Education at BMSC shapes individuals professionally and personally, fostering friendships and partnerships. “It changes lives,” says Amanda Bates, now a professor of biology at the University of Victoria who first visited BMSC on a high school field trip. BMSC has evolved from a field station with an exclusive focus on marine biology at its outset to its current diversity of sea and land-based educational experiences, from elementary school field trips and public outreach to months-long undergraduate-level intensive field courses. BMSC offers life changing discovery.
Amanda Bates first visited the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre in the early 1990s on a high school biology field trip. Seeing the open Pacific coast for the first time was eye-opening. “It was my first time in a boat,” recalls Bates, who grew up inland in Chilliwack, British Columbia, rarely visiting the ocean.
That first powerful educational experience at BMSC changed the course of her life, and career.
Bates returned to BMSC for undergraduate courses following that high school field trip, returning as a teaching assistant and graduate student searching tide pools for sea anemones, examining their algal symbionts. She dove deeper into ocean wonders during her Ph.D., using a remote submersible to study gastropods at hydrothermal vents. Her career subsequently took her to the Atlantic coast, but Bates has recently returned to the Pacific, relocating from Memorial University to the University of Victoria to take up a position as Impact Chair in Ocean Ecosystem Change and Conservation. Over her career, Bates has taught many courses at BMSC, including one exploring marine symbiosis. Evolving from mentee to mentor and scaling up from local to global biodiversity research questions, Bates’ career is emblematic of the symbioses BMSC forges between people and the sea.
Bates credits BMSC with a huge influence on her own career and many of her contemporaries. “There were all kinds of directions we easily could have gone in,” says Bates. “We could have been forest biologists. We could have been agricultural scientists,” she says, “but I became a marine biologist because of that experience.”
In its educational offerings over the years since its inception, BMSC has evolved from a field station with an exclusive focus on marine biology to its current diversity of sea and land-based educational experiences, from elementary school field trips and public outreach to months-long graduate-level intensive courses.
Early on, BMSC courses established a tradition of binding students’ final assignments in a book. These titled book spines on the shelves of the BMSC library display the dozens of diverse learning areas. Within their pages are class photos captioned with hundreds of names. What these volumes and photographs do not capture is the innumerable impacts. Each individual’s experience is unique, but BMSC education has a long reach, building profound and lasting connections. Bates is just one of many for whom a short visit seeded a whole career.
Education through the decades
BMSC’s first courses began in the summer of 1972. Glyn Sharp was a teaching assistant that summer. Then a Master’s student at Simon Fraser University supervised by seaweed expert professor Louis Druehl; the two taught seaweed biology. As Druehl recounts, a friendly rivalry developed between two co-occurring classes: seaweed biology and marine ecology. Self-titled as the Phycofreaks and Ecofreaks, their antics included water fights and night raids for food while both groups were camping in the Broken Group Islands. Rules were “relaxed” to non-existent in those days, says Sharp, noting it was fortunate that no one was severely hurt doing “sketchy things” like diving alone. Now retired after a 30-year career with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sharp has fond memories of BMSC, like being watched closely by an octopus as he carried out work in kelp beds, and being spooked by a close encounter with a gigantic curious sea lion.
Isabelle Côté first came to BMSC as a teaching assistant for Behavioural Ecology, a course taught by Miles Keenleyside in 1985. She arrived by boat – taking the famous Lady Rose from Port Alberni. For Côté, it was a grand adventure. “For a kid from Montreal, who had just spent a couple of years in Alberta, being on that boat, stopping at all these little communities…I just remember thinking that it was so beautiful,” says Côté, who, like many others before and after her, fell in love with the place. Though her career first pulled her in other geographic directions, when she accepted a position at Simon Fraser University, “I made sure when negotiating with SFU that teaching at Bamfield was going to be part of my teaching load.” Teaching her first field course in the summer of 2006. “It felt like coming home,” says Côté. That joy of the place, the sea, and of science, is something she inspires in her students too. And when it comes to scientific diving, a course she will teach again in the summer of 2022, safety is her top priority.
Heather Alexander first came to BMSC in 1988 as an undergraduate marine biology student at the University of Victoria. Soon enamoured with the community, she moved her family to Bamfield, doing research at BMSC for her Master’s degree at the University of Calgary on sex changing isopods. Following her PhD at Simon Fraser University studying South American guppies, she returned to BMSC as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Associate with Director Brad Anholt, studying sex determination in intertidal copepods. Over the years, Alexander notes that BMSC university courses in summer and fall have inspired many participants – herself among them – to continue on to graduate school, professorships and diverse careers in marine science.
As for those university programs, what’s on offer has greatly expanded over the years from a focus exclusively on marine biology in the early days to a broader range of courses including oceanography, ethnobotany, historical archaeology in collaboration with the Huu-ay-aht First Nation, and a field course in reconciliation, ecology and place-based law.
Field Trips Program
Funded by an NSERC PromoScience grant, this long running and popular BMSC program created science opportunities for students in grades K-12. Though BMSC programs for younger kids have scaled back in recent years, “it’s still a super important program,” says Alexander, now BMSC’s university programs coordinator and communications lead.
Student experiences during 3-4 days at BMSC typically involve field trips to Brady’s Beach, boat trips to dredge for plankton and other sea creatures, forest walks, and experiments in the lab on seaweed or invertebrate diversity. Field Trips is a seed program, explains Alexander. “That’s where so many of our undergraduates come from,” referring to students that previously visited on a school field trip that seek opportunities to come back.
One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic was that in pivoting to online educational and field trip experiences, BMSC reached a much wider audience aided by excellent live and recorded video experiences. BMSCLive on YouTube allowed participants anywhere with an internet link to participate in virtual labs, introducing participants to the world of marine invertebrates, fish, fungi, and plankton hosted from the ‘whale lab’ (where the skeleton of a baby grey whale that washed up in the 1980s is suspended from the ceiling). “We have a whole range of live marine invertebrates that we keep in our labs for each season,” says Kelly Clement. Clement came to BMSC in 2008 after her undergraduate degree at St. Francis Xavier University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since then, taking on a variety of roles, “I just never left,” says Clement, who is now one of BMSC’s two Field Trip Coordinators.
Online “field trip” participants have had the opportunity to see many of the marine invertebrates that those who come to BMSC in person also see. Featuring local species from Barkley Sound, creatures explored in online learning and still available on the YouTube channel include sea anemones, charismatic fish called sculpins, mussels, barnacles, ocre stars, leather stars, snails, hermit crabs, and many more. Virtual field trips take web-participants along on explorations to dredge for invertebrates and plankton, investigate tide pools, and see life under the dock viewed via BMSC’s remotely operated mini-submarine camera. YouTube explorations have also included field trips to the Huu-ay-aht First Nations’ Sugsaw Salmon Hatchery and stream walking to see the Watershed Renewal Program at Rosseau Creek. Giving participants a close up view of the beauty of the wild west coast, an opportunity to meet some of the land’s traditional stewards, and an introduction to the diversity of marine life forms and physical features, is an amazing opportunity.
Also reaching out to a new audience during the pandemic was BMSC’s Climate Action Series. As its co-producer Aneri Garg explains, the goal of program was “to bring ocean and coastal climate issues to the world,” with actionable tips for how individuals can make a positive difference in light of the climate crisis. “There’s such rich knowledge from the members of the First Nations that have lived in coastal communities since time immemorial,” says Garg.