Science and public policy Farsighted: A University of Maryland program has gained national recognition for its wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach to marine science.

December 06, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE -- "This is Jellyland," says Karla Heidelberg, as she steps into a tiny, cluttered lab at the Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies at Horn Point.

So it is. All around her, aquarium tanks hold tiny, translucent jellyfish, drifting and dropping in the cloudy water under the unblinking stare of microscopes, cameras and computers.

The lab Heidelberg affectionately calls "Jellyland" is also part of a graduate program in Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences (MEES) at the University of Maryland. MEES, which began in 1975, is gaining national recognition for an innovative, farsighted curriculum that blends research, applied science and an emphasis on public policy.

"I can't think of another institution that is doing more to integrate basic science with applied science and with an outreach to public policy-makers," says Susan Weiler. She is a scientist on the faculty of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and head of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, the national research group that studies inland and ocean waters.

Heidelberg, who expects to receive her doctorate in fall 1997, is one of 164 graduate students enrolled in MEES. She is studying the feeding biology of Cnidarians, the phylum that includes jellyfish, anemones and corals -- "who gets eaten and why," she says.

Her five years as a MEES student have taken her to Florida, Jamaica, Belize and into Maryland's Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. "Forty percent of my field work is under water," she explains.

That experience typifies the wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach to marine science taken by MEES. Many students in MEES work at the Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, the sprawling laboratory at Horn Point, along the Choptank River in Dorchester County. But they can also take courses offered anywhere in the University of Maryland system through an interactive video network, study under professors throughout the system and do research at two other laboratories in Solomons and Frostburg. Their degrees, however, will not come from the laboratory at Horn Point; instead, they will be conferred by one of six campuses in the Maryland university system.

"We're a collaborative program with institutions who do give degrees," says Dr. Wayne Bell, the university vice president who works at the Horn Point lab and coordinates MEES.

MEES is one of two programs in the Maryland system that offers students the opportunity to study at several institutions (the other is toxicology).

When it was established in 1975, it was one of the first multidisciplinary science programs in the country, Bell says.

Now it's nationally recognized. The National Research Council ranked MEES 10th in oceanography programs in the nation for the decade between 1980 and 1990. That ranking put MEES ahead of programs at such well-known institutions as Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. (The two top-ranked schools for oceanography were the University of California at San Diego's Scripps Institute, and the Woods Hole program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

Equally important, Bell says, is that the interdisciplinary nature of the program, in which students study a wide range of courses connected to their specialties, was a farsighted decision that has been critical in a changing job market.

"There is a diminishing market for traditionally educated students," Bell says.

Gone are the days when intensive expertise in a narrow area was an asset.

Instead, scientists need broad knowledge and skills, as well as the grounding in public policy-making that has earned MEES praise from scientists around the country.

Heidelberg, who will enter the job market next year as she seeks a post-doctoral posting and then a teaching-research position at a university, agrees.

"It's no longer enough to say, 'I know a lot about crab larvae' -- you have to know about water flow, quality, everything," she says. "Unless you understand the different aspects of the bay, you can't figure out what's going on."

Since 1975, 223 master's degree students and 81 doctoral students have graduated from the program. While some have landed as far afield as Alaska (a MEES graduate is the head of that state's fish and wildlife agency), others have stayed in Maryland, working in state-run labs or for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"We've helped to bring focus to the coastal environment," Bell says.

And he hopes that as more and more students leave Horn Point to teach and work around the country, they will help spread information and interest in the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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