25633393394 e94b786aac o

Diving right in, student researcher explores ocean habitats

by Joe O’Connell

During Nadia Aamoum’s six-​​month inter­na­tional co-​​op in the island nation of Sey­chelles, north of Mada­gascar, the ocean was her work­place. She reg­u­larly con­ducted research dives off the coast of Mahe Island to survey fish, coral, and inver­te­brate populations.

“We don’t know that much about the marine envi­ron­ment,” Aamoum explained. “We know more about the sur­face of the moon. There is just such great intrigue, and diving is the best way to get down there.”

A marine biology major, Aamoum has been diving for five years and has her open water diving cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. She first learned to dive at a resort in Kenya her family visited.

“I find it really relaxing,” Aamoum said of diving. “I know that’s a little strange for a person to find breathing under­water relaxing.”

While in Sey­chelles, Aamoum con­ducted line inter­cept tran­sect dives, which are used to esti­mate the cover of a species on a coral reef, and sta­tionary point counts. Aamoum said she studied fish pop­u­la­tion because it inter­ested her the most.

Aamoum said her expe­ri­ence in Sey­chelles helped pre­pare her for the next phase of her col­le­giate career: Northeastern’s Three Seas Pro­gram.

The pro­gram, which cel­e­brates its 30th anniver­sary this year, is based out of Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant. It gives stu­dents an unprece­dented experiential-​​learning oppor­tu­nity by bringing them to three dif­ferent marine ecosys­tems in the Western Hemi­sphere over the course of a year.

“The pro­gram allows stu­dents who have a pas­sion for marine biology to really focus and get excep­tional field, lab­o­ra­tory, and class­room expe­ri­ence,” said Liz Bentley, the pro­gram coor­di­nator and dive safety officer. “So it will hope­fully allow them, in the end, to find their real pas­sion within the field.”

Stu­dents spend the fall semester diving and taking classes in Nahant. They then spend 10 weeks during the winter at the Smith­sonian Trop­ical Research Insti­tute in Panama, studying the trop­ical ecosystem there. The pro­gram then moves to Friday Harbor in Wash­ington state for eight weeks where stu­dents research rocky inter­tidal habi­tats and a sub-​​tidal kelp forest.

“It’s the pre­miere marine biology research expe­ri­ence,” said Steve Vollmer, the fac­ulty head of the pro­gram. “There is nothing else like it.”

Aamoum started the pro­gram this fall and said this oppor­tu­nity was a key factor in her deci­sion to attend North­eastern. So far, she’s enjoying the program’s chal­lenging cur­riculum and activ­i­ties. She said Nahant’s colder water tem­per­a­ture and vastly dif­ferent aquatic envi­ron­ment has been an adjust­ment to that of Sey­chelles. “It has taken a little get­ting use to. As a group we are all get­ting better.”

Both Bentley and Vollmer are alumni of the Three Seas Pro­gram and said it has started the careers of many pres­ti­gious marine biologists.

This aca­d­emic year there are 23 stu­dents in the program—15 under­grad­u­ates and eight grad­uate stu­dents. Under­grad­uate stu­dents typ­i­cally do the pro­gram during their fourth or fifth year at North­eastern. Grad­uate stu­dents are also required to do a six-​​month internship.

Bentley said this year’s class is one of the largest in the program’s his­tory. “I think the master’s degree com­po­nent is drawing a lot of people and is becoming more known,” she said, “and the marine biology major at North­eastern helps a lot for sure.”

Science writer Angela Herring contributed to this report.
Originally published in news@Northeastern on October 8, 2013.

College of Science