By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
It’s a glorious spring day at Younger Lagoon Reserve, and Laura Chain is suited up and ready to go. Clad in black waders—voluminous rubber pants with boots attached, held up by suspenders—she steps gingerly into the yellow-green water.
“It’s a little weird getting in because I don’t know where I’m putting my feet,” Chain says.
Once wet to her knees, Chain plunges the clear plastic cylinder she carries perpendicularly into the water, driving it into the mud at her feet. Tugging the contraption free, she smiles in triumph. Inside the push corer is a neatly stacked column of lagoon sediments. It’s exactly what her lab group needs for the geology segment of Field and Lab Methods in Aquatic and Coastal Science (ESCI/OCEA 150).
Immersion in the field is exactly what instructor Carl Lamborg wants his class to experience. A UC Santa Cruz professor of ocean sciences, Lamborg has students characterize the biology, chemistry, geology, and physics of Younger Lagoon Reserve over the course of a quarter. The 72-acre reserve adjacent to the university’s Coastal Science Campus is one of 41 protected sites in the UC Natural Reserve System.
The class alternates between taking samples and measurements on the reserve one week, and analyzing the materials in the laboratory the next. Teams visit several sites around the lagoon itself, as well as at its ocean mouth. Along the way, these science majors gain practical experience with instruments used to characterize aquatic and marine environments, while gaining insights into processes that shape the Central California coast.
“There’s a general need for experiential learning,” Lamborg says. “You learn to make a plan, and organize your equipment, and remember to bring the fresh batteries. It also helps you figure out whether you’re interested in this type of work as a career.”
Developing practical research skills is what drew environmental sciences major Edward Palma to the class. “This gives me an idea of what actual scientists do when they’re going out to the ocean, ponds, and lakes,” he says, peering down through another cylinder of lagoon water. He poured out a few inches before trying again to discern the black and white pattern at its base. The depth at which the pattern appears is a standard method for measuring water clarity.
The chance to get a glimpse of a job as a field researcher also convinced Ariaeli Hernandez-Viera to sign up. “I want to go into restoration ecology, which involves a lot of field work and possibly lab work too. So it’s good for me to have as much field work especially under my belt as I can before going out into the workforce,” says the graduating environmental studies major.
Having to extract smelly lagoon mud hasn’t convinced Hernandez-Viera to veer from her intended career course. “I had a fear that when I went for a job I might find it boring or too much hard work. But I’m having fun with this class so it gives me hope that I’ll find a job that I’ll have fun doing,” she says.
For environmental science major Natasha Puri, who transferred to UCSC the year the pandemic struck, the class was her last chance to take a field course. She jumped at the opportunity. “I like being outside. I like touching the water, seeing the zooplankton, how they actually look and how they behave. I feel like you absorb so much more information when you see it than being in a classroom,” she says.
Puri has applied for a summer job removing invasive trout from Yosemite National Park largely on the strength of her aquatic methods experiences. “I might not have considered applying without having taken the class. I can see that I have a feel for it. And that makes me feel less intimidated to pursue field work as a career.”
Lamborg says wrangling equipment shoulder to shoulder with students encourages conversations that ultimately help him serve as a mentoring resource. “All of the students are getting very close to the end of their college career. So as we chat, I ask them what they’re going to do next, and see if anybody has questions about how I get into grad school or what kinds of jobs I can do with this degree,” he says.
The fact that the class is held at one of Santa Cruz’s loveliest coastal locales doesn’t hurt. With waters that reflect scudding overhead clouds and a pocket beach sprouting multicolored wildflowers, the reserve is a picture of natural beauty all year round. The fact that the lagoon is open to classes and researchers but not the general public (except by free docent-led tours) only adds to its mystique.
Lamborg, however, says he chose Younger for its dynamic conditions, not its charms. “Because it’s a small enough system, I was hoping we would see big changes during the course of a quarter, where the various chemical, physical, and biological aspects of it might actually change,” he says.
The lagoon has obliged by being as mutable as Lamborg had hoped. Its pH and dissolved oxygen levels have been rising, as photosynthetic phytoplankton have proliferated during the progressively longer days. Meanwhile, biology samples taken by the class have revealed turnover in plankton species as water conditions have shifted. Dinoflagellates have given way to cyanobacteria as the lagoon has warmed and lost water to evaporation.
Interestingly, COVID has made the laboratory sections of the class extra valuable. Instructional videos were the closest many students had come to lab learning over the past two years. But in this class, students get to stain bacteria in water samples, observe swimming plankton under a microscope, measure the grain sizes of beach and lagoon sediments, and perform other lab analyses with their own hands.
For the course final, each student group will analyze one of the four types of data—biology, geology, physics, or chemistry—the class has gathered over the term, and give a presentation on the trends observed.
The data students glean may have a life beyond the course as well. “My hope is the course will be offered here regularly in the future. We could start to build a longer term data set that we could potentially offer up to other researchers,” says Younger Lagoon Reserve director Elizabeth Howard. “Even more could be gained from coming back multiple times through the year, over multiple years of drought and heavy rainfall.” The chance to contribute to ongoing research should only add to the allure of the class for future students.