Semester by the Bay builds bridges, advances futures

As another Semester by the Bay draws to a close, Debbie Tobin, a biology professor at Kachemak Bay Campus and the 15 students that participated in the class this fall reflect on how the program has impacted their lives and futures.

In Tobin’s words, “Semester by the Bay (SBB) is a study-away fall semester program focused on marine and environmental biology that emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning through numerous field and research-based excursions, labs, and internships with our scientific community partners.”

For the last six years, students from across the United States have come to Homer to gain hands-on work experience, often alongside professionals, in their desired scientific fields.

Most SBB students, former and current, come from University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Students from California, Florida, New York, Missouri, Wyoming and Vermont have also participated in Semester by the Bay. Tobin recently marketed SBB at UNC-Wilmington, University of New Hampshire, and other campuses in Amherst, Massachusetts, including Mount Holyoke and Hampshire College.

“I primarily market at all of these colleges because they have marine biology and/or environmental education programs similar, yet dissimilar, to ours, and because their academic advisors and/or my faculty colleagues on those campuses are incredibly supportive of our program,” Tobin wrote.

SBB students participated in several new exciting activities throughout this fall semester. The Marine Mammal Biology class assisted with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s first Beluga’s Count! citizen science survey along Turnagain Arm and at the Anchorage Zoo in September. Details of the event were included in a broadcast on Sept. 15 by Charles Wohlforth through Alaska Public Media that featured two SBB students from UNC-Wilmington, Aly Weber and Rachel Price, as guests.

The Marine Mammal Skeletal Articulation class taught by Lee Post, the “Boneman,” was able to fully reconstruct “Woody,” the beloved large, male Steller sea lion who resided until his death at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. Woody is now on display in the Pioneer Hall Commons of KBC.

Students also engaged in the annual WhaleFest conference held in Sitka this November led by Science Symposium Director Jan Straley, where they met with several marine science researchers and witnessed 30 humpback whales bubble net feeding, which Krista Laforest, a junior at UNC-Wilmington, described as “a behavior that is not unheard of, but still rare to see.”

Bubble net feeding is a unique and complex technique used by humpback whales, in which they rapidly circle in a shrinking spiral and blow columns of air beneath a school of fish to effectively corral them in a bubble net and force them upward. The whales then swim through the bubble net and catch thousands of fish at a time in their open mouths.

Students are not the only ones impacted by this widely-interactive program.

“It’s broadened my interactions with several of my faculty friends and colleagues at other campuses,” Tobin said. “Through SBB, I’ve gotten to know biology educators and advisors that I otherwise never would have met. It’s also given me opportunity to strengthen my relationships with scientists in our community.”

Tobin expressed great passion for Semester by the Bay and immensely enjoys teaching and working with every group of students who participates in the program, she said. She noticed in particular that this year’s students are more environmentally oriented as opposed to solely focused on marine biology.

Jade Vipond, from Augustana University, wanted to expand her depth of knowledge of other fields of biology and was grateful to have had spectacular field experience. Vipond holds an internship as a sea otter stranding intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Being part of SBB “has intensely altered my future goals,” she wrote. “It has really swayed me towards seeking out an integrated biosciences graduate degree instead of staying the course in cell and molecular biology.”

Jessie West, from UNC-Wilmington, enjoyed the field trips across Kachemak Bay to conduct intertidal zone surveys that showed her the abundance of life that there is to explore.

“I have learned more in this semester than I have in any other semester in the normal classroom setting,” she wrote.

West participated in Homer’s 2017 Wearable Arts Runway Show on Oct. 28 and plans to do more performances before she leaves.

Several students, including Krista Laforest, Sara Coble and Rachel Price, applied to SBB specifically to gain field experience in a unique setting. Laforest hopes to earn her doctorate in a field relating to marine organism behavior and cognition and make a career in conducting her own field research.

Price wrote, on what it has been like to have hands-on experience in Alaska, “It has been incredible! I don’t think I ever in my life imagined getting to perform necropsies on otters or photo-IDing Steller sea lions…. These experiences are extremely rewarding, as I get to actually perform similar duties I have read about professional researchers doing in their papers.”

Being part of SBB taught Price the importance of networking and brought her closer to meeting her personal academic goals.

Coble, from UNC-Wilmington, is a marine biology major with a concentration in conservation and was accepted as an intern for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve this fall.

“I now have a family here in Alaska,” she said. “The Research Reserve will always have a place in my heart and I plan to come back and visit one day.”

Zobeida Rudkin is a biology major through the University of Alaska Anchorage and has a goal of doing marine research on the Pacific Ocean.

When asked what kinds of opportunities SBB has provided for her, she explained, “I have worked with Conrad Field while doing intertidal research in Kasitsna and Jakolof Bays. I have worked with Verena Gill during Belugas Count! helping to inform people about the Cook Inlet Beluga population. I have also been able to work with Marc Webber and Ken Goldman as instructors for my classes.”

She plans to finish her bachelor of science degree in Homer and continue with her masters of marine biology in Sitka, Alaska.

Every student interviewed expressed how Semester by the Bay is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and that they would recommend it to anyone interested in pursuing an education or career in marine biology or environmental studies. Each student interviewed also stated that they plan on returning to Alaska.

Delcenia Cosman is a freelance writer from Anchor Point and a KBC student.