SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer
May 25, 2015
Returning to the Corwith Cramer
41° 03.7N x 071° 14.1W
14 nautical miles ESE of Block Island, RI.
Stepping aboard the Corwith Cramer almost 30 years after young, petrified, history-major-me sailed on the first student voyage of this very ship (C-100 in 1988) I was overcome with a flood of emotion and familiarity. In both a metaphorical and intellectual sense, I was arriving back home. Even without a ship tour I already instinctively remembered and understood every nook and cranny of the ship -- thirty years later. After only 6 weeks aboard, thirty years ago, this ship and its mission had been indelibly printed on my psyche. Why? It was on SEA Semester that I first experienced science for what it was – an endeavor of sustained creativity to understand how the world works, and to probe how life -- both planktonic and human -- transforms and responds to the environment. I came to sea an avowed science-phobe and left SEA as a scientist. What explains this transformation? It was three things:
- the hands-on experiential learning that took place both at shore and at sea;
- the interdisciplinarity that is required to truly dissect and understand the world around you; and
- the supportive and interdependent community that arose among the students, the crew, the scientists, and the staff at SEA. SEA semester was a wonderful and life-changing symbiosis of these three elements.
Today I am a marine genomic scientist at Vassar College attempting to dissect the question of how symbioses between marine organisms transform the deserts of the sea into rich, abundant ecosystems. It is an experiential challenge, it is in interdisciplinary challenge, and it is a challenge that requires a community of scientists. And for me, the spark was lit at SEA and endures 30 years later.
When I was a student in 1988, there was a single SEA program, which remains today as the Ocean Exploration program, where Nautical Science, Maritime Studies, and Oceanography play out over 12 weeks of shore and ship, and transforms your life. Today, SEA has blossomed into a rich set of immersive programs all focused around experiential learning of the marine environment. As a science major you can explore the interrelationships between the sea, the environment, and the biology of the globe within the context of climate change. Or as an Environmental Studies major, you can challenge your understanding of the interrelationships between humans and their ocean island environments through the lens of human history and culture. Or, if you wish, like me, you can still discover your intellectual niche through the Ocean Exploration program, the original.
But regardless of which program a student selects, s/he will develop a deep and intuitive understanding that the complexity of the world plays out not in a single field of study, but by immersion in all of them: history, art, maps, physical oceanography, plankton, ocean circulation, navigation, sail-handling, and a community of intellectually charged humans working together to understand, explore, and solve problems – sailing the ship 24/7 through sun and storms, and sailing our earth 24/7 through climate change and human impacts to the globe.
Now, as a faculty member advising undergraduate Biology and Biochemistry majors, I appreciate even more the incredible academic and intellectual power of the SEA program. The SEA program forces students to go both broad and deep into complex subjects and to come to grips with the fact that in order to do this, they must get both their minds and hands dirty. It is an academic experience that they simply cannot get at their College campus, and one that changes how they approach the world. I want my students to have that experience.