UW junior and Seattle Central Community College transfer student, Ross Whippo, is a SCUBA diving enthusiast who has integrated diving into his coursework for an Aquatic & Fisheries Science major and a marine biology minor. Unlike many marine biology students, Ross’ passion in high school was drama. After high school, Ross worked for years in Seattle theaters doing a range of jobs from lighting designer to technical director. Two years ago, he realized that he needed a break from theater work and that he had lost track of what he wanted to do. He decided he needed a vacation before he figured it out.
He traveled to Thailand and learned how to SCUBA dive. Ross described this early diving experience as “addicting – I’ve always loved the water and boats, but I’d never thought that there’s a whole world under there and it makes you feel really small. This began my interest in marine biology and fisheries.”
Ross returned from Thailand with three diving certifications. Although he wanted to make diving a part of his life here, he felt that because diving is more expensive in the US, he couldn’t pursue it.
Ross started volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium to stay involved with the marine environment. Eventually, he was offered a paid position as a volunteer supervisor. Working at the aquarium helped him decide to go back to school. In Ross’s words,
“That opened the way—a chance for me to explore the educational side of science. I felt a need to go back to school, but I had never known what I wanted to do. I thought about pursuing a career in marine biology and there were so many angles to approach it through education or research.”
At Seattle Central Community College, Ross took his core science and biology requirements. In one biology class, the teacher told students about courses at Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL), UW’s marine station on San Juan Island.
Ross applied for and attended FHL’s Marine Biology Quarter before matriculating to UW. He was attracted to the quarter because of the scientific diving course that was offered and hoped “to get back in the water and see the amazing ecosystem here.”
The Marine Biology Quarter at FHL is offered every fall quarter. Students live in the dorms at FHL for three months, where they take three classes including a guided research apprenticeship. Student can choose their classes from an evolving list of classes, including FISH/BIOL/OCEAN 250 – Introduction to Marine Biology, OCEAN 210 – Ocean Circulation, SOC 401 – Social Change and the Marine Environment, and the Marine Environment Research Apprenticeship. For Fall 2010, FHL will likely add a marine physiology course, an organic chemistry course, and change the diving class that Ross took to a two week intensive diving certification course during September, as well as include diving in some of the apprenticeships.
Ross described a typical day in the marine biology quarter:
“The day starts out in a social way—eating breakfast in the dining hall. You’re with the pelagic ecosystem apprentices and other student groups. Then we would go to lecture. Some people would stay and start a fire in the dining hall fireplace; some would go out on boats. There was such a mix of people from different backgrounds—a history major, an English major, a sociology major, and natural science majors. Everyone wanted to be there, and that made for a great learning environment. Everyone motivates everyone else and get into dorky conversations about invertebrates. It was like Hogwarts.”
Ross’s schedule involved morning lectures for FISH/BIOL/OCEAN 250 – Introduction to Marine biology and BIOL 499 - Scientific Diving. The marine biology course included three lectures, one lab, and a field trip each week. For the first field trip, the class rode in FHL’s research vessel, the Centennial, to Sucia Island to learn about intertidal zonation—distinct habitat regions for particular groups of marine organisms. The class trawled on the way back, emptied the net on the boat tray, and sorted through the contents. Then, they unloaded the trawled organisms in the sea tables at the labs – tubs with sea water from the shore running through them—and used them for their class lab activity. Ross said, “We were such nerds that we were in the lab at 9pm on Friday looking at stuff under the microscopes. All the labs were open 24 hours a day.”
For Ross, the highlight of the quarter was the scientific diving course and using what he knew to assist Friday Harbor scientists with their research. The diving course was a small seminar-style practical course with guest speakers who had pioneered new ways of diving. In Ross’s words:
“The Scientific Diving instructors were so enthusiastic about what they were teaching and had such personal knowledge. It was outside of the box learning. They brought in their own experiences from places like Antarctica. A visitor came who laid the groundwork for cave diving. A DSO came from Hawaii. He does blue water diving, a mode of diving where you are in the water with no functional bottom.”
The class taught diving along with underwater research techniques such as making and using data collections sheets underwater and keeping track of more than one variable. Students learned to lay transects—lines laid across a sampling area to create a quantifiable distance and reduce bias. Students also laid quadrates—squares made from PVC pipes—inside the transect line intervals and would count certain organisms, such as sea grass rhizomes, sea stars, and sea urchins, within those squares. Ross began to use this knowledge to work with researchers outside class. He described his work with a graduate student studying ecology, sea urchins, and chitins:
“The first time I went out, I was just another body. I would hold the equipment. Then it was a progression—I would do the counts with him. I would count below the transect line, and he would count above. I would count sea stars and measure them. He’s looking at rock wall habitats in the San Juans – looking at how the living space is utilized and cleared by different organisms.”
Along with the diving and marine biology course, Ross also worked on his own apprenticeship research project. Within the first two weeks of students’ arrival, instructors provided them with a list of topic ideas, and students picked their apprenticeship projects. Ross worked on a project that explored sea urchin omnivory.
“My part in the apprenticeship was analyzing gut contents of sea urchins from rock wall habitats to see what they were eating on the walls. The urchins ate mostly algae— kelp, red algae, and green algae—but they were also eating invertebrates. We’re learning more about how their omnivory impacts the ecosystem.”
Ross was able to quantify a specific invertebrate that urchins were eating Metandrocarpa – a tunicate or sea squirt, noting: “We were able to quantify their predation to grazing ratio.“
For his apprenticeship work, the sea urchins arrived dissected. Ross said:
“I got frozen containers full of urchin guts. I would spread some on a Petri dish then count random points on an under laid grid. You would try to ID everything as specifically as possible. Then you would lump things—what kind of algae etc.—into categories.”
In the beginning Ross was lumping gut contents into 12-14 categories. But he had to synthesize his data with data from another study, and before conducting statistical analyses, the only way he could synthesize the data was to create six broader categories that were more inclusive. “Metandrocarpa was the only invertebrate we could keep in its own category,” Ross said. Ross’s apprenticeship culminated in a research paper and presentation.
After living at FHL, Ross matriculated to UW, but he continues to dive and work with scientists on research at FHL. Thinking about what he had learned from his experience at Friday Harbor Ross said:
“I got to see how science is done. When I was going up there, I expected to take classes and do a lab. But you are living with people doing research, and people are constantly visiting. You get to interact with all these people and be a fly on the wall to see how people are doing research— how scientists work with each other—for instance how to write a paper for publication. I didn’t expect to meet so many people who are really well known in their fields. I was taking classes from people who have been frequently published for the last 20 years.”
Ross wants diving to be a part of his career in the future.
“My plans after undergrad? To go off to a tropical location to be certified as a dive master. Then use that, in addition to scientific diving, to be a more desirable candidate for grad school.”
- Photos from top: Ross on FHL dock, by Aubrie Booth; FHL facilities, by Kristian Haapa-aho; Ross on Sucia Island, by Sarah Ellison; Dive class Rescue Training by Derek Smith; Ross at microscope by Ross Whippo; Urchin gut contents by Ross Whippo; Ross diving by Derek Smith