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December 12, 2014

Saying goodbye to the Island Life

Filed under: Wrigley Institute — Jessica Dutton @ 1:00 pm

USC Wrigley Institute

By: Elise Steinberger

It’s 8:00 a.m. and breakfast has just ended at the Wrigley Marine Science Center, at the tail end of the Fall semester. Griffin, Sam, and Russell head down to the waterfront for yet another dive; Lorna and Alexis hop in a boat to collect another day’s worth of plant and abalone data; Ali walks down the ramp into Little Fisherman’s Cove in search of guitarfish; Geoff meets with waterfront staff to fashion a contraption capable of producing sound underwater; Alexa and Ashley check on their tanks of crabs and anemones. Just some of the many students finishing up on research projects in labs and in the field.

These California State students have been living in dorms at the Catalina Island campus for their entire fall semesters. Some are completing their undergraduate degrees, while others are beginning Master’s programs. They have shared countless meals together in the dining hall, movies in the lounge, and hours in the classroom. The “Cal State Catalina Semester” is a program for students throughout the Cal State system, offering an opportunity to come together for a combination of classes and fieldwork at Catalina Island. With finals and lab practicals behind them, the students now focus on finishing the data collection necessary to complete their final research projects.

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Ashley and Tie working in field as part of their coursework. Photo: Tie Crisi

As a WMSC Intern this fall, I’ve had to chance to tag along on many of their experiences. I accompanied Alexis on a few data collection trips where we took a boat to Lion’s Head to survey abalones in the area. In my 3mm wetsuit, fins, and mask, I watched as Alexis free-dove in 10-15 feet of water to measure abalone shells. The rough surf was a challenge, and I watched our nearby moored boat bob in the waves as Alexis fought to maintain her position in the water over her transect line. After about an hour in the water, the cold from my hands and feet began spreading. I marveled at the fact that Alexis was not using a wetsuit; but then again, with the amount of free diving she was doing, if she were on land she’d likely be working up a sweat.


Lorna and Alexis take a break from collecting data. Photo: Lorna McFarlane

Another day, I bumped into Ali while snorkeling in Little Fisherman’s Cove. She was there trying to find – and film – guitarfish for her research on their behavior. Visibility was not good (for Catalina Island standards…) and she was having trouble finding any guitarfish. I offered to help search and, after swimming around for some time, we finally found a few. Ali promptly dove, gripping her underwater camera with both hands as she descended. After surfacing, she joked about being cold regardless of the multiple wetsuits she was wearing – a regular challenge as her research requires that she be as still as possible in the water, so as to not startle the guitarfish.

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Students on the Wrigley dock, preparing to enter the water. Photo: Celena Photopulos

Later, at dinner we all had a good laugh as Griffin described what he found on his dive: sea urchins escaping from holes he cannot seem to locate in his experimental ‘boxes’ he painstakingly constructed and set under water. Meanwhile, Alexa discussed how her crabs were not cooperating with her experimental set-ups in the labs, and Sydney explained the process of tracking the dives of cormorant birds. Though each project has its unique set of challenges, students collaborate to problem-solve and help each other collect data to complete their research projects.

Now that its the end of the semester, the students will disperse. They will return to their respective universities across California, taking with them this special research experience. Perhaps, in a few years, some will ride the tide back to Catalina as experts in their fields. Safe travels!

Elise Steinberger is a fall intern at the Wrigley Marine Science Center, here to learn more about marine science before beginning her Master’s in Health and Science Writing at Northwestern University.

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December 9, 2014

A Taste of Marine Research

Filed under: Undergraduate,Wrigley Institute — Jessica Dutton @ 8:41 am

USC Wrigley Institute

By: Elise Steinberger

As the days on Catalina grow shorter, research projects at the marine lab are drawing to a close. Little known to many people, the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center hosts many semester-long classes at the island campus - these programs include both USC classes and courses led by other universities.

One class visiting Catalina this fall is the UCLA Marine Biology Quarter, a field program for advanced undergraduatesStudents from UCLA have been working on research since they arrived on the island 5 weeks ago. The students designed projects during an intensive 2.5 weeks at UCLA’s campus before arriving, so they showed up with research questions and hit the ground running. From day one, they busily drove, walked, swam, and kayaked around the island for their projects. The projects ranged from searching for brittle sea stars to manipulating water temperatures of hermit crabs, and involved both observing animals in the field and manipulating experimental conditions in labs.


UCLA students enjoying Catalina Island. Photo: Dovi Kacev

Jordan Beasley and Kirsten Denicola, two seniors at UCLA, spent their days studying brittle sea stars – both in the lab and in the field. They sought to better understand what factors, particularly colors of light, influence ecological preferences of sea stars. To do this, Jordan and Kirsten surveyed rocky intertidal zones of Isthmus and Cherry Coves and conducted various lab trials. Though they will finish their data analysis when they return to the mainland, research of this type could be useful when studying climate change – as the habitat choices of brittle sea stars might indicate the quality of the water and the relative amounts of different colors of light that come through. Kirsten says the Marine Biology Quarter has helped her understand more of what research is all about, as she decides what to pursue after graduation. For both students this was the first time they were able to independently lead research projects of this scale.

Another student project with implications for climate change is that of Kelly Wong and Colin Shew. Their research explored the effects of water temperature on the reflexes of sea hares. Kelly and Colin both enjoyed designing their own experiments for the first time, as they are both considering graduate school in the coming years. They joked about this experience as a “graduate school boot camp.” As with all the students, they were responsible for setting their own project schedules and felt that the wealth of resources available to them at the marine lab was crucial.

Satthea Khay, a senior studying biology and looking towards a career in medicine, and sought out living and working on Catalina Island as her way of “stepping outside my comfort zone a little bit – giving something else a shot.” Satthea likens the Marine Biology Quarter to studying abroad and made the most of her time in the field in order to see a different side of research. Previously, she had worked in microbiology and cell biology research labs; she felt the field aspect of the Catalina program is unique, saying it showed her that “research doesn’t just have to be in the lab.” She is considering combine her interests in ecology and health by doing epidemiological work.

The opportunity to research in the field was a common draw for the UCLA students. Lexey Dalmau, also a senior studying biology, describes herself as an outdoorsy person and knew that researching on the island would offer plenty of hours in the Catalina sunshine. Like many groups, she and Kimberly Mak spent time in various coves and harbors around the island while exploring hermit crab shell preferences. After working as a lab assistant at UCLA, Lexey was excited at the prospect of running her own experiments. She says, “We’ve taken a lot of classes about ecology and behavior; but, being out here and seeing it first hand makes you understand it even more.”


A UCLA student and teaching assistant together in the field. Photo: Dovi Kacev

When the students return to UCLA’s campus, they will have another 2.5 weeks to complete their data analyses and put pen to paper as they summarize and present their findings. For all the students, it has been an intense 5 weeks of around-the-clock research and data collection. For many, the experience has also helped clarify their next steps after graduation and whether they see graduate school on the horizon. Wherever their paths may lead, they will always take with them the skills they developed as independent researchers – and hopefully many happy memories of their sunny days wading in intertidal zones around Catalina Island.

Elise Steinberger is a fall intern at the Wrigley Marine Science Center, here to learn more about marine science before beginning her Master’s in Health and Science Writing at Northwestern University.

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