by Barry Waldman
If your field of professional interest is marine biology or marine science, you could hardly find a place more conducive to study than Charleston, South Carolina. The plethora of waterways, the importance of commercial aquaculture and water-based recreation, and the surfeit of marine labs in the area make College of Charleston’s graduate marine biology program an attractive choice.
Add to that, two considerations that make the CofC graduate program unusual: First, it is both on the water at the Grice Marine Lab on the site of historic Fort Johnson and also just a few minutes by car from the downtown campus where many students take related classes or serve as teaching assistants.
Second, students are not required to know before matriculating whom their research mentor will be. They can experience the program for a while before determining their specific area of interest and the mentor with whom they want to work. This is unusual among graduate marine science programs.
A Rigorous Program with 100 Marine Science Mentors
More than 100 marine scientists on the College of Charleston marine biology graduate faculty are conducting research and serve as mentors to grad students who must complete original research as part of their graduate thesis. The program has connections to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (part of NOAA), Hollings Marine Lab, MUSC, The Citadel and more.
Students can choose from myriad courses in fishery science and marine environment. Students learn to model and monitor fish populations, assess aquaculture and evaluate the biology and ecology of marine environments. Courses in marine science include marine biology, oceanography, statistics and the design and communication of scientific research.
Central to the program is the opportunity to identify a research mentor and do research. Most students get their research published in a scientific journal to be cited by other researchers.
Program director Dr. Craig Plante says the research focus and the involvement of a diverse group of experts has bolstered the program’s reputation. “Our students are perceived as going through a very rigorous program and really know how to do science and communicate it,” he said. Moreover, employers who hire graduates of the school value their involvement with them as students. “The labs out here love the opportunity to train them the way they want to and vet them for two years rather than evaluate them in an interview.”
Numerous student theses have had an impact on science and public policy. One example is a paper by current student Taylor Williams on the population explosion of an invasive species of red algae plaguing Hawaii. It led to a host of federal regulations to limit its spread.
A Great Pipeline to Higher Education and Jobs in the Field
Being on the water at the former site of Fort Johnson on James Island is invaluable to students in the marine biology program at College of Charleston. They can do basic research right there in the salt marsh or jump in a jon boat at the boat slip and paddle for a minute into the Charleston harbor in one direction or the Atlantic Ocean in the other direction. The proximity of DNR and NOAA next door facilitates student research as well.
The program takes an average of two years and two semesters to complete, and prerequisites include a list of courses that suggest an undergraduate major of biology, marine biology, marine science or oceanography.
The program has had success placing graduates in jobs due to its focus on preparing students in both basic and applied science.
About a quarter of graduates of the marine biology master’s degree program go on for their doctorates. Some get jobs as biologists at the agencies at which they are doing research or in private labs. Others work as scientists, whether in marine science or in another realm, and still others enter academia, whether at the high school or other level. One graduate is policy fellow at the National Science Foundation, another a research biologist at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of National History and another opened his own company offering quality assurance verification for Southeastern waterways.