replaced was already underwater. We saw ‘ghost trees,’ which are dead trees that have been killed by saltwater as sea level rises. They look eerie and haunting, scattered along roads and highways: A reminder that the sea did not used to come this far.
While traveling through Louisiana, I was amazed by the kindness of everyone we encountered. They welcomed us with open arms, eager to talk to us and answer our questions. Williams-Mystic has built such special relationships with people there. After visiting semester after semester, the program has found a family in these people. It was magical to watch our professors’ faces light up when they saw these old friends. At Cajun dancing one night, the dancers pulled us into their routine with tenderness and joy; before we knew it, we were doing line dances with huge smiles across our faces. The sound of the washboard, band, and laughter filled the dance hall.
While learning about sea level rise in the classroom, I always wondered (albeit naively), why, if someone had the means to, they would not just move. After this trip, I learned that the answer is not so simple; it is full of intricacies, complexities, and does not really have one answer at all. As we spent time with our hosts in Louisiana, I felt my understanding shift. Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar, of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, talked to us about how sea level rise is inundating and flooding the burial grounds of her tribe’s ancestors. Mr. Carl Sevin, a vessels technician at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), talked to us about how his job, like so many others, is dependent upon this place. While his wife is a biology teacher and can find employment elsewhere, his livelihood is dependent upon the land of Louisiana.
At an oyster hatchery, we learned that 47% of US oysters are from Louisiana, and that oyster reefs can protect coasts from erosion and storm surge. A threat that is facing this industry is that the Gulf of Mexico has been identified as highly vulnerable to ocean acidification. Sediment buildup can also be a threat to these crucial oysters reefs, along with attempts to build out the coast by importing sediment. As Brian Callam at the Louisiana WLF Oyster Research Lab said, “When you build up land mass where it was open water, then people who were exploiting that water are displaced. Real people are affected, and their everyday lives, by these changes.”
In the town of Grand Isle, on Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island, we spoke with Mr. Chris Hernandez, the town supervisor and right-hand man to Mayor David Camardelle. Living in western Massachusetts, far away from the coast, it is hard for me to imagine preparing for hurricanes and having my home flooded by rising waters. Conversations with Mr. Chris in his ‘man cave’ were humbling and gave me chills. “When you think you’re prepared for a hurricane, you’re not. You’re never prepared enough.” At Mr. Chris’ house, we also spoke with Captain Floyd Lasseigne; he said that with marshland disappearing, there are fewer places for shrimp to lay their eggs, resulting in declining stocks.
The way that Mayor David talked about Grand Isle reaffirmed that it truly is people who make a place and build a community. “Our homes are gone, but we have our lives.” He described saving a homeless man from drowning in a flooded street during Hurricane Katrina; that man still calls him every few months to thank him. Mr. Chris said that if anything, people must help each other. Even when they have nothing, they help.
On the last night of each field seminar, we do an exercise called ‘around the room,’ where each of us takes a turn reflecting on the trip. I always find these conversations to be eye-opening. Everyone’s comments made me think about the trip through another lens, deepening my appreciation for the experience. My classmate and friend, Angus Warren, said something in his reflection that stuck with many of us. He said, “Is what I am doing good for others?” I followed up with Angus about his comment. He replied, “I am filled with anxiety that my chosen discipline [Classics] serves nothing and no one apart from myself. I have the same reaction to working on sailing ships: sure, I would love to spend the rest of my days floating around the world, but what good am I doing? Being down in Louisiana, amongst people for whom Latin is nothing more than a long-dead language, has hammered home my dread that I’ve isolated myself from large segments of the very same ‘humanity’ I purport to study.”
We furthered our conversation over coffee with my friend and housemate Kylie Wiegel. We questioned what it meant to live a meaningful life and to make a difference in the world. We concluded that if we cannot change the whole world, perhaps we should focus on perpetuating a ‘locus of passion.’ That is, delving into our passions, and sharing them with the people around us so that a cycle of passion is fostered. I find that at Williams-Mystic, in-class discussions often lead to philosophical chats after class and during meals; the topics we are studying feel so relevant and necessary to engage with.
