The Marine Team collects specimens in Saipan to help professionals further their research

Written by: 
Josh Mason
Three students dive in Saipan's ocean for biology research

BYU-Hawaii students from the Marine Team traveled to Saipan on June 14 to survey marine invertebrate biodiversity in the area.

Michelle Bennett, a recent graduate from Arizona who studied marine biology, said marine invertebrate biodiversity refers to “marine life but specifically things like snails, jellyfish, crabs, shrimp, anything without a backbone kind of thing.”

Bennett, who also went on last year’s trip in 2015, said researching marine invertebrate biodiversity is important “because the ocean provides one in three breaths you take. Invertebrates are the sources of food for top predators, including humans. The ocean is a complex ecosystem that can usually manage itself, but with human influence, things get out of whack easily.” Without marine invertebrates, the entire ecosystem could collapse and damage even the humans’ environment, said Bennett.

Dr. Roger Goodwill, professor of marine biology who specializes in marine invertebrate biodiversity, organizes the trips to Saipan each year to help students gain “real world experience.”

He summarized what the group does on the trip: “We walk the reef, snorkel, dive, photograph, relax, stuff gets brought back here, we try to identify it, and we send stuff out to experts to get it identified.”

Benjamin Ho, a senior from Hong Kong studying general biology, went for the first time and said the workload was heavy. He said, “Sometimes you go in the morning at 7 a.m. and you will be doing lab work until about 4 p.m. Sometimes you have to stay up to catch up on the things you didn’t finish the day before.”

Goodwill said, “They work about 60 hours a week. They sometimes work from 7 in the morning to midnight.”

He said members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration once gave a presentation to students and said, “We work long hours. We work from 7:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night.”

Goodwill pointed out, “These are paid professionals doing exactly what we’re doing… that’s very impressive to other people who are going to take them on as interns or jobs down the line because somebody had enough confidence in them to put out a block of money for them to work.”

In addition to gaining real life experience, “I’m required to do some research and publish it, so the trip helps me with that,” said Goodwill. “For some students, it works as well if the project is narrowly defined because some of them will go back in Saipan with me in November to present in a conference. I have two or three right now who might go in November.”

According to Goodwill, the team often receives special requests. “Because we’ve been doing it for a long time, people have started recognizing us at experts. Both the local government and the Fed will come to me and say, ‘Gosh, we want to know about invasive species, but in order to do that we need to know what was here before.’ The data we collect helps other professionals solve the problems they have.”

Goodwill said their research “tells fish and wildlife people what is there. Additionally, if you’re looking at the science of it, it’s kind of hard to manage if you don’t know what’s there. Do you know if the reef is getting better or getting worse? Are the populations going down or going up?” He said some fish and wildlife establishments have requested photos from the group for slideshows in their lobbies.

There are real-world applications to their work.“About two or three years ago, the local fishery guy there said, ‘Something’s stinging our tourists. Do you know what it is?’” Goodwill said they discovered it was the box jelly. “It’s not just a ‘make do’ thing that they’re doing just to sign up for credit. These are professional requests,” said Goodwill.

“Not uncommonly do I get e-mails from students who said they got a job because they went to Saipan,” said Goodwill. “It helps with experience for their resume. A lot of them go in with minimal diving experience and they come out very experienced. They get day, night, shore, boat, shallow, sandy, rocky… They come out with experience in underwater photography. They come out with experience in the laboratory.”

During this year’s trip, the group collected almost 3,000 specimens. Goodwill said their work does not damage the reef. “You’re only getting one or two of any one species. In terms of damaging the reef or declining the population, you’re not even coming close to it,” he said. “Collectively it’s a big number but we only have [one to three of each species]. It’s not like we have 3,000 of one species.”

Samantha Malinconico, a senior from Oregon studying marine biology, said, “Dr. Goodwill really prepared us well to go. The collecting and photographing was very similar to things we do with the marine team. Everyone pitched in to help each other when they could. I think everyone learned about teamwork.” She said she felt she gained more experience as a diver and saw a shark in the wild for the first time.

Their efforts have proven useful. Goodwill said, “We always collect stuff we haven’t seen before. We always see new stuff. We got a salp, which works like a jet engine. Jet engines suck air in the front and shoves it out the back. A salp sucks water in their front and shoves it out their back, and that’s the way it moves around. It’s transparent. You can’t even photograph it.”

In order for students to see the salp, the team put green food coloring on it to make it visible. Goodwill also said the students took between 20,000 and 30,000 photos for their research. Some of the photos are sent to taxonomic experts so the species they’ve discovered can be identified. Goodwill said they have found some undiscovered species in prior years.

In addition to their research, students said they enjoyed experiencing the culture. Malinconico said she was most impressed by the members of the LDS Church there. “We were there for stake conference that first Sunday and there were technical difficulties, but no one left, and no one complained. The next week we met an investigator who was there with the missionaries. There was so much faith in that little branch.”

Ho said, “I loved it there. It was really simple, like the lifestyle and stuff...You don’t have to worry about how you look. You just have to focus more on yourself and your family.”

Goodwill said planning the trip is always difficult because of a lack of funds. “You can imagine flying a whole team to Saipan, a hotel, ground transportation. You have to hire a dive guide that keeps you out of trouble, knows where and when you can get in and not. It’d be nice if we had an endowment because I can never tell students early on if we’re going.”

He said the program lost funding from an external organization that funded them in previous years, but luckily “the dean of the college came up with $12,000. And we get funding through student associateships. We were well-funded this last year. We had $20,000 total, $2,000 per student.”

Date Published: 
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Last Edited: 
Wednesday, September 7, 2016