Internship tests students’ desire to be marine biologists

Professor Paul Jivoff leads students on research trips through Barnegat Bay
Friday, November 15, 2013

On most mornings this summer, Pilar Ferdinando would wake at 5 a.m. to board a 24-foot skiff with no seats, no cover and no bathroom. By 6, she and four other paid interns — all Rider University undergraduates — would be out on the calm surface of Barnegat Bay, prepared for as much as a 13-hour day collecting sea life for study, unless an approaching storm upset the environment.

An incoming storm could turn the placid shelf of water into a rollicking ride. At least once, waves kicked up high enough to crash inside the boat, and on several occasions the students and their teacher, Dr. Paul Jivoff (biology professor, boat captain and blue-crab specialist), were forced to dock, seek shelter and wait out the storm on land.

Out on the bay, the conditions are the opposite of a controlled lab setting. Students must maintain research standards to gather quality data while fighting the heat and sun and being bit by bugs and pinched by crabs. “These kids handle thousands of crabs in the summer, and these things are nasty,” Jivoff says. “It hurts when you get pinched.”

The experience tests the students’ desire to be marine scientists, showing them the day-to-day reality of conducting research in real-world conditions. Rather than dampen dreams, the rough-and-tumble days more often strengthen the direction of young scientists.

“I wanted to go back,” Ferdinando says of returning home after completing the internship. “It was the best experience of my life. It's what I enjoy doing, and instead of sitting in the classroom, you got to be out there doing it.”

The internship started May 20 — the Monday after graduation — and wrapped Aug. 26. The team of interns worked in the field about two weeks out of every month, and off-days were spent compiling and entering data on their findings. The typical day in the field started before 6 a.m. and ended after 3 in the afternoon.

“It gets very slippery and very windy, but that's what I thought it would be,” Ferdinando says. “You have to get down and dirty, it's kind of inevitable. I think it made it more enjoyable.”

Ferdinando, a junior majoring in marine science, was one of five interns Jivoff hired this summer to assist in his research at The Rutgers University Marine Field Station, part of the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. Amber Barton, Laura Moritzen, Frank Pandolfo and Chelsea Tighe rounded out the group.

Paul Jivoff holds a blue crab

Research is undertaken year-round at the facility, set across from the Little Egg Inlet at the intersection of the ocean, Barnegat Bay and the mouth of Great Bay-Mullica River estuary. Jivoff calls the bay, a 30-mile stretch of water off the coast of Ocean County, home to a variety of economically important species in New Jersey. Blue crabs play a vital role in commercial fishing. An average of five to six million pounds of blue crabs are removed from New Jersey waters each year, he says. (An adult crab weighs a little less than a pound on average.) The effect of removing so many crabs is still unknown, says Jivoff, whose research has focused on blue crabs for more than 11 years.

A simple, but deep, interest in the crustacean drives Jivoff. “They have a potent ecological role in the estuary, and they're also important economically all along the East Coast,” he says during an interview in his office, which is crammed with crab tchotchkes — both silly and scientific — in the University’s biology department.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has named the bay’s Sedge Island a Marine Conservation Zone, and one of the projects Jivoff and his interns work on is assessing the ecological value of this zone. During the summer his team measures the number of species to gauge if this zone helps to maintain ecologically and economically important species in the bay. Because of their importance to commercial fishing, blue crabs are one of Jivoff’ s target organisms for the project, but the team regularly scoops up fish, shrimp and other small invertebrates.

Ferdinando, who hopes to study the mating behavior of manta rays and the bioluminescence of jellyfish, recalls the array of species she’d find: pufferfish, blue fish, spot, hermit crabs. She’s already looking toward graduate school and dreaming of working at a research facility in South Africa.

Jivoff scouts for possible interns by observing his students during the semester. Seeing how they react to hands-on activities during field trips in the laboratory section of his courses, he gets a sense of who’s likely to be successful in the bay. Students also seek him out.

“The students in general are hungry for these kinds of opportunities,” Jivoff says. “They’re research oriented — that's why the entire biology faculty has students working all year. Students realize that, unlike other disciplines, science is a verb…you do it.”

Beyond the hands-on experience, students also benefit from developing relationships in a close working environment. They live in a dormitory along with interns from other schools, and some days the students set their own traps that caught enough crabs (“pots and pots,” Ferdinando says) to feed a dormitory full of hungry students.

“They form real friendships that last, and they’re making contacts who are potentially going to be their colleagues,” Jivoff says. “In the future they're probably going to be working with or maybe in competition with each other.”

The interns had the opportunity to volunteer in the long-term projects taking place at the station, sometimes going off to assist on big offshore boats. “They ended up teaching us what they know,” Ferdinando says of the technicians she encountered day in and day out. “You were always with each other. You have no choice but to learn from them.”

Midway through the fall semester, Ferdinando, a Nutley native who came under the spell of marine science through annual visits to her aunt’s place in Bermuda, is preparing for a Rider-sponsored trip to the Galapagos Islands in January. Aside from studying rare species in an exotic location with two expert University staff members, the trip fulfills a requirement: IND-316, Nature’s Business.

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Blue crabs are one of the target species interns measure to assess the ecological value of Barnegat Bay.