Marine Biological Laboratory Semester in Environmental Science open to UChicago students

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

The University of Chicago’s partnership with the Marine Biological Laboratory has made possible a new educational opportunity for students studying environmental science.

UChicago students now can attend the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Semester in Environmental Science, a 15-week course taught each autumn at the Ecosystems Center in Woods Hole, Mass. SES courses are now cross-listed in UChicago’s course catalog, allowing students to easily participate in the program.

The Semester in Environmental Science is now in its 18th year at the MBL and draws students from more than 60 colleges around the nation. Taught by research faculty at the MBL’s Ecosystems Center and Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution, the curriculum provides an intensive field- and laboratory-based introduction to ecosystems science and the biogeochemistry of coastal forests, freshwater ponds and estuaries, studied in the context of global change and rising sea levels.

“There is an immediate connection between discussion of principles of ecology and the observation of those principles out in the field,” said Laurens Mets, associate professor in molecular genetics and cell biology. “There is really no other way to learn so clearly the rigors and rewards of careful observation, backed up by continual assessment of your understanding through exposure to the living material itself.”

Elisabeth Moyer, associate professor in geophysical sciences, has been working with faculty members to better meet the needs of students studying environmental science and to update the major requirements to serve students who work at the intersection of biology, chemistry and geophysical sciences.

One advantage the Semester in Environmental Science offers, Moyer said, is a focus on environmental biology and geochemistry in a single integrated program. Another advantage is the intensely focused and residential nature of the program.

“The Semester in Environmental science at MBL won’t just be an educational resource, but also a way to build community within the environmental science major,” Moyer said. “And when students return from MBL, they can continue their research with UChicago faculty.”

Research is a fundamental part of the SES experience. After 10 weeks in the classroom, students embark on a six-week-long independent research project of their choosing. Students also can integrate their research question into long-term experiments being conducted at MBL.

Research projects cover a variety of topics, from the consequences of soil warming on carbon dioxide release in forests and strategies for remediating wastewater pollution on coastal bays, to the effectiveness of wetland and grassland restoration efforts on Cape Cod. Some of the overarching themes of MBL include human-caused changes in element cycling and how climate changes are affecting ecosystem function.

“Students are able to work in aquatic and terrestrial environments and learn about various ways of evaluating the function and response of ecosystems,” said Kenneth Foreman, MBL’s director of the Semester in Environmental Science. “The program focuses intensely on collecting data. We want students to learn how to do science, not just hear about other peoples work. SES really prepares students for unique and meaningful research internships.”

Students who have participated in the Semester in Environmental Science often return to work with SES faculty. About one in five SES alumni participate in later research internships, or become research assistants at MBL. Longer-term, SES alumni have been remarkably successful in science. Roughly 70 percent go on to earn advanced degrees in fields related to environmental research, engineering and management.

“The UChicago undergraduates are obviously going to be great students and add a new dimension to the program,” Foreman said. “All of our students are highly motivated and want to make a positive impact on society.”

The first UChicago SES at MBL starts Fall 2015. Applications are due April 7, 2015.