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Plans for Marine Semester field research in Belize remain uncertain

mollusk marine science lab
Marine science lab. While students in Boston University’s Marine Science program typically have the opportunity to participate in field research in Belize, plans for those course offerings remain undetermined. COURTESY OF OREGON SEA GRANT VIA FLICKR

The Marine Semester of Boston University’s Marine Sciences Program will return to nearly normal operations in the Fall, but it is unclear whether the annual research trip to Belize will be offered.

Since 1985, the Marine Semester has been a part of the curriculum each Fall semester, and undergraduate and graduate students — from BU and other institutions — participate in hands-on research and field work on campus as well as at sites in New England and Belize.

Certain courses — Coral Reef Dynamics, Coral Reef Restoration, Tropical Marine Fisheries and Tropical Marine Invertebrates— include a 12-13 day trip to Belize, which was unavailable last Fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Associate Professor in the Biology Department and Marine Program John Finnerty wrote in an email that travel to Belize will be dependent on safety conditions.

“If there are no travel restrictions / quarantine requirements in either direction, if all of our personnel are vaccinated, and all of our Belizean collaborators are vaccinated,” Finnerty wrote, “I think it is very possible that we do go to Belize in November/December.”

However, Finnerty noted if it is not possible to make the trip, the program will continue to provide the “principal focus of the Marine Semester” in teaching students how to be scientists by working in an immersive environment, showing them methods for cutting-edge data collection and analysis and exposing them to marine science’s most important issues.

“We did all of that in Fall 2020,” Finnerty wrote, “and will do all of that in Fall 2021.”

Les Kaufman, a professor of biology in the Marine Program, said students were still able to prepare for the marine science environment while learning during the pandemic — just in a different manner than in previous years.

“Instead of having the firsthand experience in the field,” Kaufman said, “you get more experience with the analytics and some of the theoretical side of science.”

Kaufman said he is planning to take one of his classes out in the field to work locally next semester, adding that COVID-19 issues can be mitigated if they arise, especially considering student vaccinations and the small class size. However, the Belize travel component is reliant on air travel safety and the country’s travel rules.

“We’ll know closer to the time if we are able to go to Belize,” Kaufman said. “But once again if we’re not, there are a lot of ways of making this fulfilling and fun and really rewarding even if we don’t get to go to Belize.”

College of Arts and Sciences senior Coretta Granberry said she completed two Marine Semesters — one in 2019 under its normal format and one in 2020 — and the educational experience was similar for both.

“I was really concerned that it was going to be super different and that our educational experience would be interrupted by COVID,” she said, “but I was actually pleasantly surprised to see that really not that much was different.”

Granberry said the only major difference between her experiences was the inability to travel to Belize. She added if the pandemic still prohibits parts of the Marine Semester, students in the program should not worry about the quality of the upcoming semester.

“I think we did such a good job this year and really we can only improve based on what we already know,” Granberry said.

CAS senior Allie Cole said she also did Marine Semesters in 2019 and 2020, and while the experience was different, she said her learning was still fruitful.

“Most of my professors worked really hard to make that experience pretty similar for us, and if there was the ability for us to go into the field, they made it happen, which I thought was really great,” Cole said. “I think I still came away with learning the same amount that I would in non-COVID times.”

Cole noted students should focus on the positive aspects of the program, even if the travel to Belize is canceled.

“It’s such an amazing opportunity that really you don’t find anywhere else,” she said, “so focusing on all the good things instead of things that you can’t do.”

CAS sophomore Jaydi Swanson wrote in an email the uncertainty regarding next semester has been stressful.

“The marine semester was a big part of why I chose BU,” she wrote, “so not getting to experience it to its fullest extent would be really disappointing.”

Swanson added she is disheartened the Belize component may not work out, but understands the program needs to go with the safest option.

“It’s sad that we all have to miss out on this,” Swanson wrote, “but I also want the program directors to do whatever needs to be done to carry out the semester safely.”

Whatever decision is made, she wrote that she still expects the Marine Semester to be a great experience.

“I’m so excited to be a part of it regardless of the changes due to covid,” Swanson wrote. “This will be an experience unlike anything I’ve ever done.”

Jaydi Swanson is a former staff writer for The Daily Free Press. She was not involved in the editing of this article.

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