California State University, Long Beach
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Catalina Island Brings Marine Biology To Life For Students

Published: November 1, 2011

The cool, clear waters and rugged landscapes of Santa Catalina Island are a haven for marine and seashore life, making the island an ideal field laboratory for marine biology and environmental science students.

That’s why it’s the location of the California State University (CSU) Marine Biology semester program that provides college students with an intense 15-week, hands-on learning experience each fall. Referred to as the Catalina Semester, the program is open to qualified students from any university, not just the CSU, who have met certain course prerequisites.

The program is coordinated through the Southern California Marine Institute (SCMI), a non-profit consortium of 11 institutions including eight CSU campuses comprising the Ocean Studies Institute (OSI) plus USC, UCLA and Occidental College. Cal State OSI members are Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Northridge, Bakersfield, Channel Islands, San Bernardino, San Marcos and Cal Poly Pomona. Catalina Semester students register through CSULB, which serves as its lead campus, transferring credits to their home school.

Students live and study at USC’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, located in a small cove at the Catalina isthmus near the community of Two Harbors.

“For over a decade, the CSU Marine Biology semester has given hundreds of university students the unique opportunity for a full-immersion, hands-on learning experience at one of the world’s premier marine biological laboratories,” said Larry G. Allen, director of SCMI and OSI, and professor of biology at Cal State Northridge. “This is a life-changing experience for most with students often forging strong friendships, and many go on to post-graduate work in marine biology at prestigious universities.”

There are 20 students this fall taking three four-week classes and then a three-week directed research course. This semester began with Marine Ichthyology, an introduction to fishes class taught by Christopher Lowe, director of CSULB’s Shark Lab; then Environmental Physiology and Toxicology in Marine Organisms, taught by Kevin Kelley, director of the Environmental Endocrinology Lab; and finally, Marine Community Ecology, taught by Bengt Allen, director of the Marine Ecology Lab. All three will oversee the students’ directed research projects.

“I call it marine biology boot camp,” Lowe said. “They’re up at 7 a.m., they have lecture from 8 to 10, they’re in the water from 10 to noon, and then after lunch, they’re in the lab or in the field usually from 1 to 4 p.m. We give them an hour for dinner and then we have a paper discussion and talk about experiments and other things. And, then they get a few hours to read about 50 to 100 pages of text and then we do it again the next day. We do that five or six days a week. But it is absolutely amazing to lecture about something in the morning and have the students be able to get in the water and actually see it within a few hours of talking about it.”

The Wrigley Institute is adjacent to the shore, so students can leave the classroom, don snorkel or scuba diving gear provided by the facility, and walk down to the pier within minutes. They also learn how to drive small outboard motor boats, which requires passing the BoatUS online boating safety certification course. Once they’ve mastered boat handling, they learn the tricky maneuver of steering a boat with one hand while operating electronic fish tracking equipment with the other hand.

But, it’s a common love of the marine environment that draws students.

CSULB student Katherine Huotari of Garden Grove frequently traveled with her family to the Monterey Bay area. “It was a nice place to relax and we’d always go to the aquarium together. I’ve always been interested in animals in the world and how it functions. Being submersed in that throughout pretty much my entire childhood, I thought this would be fun to study, so I took a couple of science classes and thought, ‘I’m pretty good at it, too, so why don’t I just do this?’ I would like to study the human impact on the ocean because that’s where I would be able to make the most out of my career.”

CSU’s Catalina Semester Program Brings Marine Biology And Environmental Science To Life For Students
PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Chris Lowe (r) with students during recent Catalina Island class.

Marine biology isn’t only about fish, which is why Cal Poly Pomona student Lindsey Williamson of Chino Hills decided to take part after hearing about the program from Professor Angel Valdes. “Career-wise, I’m pretty open to anything in the marine sciences, so I came here to see what I’d be more interested in,” she said, noting the program will give her opportunities to explore various aspects of the field.

That’s also the case with Elizabeth Duncan of Porterville, a CSULB President’s Scholar. “I’m just ecstatic that I’m here. I’ve been looking forward to the Catalina Semester since my freshman year, so it’s surreal that I’m actually here,” she said. “My career goals now are general, but I know I want to devote my time and my scientific mind toward an issue that we currently have, be it fisheries, pollution or restoring wetland habitat,” after attending graduate school.

However, “the biggest challenge for most of our students is being able to afford it,” Lowe said. “They have to pay for tuition and room and board, and many of them have to give up apartments for the semester, so it’s an expensive alternative for our students. Many of them save for years to be able to do this program. Students may qualify for scholarships, some of which are provided by friends of the program, but it’s harder for faculty.”

Even though Cal State Long Beach administrators have been supportive, Lowe said, different professors teach in the program each year in addition to their regular campus coursework, meaning that they have to juggle schedules and funding.

Allen echoed Lowe’s concerns. “Despite its overall success, financial support from CSU campuses to help offset student room, board, and fees has not been consistent across semesters,” Allen remarked. “Furthermore, support for faculty reimbursement for hours spent on the island has been hit-and-miss depending on the campus. Unfortunately, if this unique opportunity for students is to continue, additional sources of funding for both students and faculty must be found.”

Because the students are away from home most of the semester, families have the opportunity to visit the island early in the term to see firsthand what their children are doing. “It’s pretty surreal thinking that I had someone come visit the Catalina site and saying to them, ‘This ocean is my front yard and that cliff back there is my back yard,’” Huotari said. “Being 30 seconds away from a laboratory in my field is so convenient; I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

For students considering the Catalina Semester program, “Be prepared to stretch yourself academically,” Huotari added. “If you think normal college classes are hard, this is really difficult, but it’s awesome. You’re going to be covering a lot of material and be expected to know it really fast.”

Being in the field definitely helps the information sink in, she said. “Professor Lowe will do a lecture on something and then we’ll get in the water and he’ll point it out and say, ‘This is the type of swimming form we were talking about earlier today.’ It’s way easier than looking at a PowerPoint picture.”

To learn more, visting the CSU Catalina Semester program website, or contact Tom Chavez at 310/519-3172.