CSUN’s Marine Biology Department Puts the Field in Field Trip

From salt marshes to Catalina Island, deep-sea fishing and day trips to the Aquarium of the Pacific, California State University, Northridge’s biology department is continually coming up with new and innovative ways to allow their undergraduate and graduate students take what they’ve learned in the classroom into the marine world.

CSUN biology professor Mark Steele said he was first attracted to teaching at the university because of the quality of work CSUN marine biology graduate students produced.

“We do a great job training master’s students,” said Steele. “If they want to pursue Ph.D.s, they pretty much go wherever they want (after graduation). We do research-based learning, so the goal is to get their work published — and most of them end up doing so in multiple peer-reviewed journals. We also have trained our students to go on to agencies like California Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and fisheries.

“The university really supports hands-on learning,” said Steele. “So the way that plays out in the biology department is that we are able to offer courses that have really intensive lab components, where people actually learn the techniques and get to be a part of research opportunities — at both undergraduate and graduate levels.”

Steele said he likes to get his students in or close to the water, as much as he can.

“During the course of a semester-long class, I probably have my marine ecology class somewhere near or in the ocean, maybe 12 to 15 times,” he said. “I also take my undergraduates in my marine ecology class out to Catalina Island, and they get to snorkel and experience marine ecology firsthand. For a lot of them, it’s a life-changing experience. My favorite part is having them see something new and think about life in a different way. I find that really rewarding.”

This hands-on intensive approach has been an integral part of the marine program, since it’s foundation.

“I’ve been doing this sort of field research and exercises for 25 years,” said Michael Franklin, a professor in CSUN’s biology department. “I started as an undergrad and graduate at CSUN, and I had the opportunity to be a part of the CSUN community when marine biology was getting its feet wet — to use that particular pun. Not every oceanographic institute has these types of opportunities.”

One of these “opportunities” is the department’s use the of the RV Yellowfin boat. Shared with a consortium of California State Universities — including Long Beach, Fullerton and Los Angeles — and docked at the Southern California Marine Institute, the vessel gives undergraduate and graduate classes the opportunity to fish, and explore benthic (ocean floor) and pelagic (water columns) marine communities.

“It’s hard to really understand it when you’re only looking at preserved specimens in jars, in the classroom,” said master’s of science candidate, and Franklin’s teaching assistant, Stephanie Benseman. “When you see it in a jar, it’s not as spectacular as when it’s alive. So when the students see the specimens put into the tanks, they can see them move and swim around — and they are as beautiful and as natural as they are in real life.

“Not only do we see what we catch, but we also get to see dolphins and whales and sea lions in their natural habitat, which is crucial to getting these students to understand what we’re learning in the classroom,” Benseman said.

The department also offers a class for non-bio majors. The class “Life in the Sea” is an opportunity cinema television arts major Hali Stafford has taken full advantage of.

“I’ve always had a passion for marine bio — it was going to be my original major, but I switched at the last minute,” Stafford said.

After a semester of only studying film, Stafford missed the world of marine biology and started asking how she could combine her two passions.

“I want to bring film into marine biology,” Stafford said. “This class allows me to network and see what I need to do to get into the marine bio world, and it’s really exciting because now I have a way of combining my two passions — and I look forward to doing that for the rest of my life.”

This summer, Stafford will be working with master’s of science candidate Stacey Virtue-Hilborn as a volunteer on her research project involving sea grass.

Virtue-Hilborn said she was amazed at how supportive the department was upon her arrival at CSUN.

“There are so many opportunities for me as a graduate student,” she said. “Not only am I pretty much guaranteed to teach a class so I can make money while I’m also doing my research, but I had the opportunity to take my students on a field trip. They wanted to go to the Aquarium of the Pacific, and as a graduate student, I was able to go to the biology department and get them to fund the undergraduates’ trip. They consistently back you up in terms of what you want to teach and support for your own education. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience getting to pursue my master’s degree at this university.”

For more information on the biology department and its marine program, please visit http://www.csun.edu/science-mathematics/biology/marine-biology-semester.

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