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Coastal Classrooms

Sep 20, 2013
by Brian Thompson, '95

New coastal environmental science major taps into St. Augustine’s abundant natural resources When Terri Seron looks across the pristine, sprawling marshes and waterways that surround St. Augustine, she sees something different than most tourists, fisherman and boaters.

She sees classrooms.

“You look out the window, you walk down the street and there’s a living classroom,” said Seron, chair of the Natural Sciences Department at Flagler College. “We’re surrounded by a coastal laboratory. Nothing is better than immersing (students) in the environment.”

This fall, those “classrooms” became a reality as Flagler launched a new coastal environmental science major that seeks to take advantage of those marshes, and the huge swath of Northeast Florida coastline.

The goal is to let students take advantage of all the research and educational resources throughout the area while getting a broad understanding of diverse environmental issues.

Seron said the new major is not just for students who want to go on to graduate studies or science research careers. Especially in Florida, there is a burgeoning field tied to coastal environmental science — sustainable businesses, environmental law, project management and planning, environmental consulting, and teaching and education.

“There will be a big push for involving education majors who are looking to focus on science,” she said. “The idea is students will learn hands-on science research, but they can use that in a lot of careers.”

That is the appeal of a major like coastal environmental science, said Alan Woolfolk, Flagler’s dean of Academic Affairs, adding that it offers many career paths for students in an important field.

He said while most colleges and universities have more standard science and biology programs, the college saw an opportunity to build a unique program that capitalizes on the area’s unique natural resources.

“This is a way for Flagler to distinguish itself,” he said. 

New opportunities for students

Some students have already been taking advantage of research opportunities in the area through the college’s environmental science minor, which was started in 2008 as a precursor to the major. In fact, senior Daphne Pariser spent the summer in Japan for an internship in immunology at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. She landed the spot after researching stress patterns in marine life in Northeast Florida ecosystems.

Last summer, she and Kassandra Ferguson were picked for the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. That 10-week program allowed her to conduct research into the neuroscience of emotion, learning and memory at the Center for Neural Science at New York University.

“I’ve always wanted to do science and research,” Pariser said. “But I didn’t think it was something I could because I didn’t really understand it.”

Between the minor and working with Seron, she realized that science wasn’t something unapproachable and out-of-reach for her.

“To me, nothing really makes sense without science,” she said. “The more I question the world, the more I find scientific explanations.”

Pariser said she plans to go on to graduate school to continue studying molecular biology after she graduates in December. She said she was thrilled to see the major offered, as it will help other students like her looking to expand their interest in scientific fields.

“We are in the perfect spot to be doing environmental research,” she said.

Surrounded by living laboratories

You don’t need to go far to tap into St. Augustine’s rich abundance of unspoiled ecosystems. Both north and south, and often within walking distance, the city is surrounded by tidal marshes, rivers, dense maritime oak hammocks, ridges of dunes and miles of undisturbed coastline.

The area is home to the Guana Tolomato National Estuarine Research Reserve — 73,000 protected acres that boast 580 different plant species, 358 kinds of birds, 303 fish species and dozens of other mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Kayak out into the middle of it and you quickly forget you’re surrounded by two of the fastest growing counties in the state. That collision between nature and development also makes these natural lands even more critical to study.

That is why the area has become a researcher’s playground. The University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience is here, and there are scientists from the University of North Florida, the St. Johns River Water Management District and Jacksonville University. Several years ago, the Georgia Aquarium bought the historic dolphin attraction Marineland, which gives the world’s largest aquarium a presence on the First Coast.

Seron said all this makes the area perfect for Flagler to tap into with its own specialized program, and that the college would partner with local research facilities and the Research Reserve.

Science isn’t for science’s sake

Students like Pariser have already been doing that. She worked with Seron and a number of different partners on research that involved dropping alligators into the habitats of blue crabs. She was interested in studying the crabs’ stress proteins and how predators would affect them.

Some might scoff at the idea of researching “crab stress,” but Pariser said there are very good reasons to look into it.

Blue crabs are a huge industry and important to the region economically. They also play an important role in local eco-systems. But how do changes to environment — encroaching development, new species introduced to their habitat — impact them? Pariser and Seron said it is more important than ever to better understand the surrounding environment, and that’s where research comes in.

“There’s not a lot of research that looks at how blue crabs deal with stress,” Pariser said.

Seron said science doesn’t exist purely to satisfy the curiosity of scientists. Rather, there are endless practical and necessary applications for research taking place all across the state.

She also said people often confuse environmental science with environmentalism. The goal of the program here isn’t to push an agenda, but to look deeper into problems and issues facing the environment.

“The program is designed to ask questions: Where do we go from here? How do we solve some of the problems? How do we begin the discussion?” she said.

Seron said by this past summer, 22 students had already declared the major.

“We think there’s an opportunity to offer a unique Florida coastal environmental science program,” she said. “We’re not just doing what every other college is doing.”

Stocking Island study abroad:

The new coastal environmental science major will also include a study abroad opportunity in the Bahamas. But unlike other study abroad trips, this one will take advantage of something unique to Flagler College: a private island.

College founder Lawrence Lewis gave the college several pieces of property on Stocking Island, just east of the Great Exumas Island Chain. The pristine coastal habitat includes an inland blue hole that connects to the open ocean below ground, offshore coral reefs and numerous natural resources to explore and study.

Seron said she would like to develop a summer study abroad field station there.

“It’s an untapped resource,” she said.

A study abroad trip this summer was partially funded by a gift from Mr. and Mrs. James Babcock, who have pledged $100,000 to endow the James W. Babcock and B. Teri Ludwick-Babcock Scholarship for study abroad.

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