Thursday, July 2, 2015

Dr. Munson and Washington College

Meet Dr. Donald Munson. Dr. Munson has a PhD in Zoology and was chair of the Biology Department at Washington College for 12 years and director of Environmental Studies for 15 years.  In 1990 he was awarded the endowed chair, the Joseph H. McLain Professor of Environmental Studies, which he held until his retirement in 2013.  Since 1997, Dr. Munson has been bringing Washington College students to BIOS during the summer to teach a class on coral reef ecology.  Although he retired from teaching, Dr. Munson is back in Bermuda to train another professor to take over the program. 

I was able to sit down and speak with Dr. Munson one sunny afternoon at BIOS, and ask him some questions about what it has been like coming to BIOS to teach over the past 18 years.  Dr. Munson was full of admiration for BIOS, and couldn’t say enough great things about the station.  It was so interesting to hear about BIOS over the years from the perspective of a long-time visiting professor.

With nostalgia he told me, “In my opinion, BIOS is the best station… I’ll miss it here.  I wish I could come back.  I’d even wash the dishes!”

Dr. Munson’s love for BIOS was evident throughout our interview.  Here are some of his answers to my questions:

  1. Reflecting on your past 26 years at BIOS, what are some of your most memorable moments?
Although I have many memories of Bermuda friends (some unfortunately gone), I still think of people here whose friendship has meant (means) much to me. I hesitate to start listing names because I will leave some out, but Jane Burrows, Butch, Bomber (boat captain), the staff in Wright Hall, chefs, and many more, have made my time here quite wonderful.  However, my most memorable moments are family moments. I was fortunate to have been awarded Grants–In–Aid for several years (1992 – 2013) that made it possible for my family to accompany me for 2-3 weeks on station during summers. My children are now 33 and 31 respectively, but I still can vividly recall when we stayed in 'Jet Stream' and we would fish and swim at the 'cement beach'.  They were good family times that I will never forget.  Those memories continue to draw me back to BIOS. My family still fondly remembers those times spent together here.

  1. In our brief discussion earlier, you mentioned how BIOS was one of the best stations that you have visited.  Can you elaborate on why this is the case?
It is the safest and the easiest to reach. Money is the same as the USA. Medical facilities are fine. Through the years I have had to take a few students to [the] hospital (small things – allergic reactions, stubbed toes, etc.). Myself and the students were always treated well and with respect.

  1. What do you think you will miss most about coming to BIOS?
I will very much miss the friendships, both on and off station, that I have been fortunate to have developed through the years.  Again, too many to list, but it goes from scientists, to bartenders, to shop owners/managers, bus drivers, etc. I will truly miss them but will continue to return whenever I am able to do so.

  1. If you had to choose one word to sum up your experiences here, what word or words would you choose?  Why?
It has been a most wonderful “Bermudaful” experience.

  1. Lastly, do you have a personal favorite quote or life mantra that you follow?  What is it?

The only person you should compete with is yourself. The rest is extraneous, irrelevant and wasted effort. It takes much of one’s life to learn, and accept, that. True love is what “it’s” about.

Special kind of trip
In addition to speaking with Dr. Munson, I also was able to speak with 4 of his students about their experiences at BIOS.  Paige Cahoon, a rising junior and Environmental Studies major with minors in Biology and Political Science, liked that being at BIOS had a “local feel” and that the group “got to see things that you wouldn’t normally see if you were just visiting.” 

Another Washington College student, Jessica Daunoras, also expressed appreciation for being awarded opportunities that not many people have been given, “I’ve really enjoyed just experiencing places that not a lot of people have been like Nonsuch Island and Northrock.  It’s a different experience coming through BIOS than staying at a resort or doing a cruise…I thought we would only snorkel a few times.  Turns out we went snorkeling every day, sometimes twice a day, and we fit work in there too.  We really got to experience the island.  Yesterday we studied all day and went to the caves near Tom Moore’s jungle.”  

Lauren Bacharach, also couldn’t say enough good things about her time here at BIOS:
“It’s been incredible.  I’ve had an absolute blast.  I don’t want to leave…We’ve just had incredible adventures everyday, things you don’t get to see in most places.  I grew up in Massachusetts so it’s nice to see your feet here.  I’m better in water than on land, so I’ve loved all of the snorkeling and time in the water.  I really wanted to learn more about Bermuda and the ecology and the ecosystems and experience it first hand, and I definitely got to experience it… I know a lot more than I did when I came in.  Our professors have been great.  It’s pretty sweet learning about something and then seeing it in the water and being like ‘there it is!’  I really like the atmosphere of BIOS, the different staff we’ve gotten to know.  Everyone has been really great, from kitchen staff to boat captains.”

Angelica was engrossed in her independent research project when I spoke with her, and she was really enjoying the research aspect of her time at BIOS.  She explained her research on black band disease in brain coral: “I have been working on independent research on black band disease in brain coral.  The organism suffocates the polyps then eats it as it suffocates it.  It can move as fast as 4-5 mm a day which doesn’t seem like a lot, but in this type of slow growing coral, which only grows .5 mm in a year, that is a lot.  It starts out infecting brain corals but it can move on to other corals as well…ocean acidification is making a better home for these bacteria, and an acidic environment already weakens the coral.”

Inspiring careers
In addition to enjoying all that Bermuda has to offer, the students I spoke with unanimously agreed that their time at BIOS has influenced their future career aspirations.  Jessica explained, “for the longest time I wanted to go to medical school and then pharmacy school, but being here and seeing all the different animals and fish, I think maybe I want to do something with the ocean and medicine.  Even like a veterinarian for the ocean, I don’t know…I had doubts about medical school and pharmacy school, and I thought coming here and being able to experience a different side of biology would help me decide what to do in the future.”  When I told her that it seemed like it had helped her, she enthusiastically answered, “definitely.”

Angelica Mullins also found that her time at BIOS has clarified her career goals, “I’ve always been a water baby and I thought that this trip could show me what I wanted to do.  Coming here has done that for me.  I’ve seen how everything trickles down to the water. I’ve always been by the water.  Being here has solidified that I want to work with these creatures as a marine mammal veterinarian or doing research.  My ultimate goal is to open up a stranding center for marine mammals that are displaced and need to be nursed back to health.”

Paige explained that she didn’t know a lot about coral reefs or oceans, and that her time at BIOS really opened up her eyes to sort of threats that the coral reefs face, “I didn’t really know how bad it was.”  As a result, she says she is now much more interested in the conservation of reefs and oceans.

Lauren Bacharach echoed the same sentiment, “this trip has definitely solidified my passion for the ocean and preserving what we have left—I want to do good things in a good place and this has definitely pushed me to that goal.”

The student’s love for the Washington College course at BIOS shines through in their interviews.  It is clear that Dr. Munson’s 18 years of hard work leading the program continues to be appreciated, and that all of his efforts will continue to be valued much into the future.  We at BIOS look forward to hosting Washington College students soon, and are so grateful for the legacy that Dr. Don Munson has created.  Thank you Dr. Munson for all that you have done over the past 18 years!  We hope to see you soon!

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