Students Anna Cardon and Felix Spaniol do a dive while gathering data in the waters off of Bonaire.
Lawrence University seniors Anna Cardon and Felix Spaniol do a dive while gathering data in the waters off of Bonaire.

Fourteen Lawrence University students and three faculty members spent two weeks this spring on the island of Bonaire doing field research on marine life, the latest academic adventure in the long-running Lawrence University Marine Program (LUMP).

Now back on campus, the students will showcase their research in a special presentation with the Lawrence University Jazz Band at 8 p.m. May 15 in Memorial Chapel—part science, part musical celebration.

Led by Bart De Stasio ’82, the Dennis and Charlot Nelson Singleton Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of biology, and Brian Piasecki, associate professor of biology—and joined by José Encarnación, associate professor of music and director of jazz studies—the group traveled to the western shore of Bonaire to study the fish and coral reef environments.

From left, Brian Piasecki, Jose Encarnacion, and Bart De Stasio pose for a photo in Bonaire.
From left, Brian Piasecki, José Encarnación, and Bart De Stasio led this year's research in Bonaire.

LUMP has provided a hands-on undergraduate experience in marine biology every other year since 1978, when the late Sumner Richman launched the program. Students spend time during “Marine Term” learning about coral reef ecosystems, ecology, and human effects on reef environments before embarking on the two-week research trip to the Caribbean. 

In a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the marine program and the Conservatory of Music, Encarnación joined the trip to study the music of Bonaire while also accompanying students on daily dives and related ecosystem explorations. That led to the idea for the Memorial Chapel performance, which will feature the LU Jazz Band performing music related to the ocean and Bonaire’s Krioyo musical tradition. Within the program, De Stasio and Piasecki will discuss the marine program and students will give brief reports on their research projects while photos and video from the trip are shown. It is free and open to the public.

De Stasio, who has led these research trips since 1996, said Encarnación, a native of Puerto Rico and an experienced scuba diver, provided an opportunity to fuse the coral reef research with the culture of the Bonaire community.

We always try to make this trip more holistic,” De Stasio said. “We want our students to understand how the coral reefs are really a part of the society that’s there. In my Coral Reef Environments course, we always read about how corals are used by local populations, the differences across the world, how different peoples depend on coral reefs and what their long-term relationships are like. So, we always try to have someone local prepare the cultural foods that are so important to them, using local resources, and talk about their culture, the music that’s part of that. When I talked to José, I thought, this is a great opportunity to really extend that even further, to have José do some research on that and have our students experience this culture in a deeper way.”

Seeking data

Lawrence’s marine biology program is one of only seven of its kind in the country, and many students are drawn to Lawrence specifically for the program. The Bonaire trip is part of De Stasio’s course, Coral Reef Environments, which is a centerpiece of what’s known as “Marine Term.”

Emma Moya, a sophomore biology major from Chicago, called the program “impactful” and said the Bonaire experience solidified her plans to pursue marine biology as a career—in ocean advocacy as well as research.

“Marine Term made me more motivated than I was before on working toward my career goals,” Moya said. “It became even more of an obsession of wanting to spend more time in the ocean, wanting to continue research on corals and marine mammals, to pursue outreach while ensuring that communities from all over are involved; that these communities are aware of the power they carry to help our oceans.”

Map showing location of Bonaire.

Governed by the Netherlands, Bonaire is one of three islands off the coast of Venezuela called the ABC Islands, with nearby Aruba and Curaçao. This marked the second time Bonaire has been the destination for the Marine Term trip. It replaced Grand Cayman as the destination in 2022 as the world began to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It worked out really well,” De Stasio said.

The first week in Bonaire was focused on gathering data of fish and coral diversity at seven sites. During the second week, students worked in small groups on research projects of their own design.

Whether your focus is ecology, microbiology, marine biology, or genetics, you will collaborate with faculty and classmates on co-designed research projects.

A disease outbreak affecting hard corals in the region, first detected a year ago, added new weight to the research. The Bonaire government, which operates a marine park system that protects the waters around the island, connected with the Lawrence group in hopes that the research can contribute to a data base that will shed light on the disease and its ramifications, De Stasio said.

“We now have documentation of before and after this disease outbreak,” he said. “There are some big differences there already. We have this comparison of the same sites over this period of a year before and a year after. This disease is hitting the corals, and it happens within a month, killing off these massive coral heads that took hundreds of years to grow.”

A cultural lesson

When not diving, the group explored Bonaire, including the local music that had the attention of Encarnación. They attended Dia di Rincon, an annual event that celebrates Bonaire’s cultural heritage with food, music, and dancing, and Encarnación took lessons in the music.

“Beautiful, happy, and exciting musical traditions,” he said.

A hawksbill turtle is seen during a dive as students gather data on aquatic life in the waters off of Bonaire.
A hawksbill turtle is seen during a dive as students gather data off the shores of Bonaire.

In preparation for the trip, Encarnación audited two courses—Coral Reef Environments and Ecological Energetics—took a refresher course in diving and joined De Stasio and Piasecki in getting certified in CPR and First Aid.

“This has been one of the most remarkable experiences of my life,” Encarnación said. “I learned so much.”

LUMP is an extension of other marine-related study in Lawrence’s Biology Department. In combination with a course on microbiology and studies of local aquatic ecosystems, students investigate the similarities and differences between marine and freshwater environments. Besides Bonaire, LUMP has studied reefs in the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Cayman Islands. Nearly 350 Lawrence students have taken part in the marine program over the past four decades.

A year ago, seven students from the research trip signed up for tutorials with De Stasio to continue their study.

"We have students who come to Lawrence because we have this program," De Stasio said. "That has been consistent throughout the years."