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Winter in Paradise

When the January chill hits Reading, trips to tropical climates sound like heaven, but for students who take experiential travel courses during Interim, heaven is all about learning.

by Jennifer Post Stoudt

Winter in Paradise

An Ecological Frontier

White sandy beaches, emerald blue waters and undisturbed coral reefs, the sea’s underwater rainbow.

San Salvador

A view of the shoreline in San Salvador,
Bahamas.

Phil Dougherty, professor of chemistry &
biochemistry, and his students, commemorate Christopher Columbus's famous journey along the shore of San Salvador, Bahamas, the first place Columbus landed in 1492.

Bonnie Goldberg ’03 ascends from the
Lighthouse Cave where she and fellow
students observed bats and cave
formations.

photos: Craig Stihler

What sounds like a vacation paradise, is actually miles and miles of education and exploration for students who have taken Dr. Phil Dougherty’s Interim class in San Salvador, Bahamas, an island located in the far eastern Bahamas. “It’s a historical and ecological frontier,” says Dougherty, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who has taken classes to the Bahamas for the past 14 years.

The first place Christopher Columbus landed in the new world in October 1492, San Salvador’s riches are its plant, animal and marine life. “It’s one of only four places on Earth where stromatalites, one of the original forms of life, still exists today,” says Dougherty. “Students actually get to hold the very origins of life right in their hands.”

Staying at the Bahamian Field Station, a former military base converted to a tropical research station, students were immersed in the subtropical ecosphere. They traveled by boat, by open truck, by foot and even underwater, to explore the island’s beaches, coral reefs, inland lakes and trails. From the Bahamian buttercup and the blue tipped sea anenome to creatures such as Cyclura rileyi rileyi, more commonly known as the San Salvador rock iguana, they were surrounded by the island’s many treasures.

Sandra Ameri ’05, a biology major who took the course in 2003, says she learned more than she ever imagined. “We helped Dr. Dougherty with his research, so that meant climbing in caves with bats, going into the jungle and setting traps for rats on the island, and scuba diving for six hours a day looking at coral reefs. We did lots of work. It was a great trip.”

The snorkeling was definitely a highlight, she says. “I got to experience and see coral reefs that were undisturbed, that you’d never get to see anywhere else you’d visit.” These reefs, says Dougherty, “are really the last unspoiled wildlife frontier in the world. It’s the purest form of wildlife in its natural habitat.”

With days packed with lectures, readings, field studies and field projects, students were never at a loss for something to do. “It was a very positive experience,” says Ameri. “I learned so many things that I can now apply to my major…we learned to tag animals, how to use infrared goggles and how to prepare data. We learned a lot!”

However, says Dougherty, no trip to San Salvador is complete without acknowledging Columbus’s famous journey. “We commemorate this every year,” he says. “We gather as Columbus’s crew would have and trudge with an Albright flag to the shore as the explorers would have done. We plant the flag and declare this island in possession of Albright for this day.”

He adds with a laugh, “The students sometimes look at me like I’m crazy, but they like it.”

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