Marine Lab Immersion Experience - Summer Institute Gathers Students and Professionals from Around the World

May 27, 2015

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

By Kati Moore, MEM’16

Marine conservation is without a doubt a global issue. With about 44 percent of the world’s population living on or near coastlines, the challenges presented by overfishing, sea level rise, and increasing severity of natural disasters require an integrated, international approach.

That’s where the Duke Marine Lab comes in. For the second year in a row, the Marine Conservation Summer Institute (MCSI) will bring students and environmental practitioners from Duke and around the world to its campus in Beaufort, N.C., this summer to learn about marine conservation issues both in and out of the classroom.

The five-week intensive course covers emerging and ongoing issues facing marine conservation today.

“There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. What we have created is an environment where we teach people what it’s really like to do marine conservation and marine conservation biology and policy,” says MCSI Director Doug Nowacek.

One of the most valuable tools of the program, Nowacek says, is the experience the participants themselves bring to the table.

Last year, for instance, 15 environmental practitioners, from countries including India, Tanzania, Peru, Indonesia and Colombia, took part in the program as Global Fellow scholarship recipients.

Seventeen students from Duke and other universities also took part. They hailed from a diverse mix of nations, too, including Zimbabwe, Trinidad and Tobago and the South Pacific island nation of Tonga.

All told, 32 students and Global Fellows were enrolled in the program.

The participants bring knowledge of region-specific conservation issues as well as knowledge about what it’s actually like to do conservation work on the ground. The Fellows share their experiences with the other students and take what they learn back to their home countries to apply to their own conservation efforts.

“We’re creating a global network of marine conservation scholars and practitioners,” says Nowacek.

Global Fellows are awarded a scholarship that covers the entire cost of tuition, room, board, and travel for the duration of the program. This is made possible in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, though Nowacek says he hopes to make the program self-sustainable in coming years, while maintaining the vital supportto Global Fellows.

“Most of them wouldn’t be able to come without some amount of support, and having their perspective is invaluable to the whole Institute,” he says.

The program also attracts international students from Duke itself. Tapiwa Sondayi, a sophomore at Duke from Zimbabwe, said his interest in conservation and public policy drew him to the program.

“I felt it would teach me not just about the issues we’re dealing with but how to advocate for those issues and how to make policy and law regarding those issues,” he says.

The program is made up of four one-week modules following an introduction to human interactions with marine environments. Each module is taught by experts on different aspects of marine conservation.

In addition to traditional classroom lectures and discussions, students gain practical skills such as policy memo writing and get hands-on experience during excursions around Beaufort and the Outer Banks:

  • Last summer following a week of intensive study of invasive marine species led by James Morris, an ecologist in the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, students went out to local pet stores and nurseries to catalogue what species of animals and plants were available. Back at the lab, they researched these species to determine which were native and non-native. If non-native, students then determined what their potential invasiveness might be if released.

    The students also began what will be an ongoing search for invasive species at the Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserve, just a short boat ride from the Marine Lab.

  • In a module taught by Marine Lab Director Cindy Van Dover and McCurdy Visiting Scholar James Kraska— focused on deep sea conservation, ecology, and law— students took part in a mock international arbitration panel before faculty about the role the International Seabed Authority should play in the management of marine genetic resources.
  • In a module on marine megafauna and marine law, taught by environmental lawyer Steve Roady and marine mammal expert Andy Read, participants wrote a letter to the President of Mexico imploring him to take action to save the highly endangered vaquita, a rare species of porpoise.

The group also held a mock meeting of the International Whaling Commission to debate the recent decision from the International Court of Justice on Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean.