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Thursday, May 13, 2021

STEM programs benefit from Western’s location

By Zoe Buchli

Whether it’s collecting seal scat or studying rocks on Mars, Western’s science, technology, engineering and math programs offer students a myriad of diverse research opportunities.

Fifteen percent of undergraduate students pursue degrees in science and engineering fields, according to the Western admissions quick facts page.

One of the most prominent advantages Western provides to its STEM students is its unique location with Sehome Hill in its backyard, and its position between the Salish Sea and Mount Baker.

Working with seals in Bellingham Bay

Western has 34 biology majors with a marine emphasis, said biology department adviser Alexis Donnelly.

Deb Donovan is a biology professor at Western who has been able to use the region’s resources for in-class research opportunities, including trips where she takes students to Marine Park to collect organisms.

Students at Saratoga Passage (inland waters of Whidbey Island). // Photo courtesy of Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez

Western has the Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, where students can conduct research and take biology and environmental courses based through the university, Donovan said.  

“Boats will come up from Shannon Point and take students out into Bellingham Bay to do sampling,” Donovan said.

Lake Whatcom also provides research and experiment opportunities for environmental science students, and samples from the lake are used for lab research in Biology 101 courses, Donovan said.

Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez,a biology professor at Western, has been able to share research opportunities provided by Bellingham Bay with his students.

“The bulk of the research I do with undergrad students is to examine the potential impact of the downtown development on harbor seal abundance,” Acevedo-Gutierrez said.

Photo courtesy of Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez

To conduct this research, students count the number of seals at various points along the industrial development.

He also studies the potential impact of harbor seals foraging on salmonids returning to the hatchery at Whatcom Creek.

“Students record the behavior of harbor seals, including successful instances of foraging, and take photographs of their faces to identify individuals,” Acevedo-Gutierrez said.

In a recently finished project, undergraduate students examined the diet of harbor seals. To get this data, students assisted in collecting seal scat using an inflatable boat around Whidbey Island and Georgia Strait, Acevedo-Gutierrez said.

Western’s location ideal for geology majors

Western is also home to 185 undergraduate geology majors, geology department manager Kate Blizzard said.

These students, and anyone who takes a geology course, have access to Sehome Hill and the Mount Baker area, two great resources for research that sit in Western’s backyard.

“Some quarters here I had field trips every week,” said senior Andra Nordin, a geology major at Western.   

Inside the Environmental Studies building. // Photo by Zoe Buchli

Western’s geology department also offers undergraduate research projects.

“There’s a lot of professors here that are doing research where they could use some help, and are willing to give opportunities to undergrad students,” Nordin said.

Paul Thomas is a senior geology instructor at Western and has taught several different geology courses, including Geology 101, which gives students the opportunity to look at Sehome Hill’s geology.

“We live on an active tectonic setting that affords our students to go on field trips to view many types of rocks,” Thomas said. “We also are very lucky to have Sehome Hill in our backyard to display the Chuckanut Formation and what the environment was like approximately 50 million years ago.”

Western also hosts STEM departments that don’t have as many off-campus resources, but have smaller class sizes and give students the ability to get to know each other and have 1-on-1 interactions with their professors.

Looking at rocks on Mars and the perks of a small department

Junior Mason Starr is a physics major at Western and has enjoyed being given undergraduate research opportunities he may not have had at other state schools.

“At other, bigger schools and universities, the research positions would never go to an undergrad, they would only go to a graduate,” Starr said. “That’s a huge advantage here.”

A handful of physics professors have research projects they’re working on, and they bring on undergraduate students to help them, Starr said.

Starr works with geology and astronomy professor Melissa Rice, who has given him the chance to look at pictures taken from NASA’s Mars Rover and analyze rocks.

The physics department operates in cohorts, where students in each grade level have a group of about 20 other physics majors they work with that are in the same year, Starr said.

“Because the department is so small I know every single person in my cohort, I know all the people in the cohort above me,” Starr said.

Western’s physics department is small not due to lack of resources, but just because there aren’t as many people at Western interested in the major as there are at other schools, Starr said.

Junior Hailey Fagerness is a math major at Western, and has had a similar experience with the math department.

“When’s there’s not that many students and there’s such a great team of faculty, you get one-on-one access to them and they’re very willing to help you,” Fagerness said.

Western hosts Scholar’s Week in May, which showcases a dozens of projects STEM students have been working on.

“Scholar’s week is a great event,” Starr said. “Everyone who is doing undergrad research makes a poster on their research and presents it.”

The event showcases all the research going on on campus, and a lot of it is STEM research, Starr said.


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