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Nantucket will host young ocean scientists

UMass Boston expands program

Marine science students Sam Byer (left) and Jo Perkins (center) worked in Nantucket, under the supervision of Sarah Oktay.

Rob Benchley

Marine science students Sam Byer (left) and Jo Perkins (center) worked in Nantucket, under the supervision of Sarah Oktay.

NANTUCKET — The Nantucket Field Station sits on one of the most spectacular natural resources New England has to offer: a pristine beachfront abutted by a salt marsh and, just up a gentle slope, a picturesque freshwater pond.

Beginning Monday, the setting will be a new year-round home for ocean science students from the University of Massachusetts Boston, who are more accustomed to the urbanized environs of Boston Harbor.

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On the Boston campus at Columbia Point, professors “bring us out to where the salt marshes used to be,” said student Sam Byer. On field trips to Cape Cod, students in the university’s Environmental, Earth and Ocean Sciences department have been known to jump into the ocean in all their clothes, amazed at how clean the water is.

Now, Byer and his classmates will have the opportunity to live and study on Nantucket, where the field station, situated on land donated to the university 50 years ago, kicks off its first semester as a true satellite campus. From about 20 students who will anchor the pilot Nantucket semester, the university hopes to expand to triple digits within a few years.

 Sarah Oktay (left), director of Nantucket Field Station, explained collection techniques to Jo Perkins and Sam Byer in Folger’s Marsh. Both will be students at the UMass satellite campus on the island.

Rob Benchley

Sarah Oktay (left), director of Nantucket Field Station, explained collection techniques to Jo Perkins and Sam Byer in Folger’s Marsh. Both will be students at the UMass satellite campus on the island.

The students will have more than just the field station at their disposal, said UMass Boston’s chancellor, J. Keith Motley, who will attend an opening ceremony on the island Friday. In addition to the lab and common rooms at the station, classes will also take place at the historic Atheneum, which houses the island’s public library, at the African Meeting House, and other cultural institutions.

“They’ll have the whole island as their oyster, so to speak,” Motley said. “I want this next group of thinkers not to be so regimented in their own discipline.”

Working closely with civic groups including the Conservation Foundation and the community organizers at ReMain Nantucket, the UMass Boston administration wants to create an interdisciplinary approach on the campus, where students will conduct research directly addressing the island’s environmental issues while integrating into the close-knit year-round population of around 10,000.

The university’s on-island partners have been eager to help launch the satellite campus, said Dr. Robyn Hannigan, chairwoman of the college’s Environmental, Earth and Ocean Sciences department. There have been two reactions, she said with a laugh: “ ‘Yeah! College students,’ and ‘Whoa – college students!’

“I think we’ve assuaged their concerns in that regard. We have programs in place to make sure the students are not ding-dongs.”

The initial group of students is diverse, hailing from Southie and the North End to Western Massachusetts, Hannigan said.

“They been selected to be the pioneering group because of their academic strength, leadership skills, their collaborative team nature, and their deep desire to enable environmental restoration and adaptation,” she said

In their studies here, the students will address specific issues, such as the water-quality concerns of the island’s scallop fishermen, as well as the much broader issue of climate change preparation in a coastal community.

Although the field station facilities are modest, the 107-acre site attracts world-class researchers to study the environment, biology, and weather of Nantucket. Yet there are year-round residents of the island who have never visited, said Sarah Oktay, a highly regarded oceanographer who has been the director of the field station for nearly 10 years.

“You can get visitors from all over, but sometimes you can barely get your next-door neighbor to come see you,” Oktay said as she walked the field station circuit on an unseasonably mild afternoon recently amid preparations for the students’ arrival. She was busy cleaning up clutter in the lab, where the existing incubators, infiltrometers, and centrifuges mean the university doesn’t have to build a new lab “out of whole cloth.”

During her time on the island, Oktay has thrown open the doors of the field station, making it a community resource that attracts urban high school students for weeklong programs and an average of 10,000 annual visitors who come for birding and other outdoor activities. Until now the university has used the station sparingly, including a brief attempt decades ago to offer semester studies that focused more on the history and literature of the island.

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation bought the land in 2004 but has forged an agreement with UMass to continue its education programs.

Oktay and her husband, Len Germinara, a writer who teaches “eco-poetics,” expect to keep the students occupied. Oktay is especially active in the community; besides heading the island’s “Clean Team” and serving as vice president of its Civic League, she is a fierce competitor on trivia nights.

She is already accustomed to making visitors feel welcome, having hosted overnight stays by high school students from Brockton, Lawrence, and Lowell, some of whom were seeing a beach for the first time.

Those students have typically stayed in the barracks-style quarters in outbuilding, which features 14 beds and a communal kitchen and living room. (For now, the university students will live in downtown housing vacated by seasonal workers. UMass is weighing options for expanded housing in the coming years.)

Students more accustomed to city living have been awed, and often more than a little frightened, by the profusion of nature on the field station land.

“I tell them, listen, there’s bunnies and deer,” Oktay said with a wry smile. “If they eat you, maybe you had it coming.”

Jo Perkins, a Framingham native who runs a garden design business on Nantucket, is thrilled about the arrival of the satellite campus. Before Oktay came, the field station “catered to an elite group,” she said. “It wasn’t a door you could knock on.”

Now, at 53, she plans to pursue the degree that eluded her after high school. She will be one of the first to take advantage of the satellite campus.

“All through my childhood, when people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said ‘oceanographer’ or ‘marine biologist,’ even before I knew what that meant,” she said. “This is my jump-start.”

Thus far, the town-and-gown relationship on the island has been inspiring, said Hannigan, the Environmentalj, Earth and Ocean Sciences chairwoman. “The entire community has opened their arms and pocketbooks,” she said.

“We’re not winging it. We’ve been good neighbors for a long time, and we’re just going to be better neighbors now.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.

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