New whale studies program is an immersive bio experience

University’s new Massachusetts marine lab will host bio classes.

By Anne Nazzaro

The University will be offering a new off-campus whale studies program for undergraduate non-science majors.

The program, entitled “The Whale: Biology, Culture, and Evolution on Nantucket Sound,” will consist of three to four classes focused on the ecosystem of the Nantucket Sound, the history of the whaling industry, and the whale’s relation to Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. It fulfills the general biology requirement of the Core for non-science majors.

“We’re sort of using this figure of the whale as a way of spanning those centuries and disciplines,” said Professor Michael Rossi, who will be teaching one of the courses.

Participating students will stay and study at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, from September 25 to December 12.

The three main courses of the program will take place sequentially, with about three weeks per class. A number of excursions are also planned throughout the nine weeks in conjunction with the course, including whale-watching off the coast of Provincetown, MA.

The program is based on the model of a study abroad program but will not be as regimented in terms of schedule. The classes are meant to overlap with each other, according to professor Karl Matlin, the lead faculty director and one of the professors for the program. “What we want [is] to provide a somewhat integrated experience for the students rather than ‘Oh, I’m taking this class, and then I’m taking that class, then that class,’” he said. “There are certain themes exemplified by this whole idea of the whale that extend throughout the whole experience.”

The first course is “The Whale,” taught by Rossi, and it will focus on the history of the whaling industry. “You can really tell this sweeping story about U.S. history through whales,” Rossi said, noting that the profits of the whaling industry led to the development of bridges, buildings, and other technological developments in New England. As part of the class, students will read In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. Students will meet with Philbrick to discuss the book.

The second course is “Experimental Biology by the Sea,” taught by Matlin. It will focus on three modules: the first involving sequencing the DNA of marine microbiomes, the second studying early embryonic development of marine creatures, and the third analyzing whale songs. To record the whale song, students will take a trip to the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, CT. Students will also go out on the lab’s collection boat to gather specimens, possibly including sea urchins, to keep and observe in the lab throughout the course.

The third course will focus on Darwin, and will be taught by Professor Robert Richards. Students will read On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.

There is a fourth course tentatively planned as well. Named “Biological Representation” for now, it would be arts-focused and last throughout the nine weeks of the course. “What we’re imagining it as now is a studio art or non-text-based course really focused on getting kids out into Woods Hole, and interacting with the environment,” Rossi said. This would involve making a visual or photography journal, or possibly even sculpting, to record what they see. This course will be taught by a program assistant who has yet to be recruited.

“The College probably doesn’t want us to say this, but this fourth course is designed to be fun,” Matlin said with a laugh.

This is the first University program to be offered at the Woods Hole-based lab. However, more courses are in development for the future, possibly including a neurobiology-focused sequence.

To take part in the program, students must submit an application, which includes a resume, statement of interest in the program, and two recommendation letters, by March 31. Eight to 12 students will be accepted.