Our trip to Louisiana showed me how climate adaptation, mitigation, and resiliency look different everywhere. In southern Louisiana, community itself is a form of resilience. Traveling there showed me the face behind climate change; there is no better textbook than a storyteller sitting in front of you.
I left the trip feeling changed by the experience, wanting to further study global warming and environmental sciences. Angus’ question rang through my head on repeat: “Is what I am doing good for others?” A week after returning from the trip, I decided to add a Geosciences major with a concentration in Maritime Studies to my Spanish major. My Geosciences professor at Williams, José Constantine, always described climate change by saying “That’s your brothers and sisters out there.” I nodded in agreement in class, but did not feel this line until this trip. How can we stare climate change in the face for what it is? This is more than merely a scientific or political issue: it is an inherently human issue.
“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.”
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.”
“I knew nothing about boats or sailing or the maritime community before coming to Williams-Mystic. I really didn’t think I’d be of any use to the ship’s crew on the Offshore Field Seminar, but I found myself knowing the lines, helping pull up the anchor, and steering the ship comfortably.”
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.
Imagine this: a little girl who hated the outdoors so much that her parents had to bribe her to go outside grows up and chooses to study environmental science, become a camp counselor, and love the outdoors. For New York University student and F’17 alumna Alissa Ryan, this is the journey that led her to Williams-Mystic.
Alissa was in the process of clearing out her old email when she came across a message from Executive Director Tom Van Winkle advertising Williams-Mystic. The program spoke to her because of its size.
“My school is really big (25,000 undergrads!) and right in New York City, so I wanted to have a small, personal experience for a semester where I could develop a community — and I absolutely got that, along with some hands-on learning relevant to my major that I never could have gotten through my own university’s programs,” Alissa said.
Williams-Mystic taught Alissa the importance of making personal connections and collaborating with others.
“At a big city school, there is very little community and people keep to themselves in big, 300-person lectures. It’s easy to fall into that and keep that mindset even in smaller settings where you have the opportunity to be more involved,” Alissa said. “Williams-Mystic reminded me to talk to my classmates and get to know my professors and be all around more present, which has helped me a lot back at my home college.”
Alissa especially enjoyed a field seminar full of personal connections: the Gulf Coast Field Seminar.
“It felt so meaningful and I learned a lot from talking to individuals there. I’ve been learning about climate change for years in the courses for my major, but seeing its effects in real life, right in front of my eyes, and talking to people about how it’s changed their lives is something I could never get from a classroom and really helped me understand why I’m studying these things in the first place,” Alissa said.
Community living was Alissa’s favorite part of her Williams-Mystic experience.
“I really loved Mallory House. We cooked together, watched movies and TV together, and had SO many mug cookies together,” Alissa said. “The other houses were just across the street, too, so I could cross the street to go see my friends over in the other houses.”
Alissa was surprised at how much she was able to learn as different challenges presented themselves.
“I knew nothing about boats or sailing or the maritime community before coming to Williams-Mystic, and I left knowing so much more,” Alissa said. “I really didn’t think I’d be of any use to the ship’s crew on the Offshore Field Seminar, but I found myself knowing the lines, helping pull up the anchor, and steering the ship comfortably.”
Part of being a Williams-Mystic student is working with others to solve problems or defend positions. Alissa’s participation in Moot Court with her classmates embodied this principle.
“We were all stressed and sleep deprived, a little convinced that we wouldn’t be able to make it come together,” Alissa said. “We kept working and figured it all out and it came together for both teams. It perfectly demonstrated to me how well we had all learned to work together to get things done.”
Alissa hopes to work in the field of environmental science someday and believes that environmental education may be a good fit for her.
“I love nature and the environment and I just want to make some sort of positive change, leaving it better in some way,” Alissa said.
Alissa’s Williams-Mystic experience can be summed up in one word: Gratitude.
“I have met lifelong friends through Williams-Mystic who I could never meet anywhere else. My classmates, professors, and everyone else I’ve met at W-M amaze me with their passion for what they do and their drive to make change,” Alissa said. “The people I’ve met through Williams-Mystic continue to inspire me and motivate me to do my best at what I love.”