Research With an Impact at Williams-Mystic

By Todd McLeish

Two students gaze intently at a small marine creature (not visible) held in one student's hand. A rocky shoreline is visible in the background.

When Henry Roman (F’17) heard that the U.S. Navy vessels USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald had been involved in collisions within two months of each other in 2017 and 17 sailors had died in the incidents, it reinforced what he had heard was the Navy’s reputation for poor seamanship. As a student at SUNY Maritime College, where he received in-depth training in ship navigation and related disciplines, the Navy’s reputation was a frequent topic of discussion, and the collisions cemented this idea in the minds of his professors and classmates.

The Navy’s official reports about the collisions were issued during Roman’s semester at Williams-Mystic, so he decided that his independent research project for marine policy class would be an analysis of the collisions and the Navy’s protocols for training its sailors in proper seamanship. So he read the Navy’s reports, arranged interviews with the Government Accountability Office and several Navy officers, and discussed the issue with others he knew in the Navy, as well as with some of the ROTC staff at SUNY Maritime.

“Whether or not it was a failure of naval seamanship, I just wanted to get at the underlying cause of the collisions,” said Roman. “What I found was that Navy seamanship was lacking, their training was lacking, and perhaps the lack of specialization in their training was hurting their naval officers. These two collisions, which were deadly, were evidence of this.”

Independent research has been an integral part of the Williams-Mystic experience from its earliest days. Students in marine policy, maritime history, oceanographic processes and marine ecology classes are assigned an original research project to conduct each semester, and the results are always enlightening.

“We have 43 years of research conducted by our students, and for some of them it’s the first time they’ve done their own research project,” said Tom Van Winkle, executive director of Williams-Mystic. “In contrast to most research on college campuses, which is tied to their professors’ research, the professors here let their students decide on their topic and they collaborate with their students about how to go about it.

“For many students, it’s an introduction to what graduate school is like,” he added. “For others, they discover that they’re interested in something they had no idea they’d be interested in.”

The assignment in marine policy class is usually to select a project based on a current controversial policy issue that has not yet been resolved. Most of the science research projects are investigations of local environmental conditions, while the history class assignment requires that students visit the Mystic Seaport archives and conduct research based on some of its original sources.

As part of his final report, Roman recommended that the Navy require specialized surface warfare training for naval officers that focuses on either navigation or engineering rather than a general training course that tries to turn every officer into a jack-of-all-trades.

“I found some previous reports that said that naval training was not up to scratch, and I also found some minor unreported collisions and incidents that highlighted the failings of the training and that made the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions seem inevitable,” he said.

Roman submitted his report to the Government Accountability Office and to several of the naval officers he interviewed.

“It was a 50/50 reaction,” he said. “It was mildly approved by the officers, but the GAO thought it was an intriguing possibility that they hadn’t considered. We had a long conversation about it, and they said it was an excellent idea.”

Roman will soon be an ensign in the Navy and a surface warfare officer aboard the USS Green Bay, which will make it difficult for him to pursue his recommendations.

“As of now, nothing has changed with the Navy’s training structure, and I’m not expecting it will any time soon,” he said.  “I doubt they’ll take the word of a then-cadet and now-junior officer very seriously. But they have amped up the training time.”

Image is a headshot of Morgan Michaels; she is smiling with a rocks and greenery in the background

Not every Williams-Mystic research project reaches so far into the inner workings of a large institution like the U.S. Navy. But all have an impact in one way or another.

“We often find that several students end up doing a research project that suddenly becomes their senior thesis,” said Van Winkle, “and they come back in the summer for an internship or they continue doing that research through their senior year. Their experience here aligns with their major and enhances and defines their senior thesis.”

That’s what happened with Morgan Michaels (F’18) and her maritime history research. An English major at Williams College with a concentration in public health, she chose as her maritime history research project to investigate the nautical history of medicine after finding photographic negatives in the Mystic Seaport Museum archives of a pediatric hospital ship docked in New York harbor in the early 1900s.

