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James Shelton (top) sets up an experiment at a Martha's Vineyard research site and Amias Polk analyzes samples in the lab at Ecosystems Center. Both are students at Arkansas State College and were participants in the first Partners in Education Program.

First Year of Diversity Initiative's Partnership in Education Program 'A Rousing Success'

Amias Polk had never seen the ocean before he came to Woods Hole this summer. “I’m from the land-locked state of Arkansas,” he laughed. In the past three months, however, Polk, a senior chemistry major at Arkansas State College, has not only seen the ocean but spent a day at sea, taken a four-week course in ocean and environmental sciences, and conducted a six-week internship in ecological science.

Polk and fellow Arkansas State student James Shelton were participants in the Woods Hole Partnership in Education Program (PEP), launched this year by a consortium of Woods Hole institutions – Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Sea Education Association (SEA), U. S. Geological Survey, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Woods Hole Research Center - committed to increasing diversity in the Woods Hole science community. As part of the program, both students had internships at the Ecosystems Center this summer.

PEP is designed for college juniors and seniors who have had course work in oceanography or marine and/or environmental science, or some combination of biology, chemistry, geology and physics. PEP welcomes students of all backgrounds while students from groups under-represented in marine and environmental sciences are especially encouraged to apply, according to Ambrose Jearld, director of academic programs at NMFS.

"The six Woods Hole scientific institutions in the Woods Hole Science Community Diversity Initiative, formed in 2004, met often and we talked and talked,” said Jearld. “We held diversity days and events, but finally we asked, ‘What is concrete, what will demonstrate what we are espousing?’”

Jearld, as chair of the subcommittee, Woods Hole Diversity Advisory Committee, and George Liles, aquarium director of the NMF's Woods Hole Aquarium, together led the effort to establish PEP.

Liles said, “The first year of the program was a rousing success. We attracted 16 students from 11 different colleges -- including schools that are not often represented in our science community. The students were a wonderful group -- bright and enthusiastic and full of wonderful undergraduate energy. They immersed themselves in Woods Hole science and were changed by it for the better, as students have been for decades.”

Scientists from all institutions acted as mentors, hosting PEP students in their labs. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically black college, and the NOAA Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center helped design the course and arrange college credit for students.

Polk and Shelton arrived in Woods Hole in May. For four weeks, they lived at SEA and took the introductory PEP course, Topics in Ocean and Environmental Sciences: Global Climate Change, with modules in climate change, physical oceanography, biological oceanography and fisheries resources management taught by Woods Hole scientists. They spent a day at sea on the WHOI research vessel Tioga, and attended seminars on topics such as scientific communications, taught by Liles, and “A Day in the Life of a Scientist,” given by Chris Reddy of WHOI. The group also traveled to MIT one day to learn about scientific education and careers.

After their coursework, Shelton and Polk participated in their six-week internships at the Ecosystems Center. Polk worked with stable isotopes to study nitrogen cycling in the northeast Amazon of French Guiana with adjunct scientist Maureen Conte while Shelton researched soil respiration on Martha’s Vineyard with assistant scientist Jim Tang.

Both students were enthusiastic about their experiences in PEP. Shelton said, “As far as my experiences within the PEP program, I can say that they have exceeded all my expectations. I saw diversity in many areas from age to ethnicity. We all have different backgrounds and are from different parts of the country and a few are even from different parts of the world. I especially like the fact that we were allowed a chance to learn basic concepts of various areas of oceanography via the four week course. It was a great opportunity for me, being that I am a chemist by schooling and have not had much exposure to the field of oceanography.”

Shelton added, “I am really enjoying the weather, beaches, and all the natural beauty around me but that isn't the half of it. My newly gained experiences dealing with the scientists here are by far the ones I will remember the most. I have been able to see so much in such little time. My perspective on science as a profession has been impacted greatly by my visit here.”

For Polk, “it was a great opportunity, a great program. I would recommend it to anyone majoring in chemistry, in science. I am going to go back to school and give a seminar about the program to encourage others to participate in it.”


Amias Polk (top) and James Shelton (right)