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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Semester in Photos, Part V: Mystic

I found my passion for my work at Williams-Mystic, but I also found a new passion for life – and I made some lifelong connections. An experience like Williams-Mystic changes a person, whether through the incredible experiences on field seminars or the meaningful moments at home. I know that I will never forget my time with these amazing people.

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.

This post is part of a series of photo essays depicting the Fall 2019 semester. For the complete series, click here

image shows a Williams-Mystic student grinning as he hurls a snowball in front of Albion House

(Above) Zach Arfa of F’19 engages in a snowball fight outside of Albion House.

We had explored the wonders of Alaska together, beheld the marvels of the Gulf of Maine and trekked across the changing coasts of Louisiana as a class. Yet our unity as a class came from time spent in our collective home: Mystic, Connecticut. After the incredible experiences we had shared, our time at the Mystic Seaport could seem tame in comparison. Yet it was those moments that truly allowed us to bond.

I was the only local kid amongst the group. I grew up in Mystic for 12 years of my early life. Though my family and I had wonderful memories of the area, it took an entirely new and excited group of outsiders to remind me why I loved Mystic so much. There is a unique blend of maritime culture and society, real-time activism and marine science that coincides with the quintessential small New England town.

image shows the Charles W. Morgan, a large nineteenth-century whaling ship at the Mystic Seaport Museum, on a snowy day, with wreaths festooning decorative anchors place along the shore

(Above) The Charles W. Morgan on a snowy day at the Mystic Seaport Museum, part of Williams-Mystic’s campus.

Across the street from the largest maritime museum in the United States, we lived in a place where maritime history was a living, breathing quality. The river had been home to one of the most bustling shipbuilding communities of the region, constructing clipper ships of renown such as the Davy Crockett. Around the waterfront, salt marshes and wetlands were home to an incredible diversity of species to study. 

Being residents of Mystic came with the privilege of learning about all the Seaport had to offer, visiting the Mystic Aquarium for free whenever we wanted, as well as enjoying the local businesses and restaurants, which Mystic has in droves. We could wake up a ten-minute walk from the hustle and bustle of the downtown or from the local YMCA. Kayaking along the beautiful riverbank or biking through the woods, we had a constant stream of activities to occupy our homework breaks.

Image shows a student hammering a red-hot piece of metal on an anvil in a historic forge, with another student firing metal in a hand-operated forge in the background

(Above) Artie Claudio (F’19) works in the shipsmith’s shop during maritime skills class.

Learning from incredibly gifted and passionate professors was a true gift. Every single one of our teachers was invested in our learning. The entire staff spent their time making our time at the program as magical as possible, dealing with the bureaucracy of our home institutions or settling our personal issues to ensure we could focus on being engaged. We had the unique opportunity to learn maritime skills from experts, crafting metal objects in the smith’s forge or learning maritime songs with professional chantey singers.

Most of all, I will cherish the memories I made with my classmates for the rest of my life. Though we all came to this program for different reasons – some of us felt it furthered our interests, while others came to experience something new – we all took away from it something incredible. Whether it was our late hours watching movies and playing pool in Sturges Cottage, or our impromptu trips for ice cream or food, every moment was a smile with people I never would have met otherwise. I found my passion for my work at Williams-Mystic, but I also found a new passion for life – and I made some lifelong connections. An experience like Williams-Mystic changes a person, whether through the incredible experiences on field seminars or the meaningful moments at home. I know that I will never forget my time with these amazing people.

Image shows the Class of Fall 2019 posing with a banner reading Williams-Mystic. Behind them is a sign reading Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and behind that is a pine forest

(Above) F’19 on our first day in Alaska, outside of Glacier Bay National Park in Gustavus.

Mystic-al Leisure

I am feeling thankful to be a resident of Mystic this semester; this town is so indescribably beautiful and full of things to do.

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. 

I am sitting in Green Marble Coffee, which is nestled in the heart of Mystic. I am sipping a hot chai latte, my fingers and cheeks still cold from the bike ride. I am feeling thankful to be a resident of Mystic this semester; this town is so indescribably beautiful and full of things to do.

While academics and field seminars are an important part of Williams-Mystic, they do not take up all of our time. In between the cracks of engaging classes, working on research projects and meeting with professors, there is time for leisure. And in this town, it is Mystic-al (I know, cheesy pun).

Downtown Mystic is a fabulous place to run to, walk and bike around in. Many of my classmates love working out at the Mystic YMCA; the program provides us each with a free membership to the gym. There are so many shops, restaurants and coffee shops. Bartleby’s, Mystic Depot Roasters and Green Marble Coffee are my go-to’s. Usually, I will camp out at a shop with a classmate to work on homework. And more often than sometimes, we end up having philosophical chats that leave me feeling rejuvenated and excited about the word. I really enjoy having long conversations with my classmates.

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Mystic Seaport Museum at sunset.

I have always loved sunsets, so it is of no surprise that Mystic sunsets have become near and dear to my heart. Nearly every night, regardless of what I am in the middle of, I head to the Seaport to watch the day come to a close. At that hour, the Seaport is still; I can hear geese in the distance, birds chirping and the water rippling quietly. The sun dances off the water and casts wild shadows across the shipyard. Tonight, I went for a run downtown and finished at the Seaport to bid farewell to the day.

I am not the only one to enjoy the simple pleasure of a still Seaport. My classmate Samuel (University of Rhode Island ‘19) said that his favorite moments on campus are “walking around after snowstorms and during the cold to watch ice at the edge of the river. The dark water and white snow and lack of activity make it so quaint and idyllic to experience.”

