Only a year ago, Elizabeth “Betsy” Meyer ’14 had never traveled far from the Boston suburb where she grew up, let alone flown on a plane or set out to sea for days on end.
What a difference a semester makes—particularly if the semester is spent enrolled in the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport, which has been giving undergraduates a hands-on interdisciplinary experience learning about the sea since 1977.
Meyer, a 21-year-old biology major, spent last fall living in a historic house on the grounds of the seaport in Stonington, Conn., and studying in nontraditional classrooms like a sailing vessel along the coast of California. Quoting Woody Guthrie, Meyer said she “literally got to see America ‘from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters,’ accompanied by fantastically intelligent people who related everything I saw to our academic studies.”
For Meyer, the highlight was two onshore field seminars. In California, she spent time surveying the rockbound coast and the redwood forests, seeing an entirely different landscape from the one she grew up with in New England; in Louisiana, she found herself surrounded by unfamiliar southern accents and saw firsthand the impacts of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.
“It completely changed my understanding of the land and our connections to homelands,” she said.
Less of a highlight but still a powerful learning experience was the program’s weeklong sailing trip on a student vessel off the coast of California: Meyer was seasick for five straight days, but nevertheless had to wake up at 3 a.m. for her shifts on watch. At various other times, Williams-Mystic had her collecting marine bird pellets for an ecology study, writing papers, learning basic watercraft in small boats, and even learning to sing sea chanteys.
“It’s not an easy ride or a vacation. They keep you busy and expect a great deal from you,” Meyer said. “However, it is immensely rewarding, not in just the academic learning but in the bonds you share with fellow students and with the outstanding faculty and staff.”
Science isn’t Meyer’s only passion; her minor is studio art, and she enjoys drawing, photographing, knitting, crafting, reading and writing. “I need that creative outlet,” she said. She also loves to cook and is a writing intern in Wheaton’s Communications Office.
Meyer is one of 22 Wheaton students who’ve participated in Williams-Mystic since 2002. It’s one of a number of popular off-campus study programs the college offers in the U.S. and overseas, and it’s a favorite of Professor of Biology Scott Shumway, an ecologist, who is Meyer’s advisor.
Shumway described Meyer as an “outstanding” student, recalling how she’d sometimes send him photos of interesting trees she walked by on the Wheaton campus. “Williams-Mystic was an obvious choice for someone with her range of interests,” he said.
Meyer’s love for the outdoors started at a young age, when she began collecting shellfish and decided she wanted to become a marine biologist. As she got older, she took hikes with her father through the Blue Hills, and her focus widened to ecology. “I always had this idea that when you wanted to have fun, you went to nature and you looked at what was happening in the trees, in the air, on the ground,” she said.
Williams-Mystic wasn’t the last of Meyer’s excursions: in January she did a winter fellowship at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, where she was paired with a research scientist. While she isn’t sure what her career path will be, she hopes to find a creative way of teaching and learning about the outdoors.
“Working with animals and studying biology in college for me is reaffirming that childhood awe,” Meyer said. “I want to remind other people of that feeling so that it’s easier to live mindfully in this delicate world.”
—Ted Nesi ’07