Alison Copeland, a Biodiversity Officer for the Bermuda Government Department of Natural Resources, is one of more than 150 Bermudians who have participated in the BIOS Bermuda Program since its inception in 1976. Copeland had an early introduction to BIOS through camps and school field trips. When she was old enough to apply to the Bermuda Program, she jumped at the opportunity to obtain relevant, hands-on research experience to prepare for graduate school. Today, one of her main projects is working to reintroduce the Governor's Laffin Fern, which has been extinct in the wild in Bermuda for more than 100 years. Here, she works at the Rare Plant Conservation Lab at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, which germinates the Laffan's Fern spores for Copeland.
Each summer, a handful of Bermudian students aged 18 and older are chosen to participate in the BIOS Bermuda Program. Since 1976, this program has been offering students the opportunity to learn about the marine and atmospheric sciences through hands-on internship experiences at the Institute. Bermuda Program interns work under the guidance of BIOS scientists on projects that take place in both field and laboratory settings, which offer unique insights into the process of conducting science, as well as the daily operations of an active research station.
In the last 46 years, more than 150 Bermudians have taken part in this program. This includes Alison Copeland, who spent July and August in 2001 as a Bermuda Program intern at BIOS (then known as the Bermuda Biological Station for Research) before going into the third year of her undergraduate studies in geography and biology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. She then continued her studies at Memorial University in Newfoundland, where her master’s thesis involved creating a seabed habitat map of a fjord in Terra Nova National Park in eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. More recently, in 2018, she earned a postgraduate certificate in ecology from the University of Oxford in England.
Today, Copeland is the Biodiversity Officer for the Bermuda Government Department of Environment and Natural Resources, where she uses her training in identifying organisms, field photography, and mapping to preserve the island’s unique assemblage of terrestrial and marine organisms. We recently caught up with Copeland who shared how her experiences with the Bermuda Program influenced her academic and professional careers.
What made you want to apply for the Bermuda Program? What were you hoping to gain from the experience?
I spent a lot of time at the station as a kid, between the Jason Project [an immersive middle school science curriculum program designed to inspire students to pursue careers in science], Coral Camp, and other programs. When I was old enough to attend the Bermuda Program, I knew I wanted to apply. I also knew that I wanted to study science at university, so I was eager to get some relevant experience. Wilfrid Laurier University didn’t require a thesis from undergraduate students, so in a way I was looking for a research experience to fill that niche because I knew I wanted to go to grad school.
Can you share details of the research project you worked on during the Bermuda Program?
I worked in the Benthic Ecology Lab with Robbie Smith (now the Curator of the Natural History Museum at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo, and BIOS adjunct faculty), Samantha de Putron (current BIOS associate scientist and Assistant Director of University Programs), and Joanna Pitt (now a Marine Resources Officer for the Bermuda Government Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and BIOS adjunct faculty). Samantha was doing her doctoral research at the time, so we constructed and set out traps to collect coral larvae. We did a lot of diving in Tynes Bay to check the traps every couple of days, then I would go through the contents under a microscope to remove the coral spawn. I worked in the lab again as a paid research intern during the summer of 2002 on a project surveying fish populations within and outside protected areas. I gained a lot of diving skills and confidence over the two summers I spent at BIOS, which were valuable when I began my graduate degree and had to be certified as a science diver. I also learned a lot about Bermuda fish identification, which I use in my current job.
Robbie and Joanna are now colleagues at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, so the relationships and contacts I made during the Bermuda Program continue to be valuable. Mostly I remember those summers being extremely fun. I still think being paid to count fish was the best job I ever had!
What does your current position with the Bermuda Government entail?
As the Biodiversity Officer, I’m part of a three-person unit that is responsible for work pertaining to threatened species listed on the Bermuda Protected Species Order. This includes the preparation and implementation of Protected Species Recovery Plans for plants, invertebrates, fish, and reptiles. We are also responsible for the management of invasive species, and some habitat management.
I also contribute to the creation of environmental policy, liaise with government officers in other British Overseas Territories, report on Bermuda’s compliance with biodiversity treaties (mostly the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on Migratory Species), support visiting scientists in the field, carry out some GIS mapping, and conduct community outreach on behalf of the department.
Most of the projects I currently work on focus on plants. This is ironic, because as a student I was so focused on marine biology. It is very rewarding work, though. Our terrestrial species in Bermuda are our most endangered, and some of our least understood and appreciated.
What advice would you offer to undergraduate students who might be interested in following a similar career path?
There is more than one way to get to where you want to be, and sometimes it is a twisted route. I decided when I was a child that I wanted to be a marine biologist, but while I always had great science marks, I struggled with math. When I applied to university, I didn’t have the math requirements to get into the science programs. I was really disheartened. I took biology as a second major in an arts degree, with geography as my primary subject. By the time I reached graduate school, it mattered less. I received all the statistics training I needed, and found I actually enjoyed it. Now I even take online statistics classes on my own. As a student I never would have taken a math class out of choice.
I’d also say to take advantage of all your opportunities. Sign up for internships, volunteer, or join field courses at your university. At Memorial, we would take undergraduates with us as field assistants and had them working in the lab. Some of them loved it, some of them hated it. Figuring out what you don’t want to do is just as important as learning what you love.