Story 4 – Bamfield Education

photo: Paul Joseph, UBC Marketing & Communications

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.

Amanda Bates with daughter, Linnea, 2008

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.

Virtual BMSC

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.

Producing this series brought the opportunity to collaborate with the Huu-ay-aht First Nation Partners and Ocean Networks Canada in sharing this critical knowledge.

Garg came to the project following her own research on coral reef systems during her Master’s at the University of Alberta. An advocate of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in STEAM, Garg notes this is an area with much more work to be done. 

The ocean is a powerful tool for teaching and learning about climate change, notes Garg, and also a huge buffer for its effects. “If we didn’t have the ocean, what we experience on land would be so much worse,” says Garg. That’s a lesson underlined for her and the rest of the worldwide audience during an episode on deep sea oceanographic changes, when Dr. Kim Juniper, Chief Scientist at Ocean Networks Canada, and deep sea vent expert Moronke Harris from the University of Victoria, highlighted the importance of deep sea carbon storage. 

Garg is thrilled by feedback received about the BMSC Climate Action Series from those tuning in from near and far. Topics ranged from streams on the coast to mining the bottom of the deep sea. Episodes explored, amongst many other topics, heat waves, kelp forests, eco-anxiety, two-eyed seeing, coastal restoration, sea level rise, and misinformation.

“The goal has been empowering people,” says Garg, with the program intentionally focusing on how people — at the level of the individual or institution — can take action, engaging with others. “There’s a lot of momentum in the ocean literacy and education world right now,” she says. Bringing a sea of expertise, passion, and enthusiasm to the project, Garg is optimistic about its impact.

Education through the decades, con’t…

1991 Echinoderm Biology with Dr. Arthur Fontaine

Raymond Nakamura recalls his first BMSC learning experience in the 1990s during his doctoral work on sand dollar hydromechanics at the University of Toronto. In that echinoderm biology course, “there were students there from all over the world,” he says, recalling classmates that hailed from South America, Ireland, Germany, Canada. The class was taught by Arthur Fontaine, recently deceased, but then at the University of Victoria, and Maria Byrne, now professor of marine biology at Australia’s University of Sydney.

Nakamura, now an independent consultant and science cartoonist, subsequently taught a week long summer camp at BMSC in the early 2000s for elementary school teachers, co-sponsored by Science World Vancouver. “A lot of elementary school teachers don’t have a science background,” says Nakamura, who observed a clear rise in teacher confidence, something he suspects was aided by an excellent mentor. The predominantly female class of teachers were clearly both unnerved and in awe of their teaching assistant, Maria Byrne who nimbly navigated the slippery foreshore on daily field trips, confidently hopping in and out of boats while heavily pregnant. “She was an excellent role model,” says Nakamura.

BMSC is known for the breadth and depth of the connections it fosters and inspires, but upon arrival at BMSC from Toronto, Nakamura experienced a particularly improbable coincidence. Normally it’s an eyeball rolling moment when you come from the same big city as someone else and people naively ask if you know someone else from that place. On this occasion, however, when asked if he knew the only other graduate student at the station from Toronto, he was incredulous: “I actually did know her!” says Nakamura. “She was from my high school but I hadn’t seen her in years.” That fellow graduate student was Kathryn Cook, who worked at BMSC from the late 1980s through 1992.

Cook arrived at BMSC as a marine zoology graduate student from the University of Alberta, studying abalone with Rich Palmer. Intending a year-long stay to finish off her thesis, once there, “I did not want to leave Bamfield,” says Cook. She was subsequently hired on to work as a research assistant and teach with the field trips program. The joy of discovery for youth, many of whom came from Alberta, was constant on BMSC field trips, she notes. “There were Eureka moments happening from the moment they got out of bed in the morning until the time they finally flopped into bed exhausted,” she says. “It was magical… a huge awakening for so many kids.” Cook, now based in Victoria, has been teaching ever since, but says the most exciting time in her teaching career was in Bamfield, where students were always engaged and amazed.

Scientific Diving class with Dr. Isabelle Côté, 2016

Many former students return to BMSC repeatedly. Others make use of their learnings elsewhere. “What I’m doing now is really possible because of what I did in Bamfield,” says Aneesh Bose, now at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences following his postdoctoral research at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior. Bose took Scientific Diving course with Isabelle Côté at BMSC in 2016. Scuba diving is integral to Bose’s postdoctoral research on fish mating systems in Lake Tanganyika in Zambia.

