College Issue: SSU Marine Sciences celebrates 30 years

You gotta sea it to believe it

It's a typical college classroom: casually but fashionably dressed students, joking with classmates, showing their professor what they've learned.

With knives in their hands. Cutting open dead sharks.

"Atlantic sharp-nosed sharks," says Dr. Matthew R. Gilligan, coordinator of Savannah State University's Marine Sciences program. "They're thick as flies around here - you just drop your hook in the water."

This is the Ichthyology Lab, where SSU Marine Science undergrads split into teams and dissect the two-foot sharks to examine just about every internal organ - from the nasal cavity with sensors to locate the electrical field of potential prey, to the fish's much less glamorous parts on the other end.

Amazingly, few marine science students around the country actually get an opportunity like this - to work with fresh-caught specimens at a program based right on the water's edge with its own dock and research vessel, as is the case with Savannah State and its Marine Science program, now in its 30th year.

"That's something we really try to get across to students here - how unique an opportunity it is to be able to go out and do so much hands-on work in the field," says Dr. Chris Hintz, assistant professor of Marine Sciences. "They don't have to take a three-hour road trip to the coast to get on the water."

It's an approach that suits junior Alfryea Prince just fine. "I like the hands-on work. I don't want to sit in a lab somewhere," she says. "I haven't decided if I'm more interested in inverts (invertebrates). I'm really interested in deep sea species, but they're hard to study because they get damaged so easily when you bring them up."

While SSU Marine Sciences stresses fundamentals, Gilligan says it's taken on a more interdisciplinary approach as ocean issues have moved to the forefront, blending in such related pursuits as chemistry and geology. In fact, some years back the program changed its name from Marine Biology to Marine Sciences to address that shift.

"It was pretty misleading, because people would hear ‘marine biology' and say, ‘Oh, you just know about crabs and fish and shrimp,' and that's not true," Gilligan explains. "Students here get the full background. They get physics, calculus, and organic chemistry, which means they're pre-professional. People have gotten into medical, dental, and Ph.D programs out of this program."

However, because marine science jobs are so competitive, the SSU program maintains a focus on job skills.

"These are very sought-after jobs, so we try and give some added value to these degree programs so that graduates have an advantage when they have to go out and look for a job," says Hintz.

One career path involves working at one of the many public aquariums around the country, and to that end SSU Marine Sciences offers a certification in aquarium study. Sigourney Bain is so interested in this career path that she volunteers to work on maintaining aquariums at the school, despite having already graduated from SSU.

"Marine Science is very broad, but different professors have different areas they specialize in," Bain says. "So if you're interested in something you can sort of go in-depth with it."

Gilligan says a zoo or aquarium is usually "the main point of entry for the public in environmental and ocean issues. More people get turned on by oceans and marine life when they've gone to an aquarium than anything else, except maybe nature specials on TV."

The story of SSU's Marine Sciences program is unique, and has a lot to do with the school's role as a historically black university. Gilligan explains:

"In 1979 the federal government ruled that Georgia and several other Southern states weren't in compliance with laws regarding segregation of higher education. They said, ‘You've got a black school and a white school in Savannah - fix it!'" he says.

"Dr. Margaret Robinson, a department chair in natural sciences, always wanted to take advantage of the coastal location of the college to get environmental science and environmental studies and marine science here. So she said, ‘OK, you want to desegregate? We'll have a marine biology program, and then we're guaranteed to bring in white students.' What she meant was that to this day African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Island Americans, and other underrepresented groups are more underrepresented in marine and ocean sciences than any other area of science."

However - and this is the pleasant surprise - today the program is racially split at both the undergrad and the masters level.

"Since we opened our doors we've had about 50/50 black/white enrollment in our program over that 30 years," says Gilligan. "We've developed a strong reputation nationally. Students come here specifically for this program."

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