Spending a Short Semester Studying Abroad

From January 5 to 19, six undergraduate students from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland (U.S.) spent two weeks at BIOS as part of a “Hopkins Intersession Abroad” program. Intersession provides students with the opportunity to take courses for credit between the fall and spring semesters and includes study abroad programs, as well as courses on topics that aren’t offered during the regular academic year. The 2023 program at BIOS focused on coral reefs and their response to climate change, ocean acidification, and disease.

Paul Gensbigler, 20, is no stranger to the water, having spent the past two years studying the health of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. A junior majoring in molecular and cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Maryland, Gensbigler is researching the microbes that help control nutrient levels in the Bay. However, this January he traded the brackish waters of the northern Chesapeake for the salty waters of the northern Atlantic in a “Hopkins Intersession Abroad” program.

Intersession is a unique feature of the JHU academic calendar that allows undergraduate students to take one, two, or three-week courses for credit in the month of January. The Intersession catalog offers a variety of courses not offered during the fall and spring semesters, including options to study abroad in faculty-led sessions.

The “Bermuda: Ocean Science” study abroad program is a unique opportunity for students to spend time at a working research station interacting with JHU faculty and BIOS scientists. Over two weeks, students conduct research addressing important local and global environmental issues, such as coral reefs and their response to climate change, ocean acidification, and disease—the focus of this year’s program, which ran from January 5 to 19.

Gensbigler was eager to enroll, particularly as the course included topics in microbial science and the use of laboratory techniques that could transfer to his research back in Maryland.

“It was also an opportunity to learn first-hand from leaders in their field,” he said.

Paul Gensbigler is a junior majoring in molecular and cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University. During his time at BIOS he participated in a variety of hands-on research activities, including collecting plankton samples that would provide data inputs for a model of nutrient and plankton distribution. When asked to reflect on the program he said: “My time at BIOS pushed me and inspired me to be a better scientist…it was easily the highlight of my undergraduate experience.”

In addition to five other JHU students, Gensbigler was joined by both of his undergraduate research advisors: program instructor Anand Gnanadesikan, professor in the JHU Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and program co-instructor Sarah Preheim, associate professor in the JHU Department of Environmental Health and Engineering.

Early Beginnings at BIOS

Gnanadesikan has been involved in the program since its inception in 2017, when he and Tom Haine, then-chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, were invited to BIOS by the Institute’s President and CEO, Bill Curry. While discussing possible opportunities for collaboration, the idea of a field course was suggested and—after noting the lack of one in their department at JHU—Gnanadesikan and Haine coordinated the first Bermuda Intersession program.

Months later, in January 2018, 12 students were enrolled in the inaugural program, ready to travel to Bermuda to learn about ocean science and the carbon cycle.

“We took them out on the Atlantic Explorer for a Hydrostation ‘S’ cruise and had a balance between the BIOS staff discussing how measurements get made and me talking about how to model processes and do analysis,” Gnanadesikan said.

Megan Sullivan, a student in the 2018 program, returned to BIOS the following year after graduating with a degree in earth and planetary sciences. She spent 12 weeks as an intern in the Mid-Atlantic Glider Initiative and Collaboration (MAGIC) Lab working with oceanographer Ruth Curry applying glider observations to refine the methods of estimating the ocean’s biological carbon pump. Today, Sullivan is a doctoral student in the department of earth system science at the University of California Irvine, where she is using models to study the impact of phytoplankton variability on the global carbon cycle.

Along with Sullivan, two other students from the inaugural Bermuda Intersession program are now in graduate school. “It’s definitely indicative of the quality of the students, but also of the example set by BIOS staff,” Gnanadesikan said.

Where the Class Goes to the Ocean

Although the Intersession program changes slightly each year, it maintains an overall focus on Bermuda, environmental study methods, and fundamentals in ocean science. In 2019, the program highlighted Bermuda’s coastal ecosystems and, in 2020, the theme was island sustainability. This year, course topics included ocean carbon chemistry; the role that microbes play in cycling carbon and nutrients; the biology and microbial ecology of corals; and an introduction to modeling, data analysis, and molecular techniques. Regardless of the focus, the Bermuda Intersession program always strikes a balance between information sessions and interactive laboratory and field-based experiences.

Students had the opportunity to conduct reef health surveys in the field, then work alongside BIOS marine biologist and ecologist Samantha de Putron, one of the Institute’s co-instructors for the program, to design their own coral experiments in the laboratory.

“BIOS scientists emphasized hands-on learning,” Gensbigler said. “Rather than just having traditional school lectures in a classroom they also took the class to the ocean.”

For example, after presenting on coral biology and reef health, BIOS instructor Samantha de Putron, a marine biologist and coral reef ecologist, brought the class out on the water to conduct reef surveys. Back on land, she worked with students to design experiments using the corals they’d seen on the reef, while Preheim and microbial ecologist Rachel Parsons led a DNA extraction lab investigating how light influences a coral’s microbial community. Similarly, after JHU co-instructor Preheim lectured on photosynthesis and phytoplankton, Hannah Gossener, a BIOS research technician, and Amy Maas, a comparative physiologist and biological oceanographer, helped students collect plankton samples and gather data for a biogeochemical model.

These combined learning experiences were a highlight for Andrea Chen, a junior double-majoring in chemical and biomolecular engineering and earth and planetary sciences. “I loved being able to learn about corals and zooplankton and then getting to jump in the water and see them first-hand,” she said. “It was one of the most exciting and eye-opening experiences of my life.”

This enthusiasm was shared by the course instructors.

“What I think is super fun is that they got excited about the range of plankton sizes they saw and decided to add that to their model,” Maas said. “Apparently it improved the way their model worked, so hopefully I have convinced budding oceanographers and modelers that zooplankton and their size distribution is a cool thing to think about.”

Eric Hochberg, reef systems ecologist, gave a lecture on coral reef ecology and optics and was impressed by how engaged the students were and the insightful questions they asked.

Based on these successes, Gnanadesikan plans on continuing to run an Intersession program at BIOS. “One thing I have found about BIOS each time I’ve visited is that everyone makes the students feel welcome, from the kitchen staff, to the boat crew, to the scientific staff,” he said. “You have something very special.”

As for Gensbigler, enrolling in the Bermuda Intersession program was definitely the right decision.

“I fully loved the Bermuda Study abroad course,” he said. “Not only were the BIOS scientists extremely knowledgeable, but their passion was obvious and contagious. My time at BIOS pushed me and inspired me to be a better scientist. I made memories that I will never forget, and it was easily the highlight of my undergraduate experience.”