“That set me off on a larger research project about the floating hospitals that dotted the Atlantic coast and parts of Europe during the Progressive Era,” she said. “Instead of treating children in hospitals on land, doctors chose to treat them at sea, which is logistically a much tougher place to practice medicine.”

It’s a project she continued to pursue during her senior year at Williams.

“I wanted to know if this idea of treating kids on a boat was a publicity stunt or a one-time novelty event or a legitimate ongoing medical practice,” she said. “It turns out it was a genuine attempt to do medicine – really innovative medicine for the time because they didn’t have access to all of the medical tools on the boats.”

Based on her research, Michaels found that many doctors of the period prescribed fresh air and visits to coastal environments where the salt water would provide recuperative benefits for a wide variety of ailments, especially ailments afflicting children.

“Rich people would pay for vacations to recuperate at the seashore, and doctors decided they could charge patients for the same kind of service,” explained Michaels. “There were seaside hospitals for children in dozens of cities, and social workers and community organizers would refer kids to spend a couple days or a week there.”

Michaels continued her research when she returned to Williams for her final undergraduate semester.

“Most of my sources were visual, because there was so much photography from that era, so going to the Library of Congress website and seeing hundreds of photos allowed me to piece together the stories of the patients from photos, since most patients didn’t have their stories written down,” she said. “Telling the story from the pictures was challenging and exciting.”

Research projects like those conducted by Roman and Michaels often provide benefits beyond the classroom and research experience.

“The value of these kinds of research projects is sometimes having an impact that you didn’t think you would have,” concluded Van Winkle. “In other cases, the value is in learning these different research skills that students haven’t necessarily learned yet at the undergraduate level and getting a taste of grad school. Regardless of the result, we’ve found that these independent research projects always help our students grow in so many ways.”

Summer Research in Mystic: European Shore Crabs, Comb Jellyfish and Geochemistry, Oh My.

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. 

Each summer, a few students from previous Williams-Mystic classes, or from Williams College, live in Mystic while conducting scientific research. This summer, those individuals were Shelby Hoogland (Bryn Mawr College ‘19), Cristina Mancilla (Williams College ‘20), and Caroline Hung (Williams College ‘19). Here is what they have to say about their research: 

Shelby (S’18) 

Shelby wrote this for a Bryn Mawr College publication.

When I first moved back to Mystic, Connecticut, I had a preconceived notion of what my summer was going to look like after having spent the past semester with the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program. My best friend from the program was going to be my roommate, I would be living in a student house, and would be working with the same professors from the semester.

I’ve traveled with these professors across the country — from sailing offshore in the Caribbean Sea aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer to hearing how climate change is affecting the lives and the history of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians in Southern Louisiana. crab.pngIf you know nothing about Williams-Mystic, know that the 30 other people you get thrown together with, students and faculty alike, become your family for a semester. I already had a few important connections: with Dr. Tim Pusack, my former marine ecology professor and current research mentor; with Dr. Rachel Scudder, my former oceanography professor; and with another current research mentor. These connections helped make me more confident that this would be the summer where I grow into my new position in life as a field ecologist and as a research scientist.

Invasive species pose one of the largest threats to biodiversity worldwide. Additionally, a group of invasive organisms can alter an ecosystem’s characteristics and local populations of native species. These alterations can directly impact local economies, negatively affecting industries such as tourism or commercial fishing. 

C. maenas is an introduced crab species originally from coastal Europe that was potentially brought over in the fouling or bored into a wooden ship in the 1800s. The area that I have been studying is Avery Point, Connecticut on the University of Connecticut – Avery Point’s campus. Although there are many different crabs found in this rocky intertidal ecosystem, the shoreline is dominated by C. maenas. It can be assumed that it is outcompeting native populations of crabs and other invasive species of crabs. In the lab, I am subjecting the crabs to temperatures between 12˚C and 31˚C to mimic the rising temperatures that will be present during the coming years due to climate change. I am measuring their daily feeding rates as a direct measure of their response to the temperature stress.

fieldMy research has brought me to some really cool places. How often can someone say that they get to go to the beach for their job? More importantly, it has taught me the importance of studying climate change. And it has given me insight into how little we currently know about how climate change might affect vital ecosystems. Looking forward to the future, the uncertainty is high as to what our climate will be like. Additionally, we don’t exactly know how it is going to influence local economies. Funding climate change research is important so that we can better prepare our communities in the face of future disasters.

