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Island Biology

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  Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Matthew Hutchins in the Bahamas
Matthew Hutchins '18 studied the seven-year apple in the Bahamas.

I first heard about the island biology and experimental design study abroad experience from some friends who had taken the class. They told me it was a perfect opportunity to explore an island, do research and learn several skills along the way. As a junior environmental biology major and leadership studies and philosophy and religious studies minor, I knew it was the class for me after speaking with the professor, Dr. Lauren Ruane.

The trip began with one restless night, two plane flights and a boat ride. There I was, on an island in the middle of the Bahamas, stunned by the raw beauty before me. I had no internet, no phone, no way of leaving unless it was an emergency. I couldn’t have been more grateful.

I had spent all semester deep in thought, asking myself: What do I want to study? What is on the island? What hasn’t been studied already? I began diving into my research questions when I learned about the seven-year apple. It is a small, strange tree with very slowly developing fruit that tastes awful, but is popular with the iguanas on the island. I decided to test the effect of sun stress on the plant. I did this by changing the density of shade cloth over certain leaves on 10 different trees on the island. My research would help identify the different adaptations the trees make to deal with certain environmental stresses, and could help us help them grow better if needed.

When we arrived, the class walked around the whole island in order to familiarize ourselves with the terrain. We walked over sharp rocks, through knee-deep water, sandy beach and thick brush. The constant strong winds hitting the island were like punches from a boxer. I could not have loved it more. One of the best experiences of the trip was when we went to the lowest part of the island and waded through black water with the whole class completely uncomfortable and on-edge. I remember taking in every moment while walking through the water because I knew it was such a special place to be.

On day three, the rain finally broke and I began my research. Seven weeks of thought and planning had gone into this experiment and it was finally beginning. A friend and I spent about five hours setting up the shade cloths and took photos of leaves. I had begun to feel more comfortable with the island. I knew where to go to watch the sunset. I was getting to know my fellow classmates really well due to the fact that there were no cellphones or internet to take away from face-to-face interactions.

A few days later I noticed that in some cases the leaves were changing 2-7 inches – they were either folding in or folding out due to the less-intense sunlight. This was very unexpected and I couldn’t have been happier. I shared this development with the whole class at dinner that same night. Though I did not have all of my results in yet, it was good to know something was happening. As the trip neared its end, I finished collecting data and took down all the shade cloths. The last days were sad, slow and hard to take in. The winds finally calmed and the boats departed in order to get us on a plane and headed home.

I had experienced one of the most special places in the world. I am so thankful for the people, sights, smells and views I got to experience. I will never forget the late nights, early mornings and glorious sunsets on the beach. I will never forget the people I met, stories that were shared and morning sunrises. The island was the first place I got to participate in the full scientific method from beginning to end. I truly valued this chance to get away, to step out of social norms and experience something fully.


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