Speaking of community, the Seaport is full of interesting people, and is a spot for leisure in and unto itself. As Williams-Mystic students, we have full access to all of the exhibits here. One day after class, my friend and I spent a few hours going into all of the buildings on site and learning about the history of each one: the general store, blacksmith shop, printing shop, traditional home and watch shop just to name a few. We also toured the Charles W. Morgan tall ship, which is absolutely beautiful; we are so lucky to have such a treasure right at our fingertips. While on the Morgan, we compared it to our time on the Corwith Cramer during our Offshore Field Seminar in Puerto Rico; the beauty of experiential learning. We thought about how difficult it was to live on a ship in such close quarters for 11 days, nevermind the three– to five-year voyages that we learned about from a Mystic volunteer. Our professors take advantage of the Seaport as well; for Maritime History with Alicia Maggard, an upcoming assignment is to visit the exhibit “Voyaging in the Wake of Whalers.”

Living in houses and in such a tight-knit school community is something really unique about Williams-Mystic. I live in Carr House with three other students; it feels so nice to come home at the end of the day, debrief with them and cook dinner. On Sundays, Carr house goes out to brunch or lunch together, which is one of my favorite times of the week. We always go somewhere different and so far have been to Kitchen Little, Bleu Squid and Peking Tokyo. It is wonderful to check in with each other at the end of the week, and talk about the upcoming week.

Community bonding happens in more ways than just within our houses. A few weeks ago, Mary O’Loughlin and Laurie Warren, student life directors, organized for our class to go bowling on a Friday night. Around ten of us attended, and had a blast laughing and dancing while bowling.

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The Powerpoint Party at Albion House!

Another night, Albion House hosted a “Powerpoint Party & Potluck” where everyone made a five-minute presentation about anything, from random interests to life-long passions. I learned about trees from Henry, ‘power poses’ from Charlotte and the origin of the Kermit the Frog Memes from Dayana. Phoebe and Kevin talked about the joys of pickling foods, just to name a few.

Albion house hosts other houses for ‘leftover night’ where another house brings over the week’s leftover foods and hangs out. Before our California field seminar, Carr house was invited to Albion. We dined on quesadillas, salsa rice, guacamole and other yummy foods. We had so much fun spending intentional time with another house. Another common occurrence in Williams-Mystic are board game and card game nights. Carr hosted a stressbusting night of “Cards Against Humanity” and “Apples to Apples.”

I just drank the last sip of my chai latte. Off to bike back to the Seaport; I will take the scenic route, which traces the water, in order to catch the sunset. I’ll ask myself the recurring question, “Is this really my classroom?!”

When Science and Art Come Together: Ann Prince’s (S’78) Williams-Mystic Story

“I feel like it was yesterday that I studied at Willams-Mystic. Time goes by so fast. Williams-Mystic was the absolute best thing I could have done.”

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 late 1970s, Ann Prince was a student at Bates College. The dean of her college was good friends with a man named Ben Labaree, a history professor at Williams College. Ben, as it happened, was in the process of starting the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program. Ann saw posters up on campus, talked to the dean at Bates, and decided to apply.

After receiving admission to the program, Ann never looked back.

Her semester began soon after the infamous Blizzard of ’78. Ann recalls staring out the windows of her train car, with snow piled high beside the tracks, on her way to begin the spring semester.

Then entering the second semester of her sophomore year, she wondered how Williams-Mystic was going to affect her educational experience and her life. Williams-Mystic went on to deeply influence her college experience. And the connections she formed there remain strong to this day.

Ann was studying art and biology at Bates, and wanted to work in the environmental field. Williams-Mystic was a perfect match for her — not just academically but also based on her childhood growing up near the water.

“I grew up in Maryland and my parents had a little yacht that we would sail on the Chesapeake,” Ann said. “My father was the skipper and my mother was first mate on The Katydid.

“I loved being at Mystic so much. I loved marine ecology and my favorite class was maritime literature. I read all of Moby-Dick and other Melville books. I even read other books because it was fun,” Ann said. “I took boat building as a maritime skill and grew very fond of the environment in the beautiful coastal town. I would wake up at 6 a.m. to go on an hour-long run along the waterfront and then have breakfast before going to our 8 a.m. class.”

During Ann’s semester, Ben Labaree and his wife Linda were wonderful supporters of all the Williams-Mystic students.

“Ben took on teaching the maritime history and marine policy course. He was awesome. When you are a kid you do not realize that the sacrifices people make. He brought his two young boys and his wife and moved from Williamstown to Mystic. What a nice man and so good to all of us,” Ann said.

Ann said Linda cared about each and every student even after they completed the project. For 30 years, after she completed her MST in environmental studies, Ann was a writer and editor for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Linda and Ben continued to support her endeavors.

“When I worked at Audubon for all those years and wrote articles for Sanctuary magazine, Linda would sometimes write me a note or give me a call to say that she liked it,” Ann said. “It really meant a lot.”

After finishing her career with Massachusetts Audubon, Ann began to teach reading and literacy to young children in Brockton, Massachusetts. She continues to work as a freelance editor.

Ann has also begun exploring a new genre of writing: song lyrics. She had not touched an instrument in many years when she began picking up the guitar again, as well as playing some piano. Then, she decided to try her hand at songwriting.

“One of my new songs is called ‘Over the Ocean,’” Ann said. “From the surface, you might not know it is a commentary on the politics of the time.”

Some of the music Ann creates is connected to her experience as a Williams-Mystic student. Her class has kept in touch over the years.

“I feel like it was yesterday that I studied at Willams-Mystic. Time goes by so fast,” Ann reflected. “So profound was the influence of that semester that I will never regret choosing Mystic instead of going for a year abroad. It was the absolute best thing I could have done.”

Click play below to listen to Ann’s song titled “Over the Ocean,” which was inspired in part by her time at Williams-Mystic.