While at BMSC, Bose led his class in writing a paper on the viability of re-releasing captive-held sea urchins to the wild, a scientific study he and his classmates devised in part because of BMSC discussions at the time about changing animal care regulations that proposed to disallow this. “The students were kind of upset by this,” says Côté, so they assayed how captivity affected the behaviour of re-released urchins. (They found that handling rather than duration of captivity affected short term behaviour). For many of the group of twelve students, “it was the first [published] paper they’ve ever had their name on,” Côté says. “It was just fabulous.”

Dr. Andy Spencer & Anke Nijenhuis, 2008 Fall Program

One of BMSC’s most popular educational opportunities for undergraduates is the Fall Program, an immersive program in which students spend a whole term studying at BMSC. Rich Palmer of the University of Alberta taught at the Fall Program for more than a dozen years. The program, which began in 1996, is the brain child of former BMSC director Andy Spencer, also from the University of Alberta, who recognized that facilities were underutilized in the fall. “He dreamed up this wonderful program so students could come out and spend the entire term there,” says Palmer, in what he describes as a “beautiful mix of immersion courses, hands on research, and an introduction to the scientific literature.” 

Lyubava Erko recently moved from Montreal to the University of Victoria to embark on a degree in marine biology, and was a participant in the 2021 Fall Program. On her first visit to the west coast of Vancouver Island, she was struck by BMSC’s remoteness. Driving from Montreal to Victoria, she says, was the easy part of the journey! Learning at BMSC, she says, was “more engaging than the typical classroom.” Her favourite memories there include multiple “oh, look!” moments when students would drop everything and flock outdoors — like in the middle of class when a whale, visible through the window, appeared in the inlet. Or when everyone converged on a tide pool to check out a weird barnacle or rare seaweed. “The Fall Program was a lot of work but it was definitely worth it,” says Erko, adding that it solidified her desire to study marine biology and do field work.

Lyubava Erko & Lauren Gill, 2021 Fall Program
2021 Fall Program

Erko’s classmate Carter Burtlake, a biology student at the University of British Columbia, also has fond memories of the 2021 Fall Program. The in-person learning experience was extra welcome after a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to pivot to solitary learning with classes online. There was a certain trepidation upon arrival in September 2021, says Burtlake, who previously knew none of his 24 classmates that would be living together for four months. That shared anxiety was dispelled almost immediately as the students discovered aligned interests. The combination of sunshine, new friends, trips to the beach, classes on the grass in the sun and on the porch overlooking the sea, made for an instant feeling of connection, says Burtlake. Two fall courses spanned the entire 15 week term, with another three taught in blocks, including a field-trip intensive course on seaweeds. 

Taught by UBC’s Patrick Martone, who Burtlake describes as “an amazing professor – one of the best I’ve ever had,” one of the highlights was learning about the history of seaweed as food for First Nations and its positive economic benefits. The course culminated in a seaweed cooking competition. Burtlake’s team of three won with their buffalo battered bull kelp with kelp aioli, seaweed brownies, and kelp-sprinkled popcorn. “Huge shout out to Patrick for that experience,” says Burtlake, who, though now back in Vancouver, has since incorporated more seaweed into his diet. 

Dr. Patrick Martone, 2021 Fall Program

Kelly Clement, current co-lead of the Field Trips Program, says a key component of the programs at BMSC is the hands-on aspect. One fascinating thing she’s observed in participants during her time teaching and facilitating at BMSC is that the most noticeable growth and development is often in individuals that are not top students at their regular school. “When they come here and have the opportunity to learn the way that we offer our programs, they really thrive,” she says. Many experience lightbulb moments at BMSC, with a sudden surge in interest and degree of engagement that might not have existed back at their “normal” school.

Field courses were the reason for BMSC’s inception, notes director Sean Rogers, and their value for teaching and learning is unmatched in science. “You can teach science in any classroom, and students can read the textbook and learn the material,” says Clement, “but I don’t think that kind of learning really creates a lasting effect.” When they come and experience it in real life; with their own eyes, and touch it with their own hands, she says, “they can actually form a meaningful connection.” BMSC offers a different kind of learning. “We’re able to offer that life changing discovery.”

Education at BMSC “not only shapes you professionally, it shapes you personally,” says Bates, citing the friendships and partnerships that learning at BMSC fosters. 

“It changes lives.”