Institutes Team Up To Deliver New Graduate Field Course

In January, graduate students in a joint doctoral degree program between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) came to BIOS for a new microbial oceanography course. The course combined hands-on training in the field and lab and gave students exposure to a diverse range of environments around Bermuda.

A partnership between BIOS and two Massachusetts-based institutions was strengthened with the addition of a new microbial oceanography course, held for the first time at BIOS in January.

BIOS hosted the course with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) on Cape Cod. For more than 50 years, doctoral students have had the opportunity to receive a degree awarded by both institutions, a partnership known as the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. The program leverages the expertise of scientists in a wide range of ocean science disciplines, supporting students’ interests in applied ocean science, oceanography, climate and climate impacts, and coastal processes. 

Since 1989, the MIT-WHOI Joint Program (with support from former BIOS Trustee and past Bermuda resident, the late Arch Scurlock) has also provided funds to support student research at BIOS.

WHOI scientists Amy Apprill and Stefan Sievert, both marine microbiologists, developed and organized the course with funding from the WHOI Doherty Chair in Education Fund. They instructed the course at BIOS with MIT scientists Andrew Babbin, a marine biogeochemist, and Greg Fournier, a molecular phylogeneticist.

BIOS Joint WHOI-MIT 2020

Fifteen MIT-WHOI joint program students were joined by WHOI scientists Amy Apprill (front row, kneeling, second from left) and Stefan Sievert (front row, kneeling, left), both microbiologists, and MIT scientists Andrew Babbin (back row, 9th from left), a marine biogeochemist, and Greg Fourner (not pictured), a molecular phylogeneticist.

Apprill, who has been on the WHOI faculty since 2012, describes the course as a “hands-on field and lab training course that gives students exposure to diverse field environments while increasing interactions between MIT and WHOI-based students and faculty.” She also pointed out the benefit of having students meet with BIOS-based scientific staff while understanding the research opportunities available in Bermuda. 

Over a period of 10 days, 15 students learned how to collect, process, and analyze samples to study microorganisms in the ocean, with a focus on three marine and coastal environments: coral reefs, mangroves, and caves. The course began with a cruise to Devil’s Hole in Harrington Sound, which was used to introduce the students to the different field techniques taught in the course. The students then developed group projects centered on understanding the diverse microbial environments within the Walsingham Cave, the mangroves in Hungry Bay Nature Reserve on Bermuda’s southern coast, and a coral reef environment.

The course also included lectures about the utilization of various scientific techniques. Participating students, most of whom are pursuing doctoral degrees in biological or chemical oceanography with an emphasis on microbiology and biogeochemistry, learned a variety of analytical techniques, including microbial cultivation, respiration and cell counts with high-powered microscopes, as well as DNA sequencing and bioinformatics analyses.

Amy Maas, a BIOS comparative physiologist and biological oceanographer, assisted the students with their respiration experiments looking at the various metabolic rates of microbes in the water column at Devil’s Hole. Maas, a former WHOI postdoctoral scholar and investigator, has close ties with many scientists at the Institution, including the instructors, and was keen to provide the same professional courtesies and collaborative experiences at BIOS that she receives at WHOI.

“From an educational perspective, being able to showcase the types of instruments that are available at BIOS gives students an immersive, practical experience that helps them understand how modern technology is being used in the field,” Maas said. “In the long-term, since these are graduate students, this may also encourage them to return and conduct research at BIOS, especially since joint-program students can apply for funding to support their research at BIOS.”

“One of the reasons we chose BIOS for our course was the fact that it is known for both its outstanding educational program and its ability to serve as a field station, as well as having excellent resident scientific staff doing top notch science,” said Sievert, who joined the WHOI faculty in 2002. “We felt that this would provide the students with a stimulating environment for the course, and we are very grateful for the excellent support we have received from BIOS staff.”

For Lei Ma, a 28-year old joint program student majoring in biological oceanography, the new course offered an exciting opportunity to conduct real-world science outside of the laboratory environment.

During the 10-day course, students learned how to collect, process, and analyze samples to study microorganisms in a variety of ocean and coastal marine environments, including coral reefs, mangroves, and caves. Stefan Sievert, one of the course instructors and a marine microbiologist at WHOI, uses a dissecting microscope to study samples in one of the teaching labs at BIOS.

“It was a great experience learning how to perform the lab techniques I’m already familiar with in a less controlled environment, and how to actually go out and sample in the field rather than working with lab strains,” she said. “The best part of the course was getting to know the other students and exploring places I never thought to sample for microbes, such as cave water and mangrove sediments, and it was wonderful hearing from BIOS researchers about their work at the station.”  

Iulia-Madalina Streanga, a 23-year old, first-year joint program doctoral student majoring in chemical oceanography, took the new course as a continuation to a lecture-based marine microbiology and biogeochemistry course taught by Apprill and Sievert last semester.

“I would definitely recommend this course to anyone whose research can benefit from it,” she said. “It was a very well-rounded educational experience that taught me important principles about how to design a research question, engage the various skills of the group I was part of, and apply a series of laboratory analyses, all while enjoying the company of my fellow classmates and the scenic beauty of Bermuda.”

“The course was a great success,” said Apprill and Sievert. “The students really embraced the idea and took full advantage of the provided opportunities. Judging from the feedback we received from the students, we seem to have found a good balance between being rigorous, while at the same time leaving room for fun activities and giving the students freedom in developing their projects.”

Apprill and Sievert are optimistic that funds can be obtained to offer this course again in the future. “We definitely want to come back.”