Cristina (S’18) 

I researched trends in population growth and movement of Mnemiopsis leidyi, a comb jellyfish, throughout the Mystic River Estuary and the Long Island Sound. Another component of my research was to figure out a way to keep comb jellyfish alive in the laboratory in order to study them in a controlled setting. This was the most difficult part of the research. M. leidyi are notoriously difficult to maintain in a lab, but I needed to come up with a method to keep them alive long enough to complete an experiment. After much trial and error and with the help of other researchers, I was glad to finally have kept the comb jellyfish alive for a sustained period of time. The work that I did over the summer will hopefully make studying M. leidyi in the laboratory an option for future Williams-Mystic students. I wish to continue this project by studying the effect of increasing temperature on the reinfection rate of M. leidyi by a sea anemone larvae.

Caroline (Williams College Student) 

The summer of 2018 was Caroline’s third summer researching with Associate Professor of Geosciences and Marine Science Lisa Gilbert (S’96).

What I researched:

There are two projects I’ve been working on in my 10-week time with Lisa this summer. I spend most of my time working on my thesis, which is using geochemistry and petrology to find out the origins of the volcanic and alteration setting of the Chrystalls Beach Metabasalt Formation. We spent three weeks at the beginning of summer at our field site on Taieri Beach in South Island, New Zealand. Right now, we are focusing on analyzing the samples and starting to discuss the results. This effort will continue into my senior year. The other project is trying to finish my manuscript on marsh erosion — a project Lisa and I have worked on the past two summers at a local marsh in Barn Island. We hope to submit the manuscript by the end of August.

IMG_2583

What I learned:

I learn so much working with Lisa. It’s finally a chance to apply what I learn in geosciences classes in the field and research. Fieldwork and learning the scientific research process are like courses of them own. I have just started to become a so-called “hard-rock” geoscientist, meaning I now focus on subjects such as tectonics, volcanoes, geophysics, and structural geology, as opposed to “soft-rock” geology, which primarily focuses on fossils, oceanography, geomorphology.

Being out in the field in New Zealand was a challenge every day. I had to learn a lot of field mapping and measuring techniques right on the spot. Lisa was super supportive even when it took me an entire field day to learn how to measure strike and dip (the technical and accepted way to measure the orientation of rocks). But research allows me to build firm foundations on my science knowledge and to really tie what I learn in the classroom and from scientific research together.

I also learned that I want to keep doing what I do in the summers after graduation. Thus, I’m applying to graduate schools in earth sciences!

Challenges:

It takes a lot to focus on the same project knowing that you will continue to work on it the following year. Sometimes, people work in the same area for the rest of their lives! I try to mix up my days and weeks focusing on individual aspects of the project one at a time; I’ll read papers in the morning and play with data in the afternoon, or go to the field in the morning and do lab work and prep in the afternoon. Often, I still find myself staring at the computer because I couldn’t understand the numbers or try to troubleshoot with software or math. I just try to stay positive and know that at some point I will work through my problems. That is when research becomes very satisfying — when you figure out the answer to a problem that you’ve spent days working on.  

IMG_2687

Favorite part:

Fish and chips after field work at a roadside shack in New Zealand. Also, Lisa gives me a lot of autonomy in my work. From how I want to schedule my work day and the research questions I ask, to how I want to answer them. But she is very good at guiding me and giving me hints and critiques that I always look back on and am so thankful for! One of the greatest inspiration and fulfillment for why I want to keep working in Geosciences is the layout of this work that Lisa has got me started on. She always leads me in a good direction — I honestly don’t know where my life will be right now without stumbling into her lab the first summer after freshman year!