Stephanie Bernasconi '09 Returns From Educational Adventure at Sea

By BRAD GIBSON, Reprinted from the Journal Register News Service

Many college juniors elect to spend a semester abroad, and most choose programs in popular tourist destinations such as Italy, Spain or France. Stephanie Bernasconi '09 chose the Pacific Ocean.

Bernasconi, a Dickinson College junior and township resident, recently completed a 12-week study abroad program with the Sea Education Association, or SEA. Though the first six weeks of the curriculum took place in a classroom, Bernasconi spent the second half of the semester on a 3,000-mile journey aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans.

“It was really a once in a lifetime experience,” Bernasconi said.

But before Bernasconi and her 23 classmates could set sail off the coast of Honolulu, Hawaii, they had to complete six weeks of intensive training in oceanography, maritime studies, nautical science, and environmental policy. Students also designed research projects, as Bernasconi examined how filter feeding salps sequester carbon deep into the ocean. The topic of carbon sequestering has become particularly intriguing to environmental scientists searching for methods to control levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As an environmental science major herself, Bernasconi delighted in the opportunity to design an experiment that she could put to the test during her voyage.

“This trip allowed me to perform my own research project and to gain field experience that I would not normally get at Dickinson,” Bernasconi said.

Once aboard the Seamans, Bernasconi and her classmates performed their research while also helping the crew with the daily operation of the ship. After a few days of working a shipboard and navigating by the stars, the students quickly began to appreciate that their class in oceanography was not merely academic.

“We had to know every sail and line by heart. It wasn’t just another class. If we didn’t know how to operate the vessel we would be putting the rest of the crew in danger,” Bernasconi said.

Along with their research and work with the crew, the students also served as junior watch officers, which required them to take full command of the vessel during their shifts. With rotating four hour shifts every night, students had to adapt to long days with little sleep. Combined with the initial nausea from the ship’s constant motion, Bernasconi admitted that adjusting to life at sea took time.

Despite those early struggles, Bernasconi’s enthusiasm for the program never waned.

“You don’t remove yourself from society for a month and a half for something you’re not passionate about,” she said.