NAU Students’ Field Experience in Saipan

saipan
Coral samples provide clues to ocean health.

An island at a cultural and biological crossroads is emerging as a place of fieldwork opportunity for Northern Arizona University (NAU) students.

In the lush jungles and clear waters of Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, biological and cultural diversity still thrive, although threats from development and climate change loom larger than ever.

For these reasons, Saipan is an ideal location for Field Experience in Conservation Biology, a four-month academic program being taught for the first time by NAU faculty this winter and spring. Under the guidance of NAU faculty members Russell Benford, Nashelly Meneses, and Steve Shuster, 12 students are asking important questions about local species and environmental conditions.

 “What we’re trying to do with this program is to have our conservation biology certificate holders get past that first year of eye-opening surprises such that they will be more competitive in the workplace and join it as experienced professionals.”

“This place is an exposed nerve in terms of its vulnerability to human activity and to change,” said Benford, who also works as a supervisory wildlife biologist for the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands. “There is a high density of threatened and endangered species.”

Learning that the real world is not the classroom

While the field experience course begins with guided coursework, the students quickly transition to being “sunburned and bug bitten,” Benford said, in the pursuit of science and career building. Students who earn a biology degree, he said, often find that the real world is “entirely different” from the classroom.

“What we’re trying to do with this program is to have our conservation biology certificate holders get past that first year of eye-opening surprises,” Benford said, “such that they will be more competitive in the workplace and join it as experienced professionals.”

Besides plying the landscape and the surf on their own, students interact with local resource managers, learning what practical work is like while advancing their knowledge in a place of rapid change.

Saipan—part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Territory situated south of Japan and east of the Philippines—lies at a crossroads of Australasian species and in the crosshairs of economic development. “This is one of the regions of the world where a lot of economically, ecologically, and politically important changes will be happening in the next century,” Benford said. “Whole coastal habitats could change or disappear.We’re working hard right now to understand what we can do to intervene to mitigate the impact on human activity and wildlife.”

Studying the effects of sewage water, seagrass decline

NAU student Natalie Senini samples coral from the Saipan lagoon to study the potential effects of treated sewage water (from the Sadog Tasi Outfall Pipe) on the growth and reproduction of hard coral species. Her project involves sampling the diversity of nearby reefs. “Coral is a fascinating organism that is extremely important to the health of oceans and many coastal communities,” Senini said. “This project has opened my eyes to the complexity of marine ecology and how interconnected all fields of science are.”

Senini, who said her research began “with a passion for marine ecology and a love for the ocean,” is earning a dual major in environmental science and biology with a minor in chemistry.

Another NAU student, Rosie Alling, is determining how reef fish species will be affected by the current trend of seagrass decline around Saipan, which is attributed mostly to nitrate runoff from the land. From snorkeling through seagrass to analyzing satellite images of the coast, Alling works to make predictions about the populations of fish.

“A decline in reef fish species could mean trouble for the health of coral reefs and fisheries,” Alling said. “The importance of fishing both culturally and economically in Saipan is what led me to this project.”  “I had never planned on studying abroad because there are not very many options for someone studying ecology,” she explained. “The experience of living in a place with different conservation challenges than you are used to and getting hands-on field experience is priceless.”

--Adapted from “NAU News”