Under the (Three) Seas

By Katie Hudson, Marine Biology, 2017

Between the torrential downpours, the geckos, birds, and howler monkeys that act as my alarm clock, and the sloths I’ve befriended, it’s hard to forget where I am.

Currently, I am living at the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Bocas del Toro, Panama with Northeastern’s Three Seas Program, a year-long marine biology program that has allowed me to take classes and conduct research within the field.

The program, both an undergraduate and Master’s program, began in the fall semester, where we took five intense, graduate-level courses at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, MA. During this semester, we will divide our time between Panama and the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor laboratories while we continue our coursework.

Now, we are nearly halfway done with our time in Panama. We have already finished two classes — Biology of Corals (taught by Northeastern’s own Steve Vollmer) and Biology and Ecology of Fishes. Soon, we will begin our Coral Reef Ecology class, followed by Tropical Terrestrial Ecology and Ocean and Coastal Processes (taught by Mark Patterson, another Northeastern professor and faculty head of Three Seas).

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The days are extremely long, but extremely rewarding. Breakfast is at 7 am every morning, and is usually an assortment of fruit and toast, depending on the chef. Occasionally, there is French toast, omelets, egg rolls, or mozzarella sticks. Class in the form of a dive or lecture begins at 8:30 at the dock or in the classroom, which happens to be one of the only air-conditioned buildings on campus.

While Bocas del Toro doesn’t have the world’s prettiest reefs, what is here is pretty fantastic (to be completely honest, it’s hard to be displeased when you only need a rash guard instead of 7mm of neoprene). Already, we’ve seen lionfish, queen angelfish, and a nurse shark! In Nahant, we were all certified as AAUS Scientific Divers through our Diving Research Methods course, and as a result, all of the dives we do here are scientific in nature.

Sometimes that means just observing a reef and taking a few notes; other times it means bringing transects, GoPros mounted on giant 1x1x1m3 PVC tripods, or boxes of fish down with us to survey or conduct experiments. In addition, we’ve already taken two exams underwater — our coral ID exam on SCUBA and our fish ID exam on snorkel.

If we’re not lecturing, we’re most likely working on class-wide experiments in either the field or the wet lab. Most recently, we wrapped up our class experiment for fishes on the affects of the invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans) on resident predators (Cephalopholis cruentatus) and prey species (Coryphopterus personatus). This involved introducing both invasive and native predators to the prey species, filming the behavioral response with GoPros, and determining prey survivorship.

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Similar to work done by the Marine Science Center’s director, Geoff Trussell, we also examined the effect of predator chemical cues on the prey species in a similar manner.In the end, we found that it is possible that the prey species do not recognize the lionfish as a predator, as a result of its rapid invasion. For Biology of Corals, we examined corals’ responses to bleaching and disease, using more bacteria plates than I have ever seen in my entire life.

While we don’t always have weekends off, we always have a few days off in the week. On the schedule, they call them R&R days for “Reading and Research” and they’ve earned the name. My R&R days are mostly spent catching up on readings on the dock, or in the classroom working on writing assignments or analyzing giant multi-experiment data sets. We also use this time to go into town, which has a laid-back surfer vibe, to hang out or get snacks.

When they told me that this program would change my life, they weren’t kidding.

I have learned more in this semester and a half than I have in my entire Northeastern career. The courses are some of the most challenging that I have taken (they’re graduate-level, what did I expect?), but they have also been the most rewarding. What I have learned and what I will learn this year will be the building blocks for the rest of my career in marine biology. They will become invaluable as I begin to apply to my first co-op in the coming weeks.

If you’re at all interested in marine biology or environmental science, I cannot recommend this program enough! You don’t have to be majoring in either of these — in my class we have biology, behavioral neuroscience, and biochemistry majors. You just have to be willing to get out into the field, get dirty, and be ready for a challenge. This program can do great things for you, both professionally and personally, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.