At OIMB, students get immersed in the life aquatic

Coastal facilities offer unique learning experience

CHARLESTON — The UO's Oregon Institute of Marine Biology is 120 miles from Eugene — and worlds away from the university's main campus.

The 130-acre spread is in the small fishing village of Charleston, across Boat Basin Road from a seafood-processing plant and backed up against a forested hillside. Cape Cod-style buildings with graying cedar shake siding give the spot a rustic coastal charm.

"I love being out here," said Maya Wolf, a doctoral student. "It's kind of like being at camp. You get completely immersed."

Unlike the bustling Eugene campus, where students can find endless varieties of ethnic food, numerous nightlife choices and the spectacle of Pac-10 athletics in a vibrant college town, there's not much to do in Charleston — except study. And that's part of its allure, students say.

"It is secluded, but we have a nice community here," said Stephanie Schroeder, while taking a break from writing her dissertation based on five years of research into the behavior of the aquatic snails known as limpets. "For grad school, I don't want a lot of distractions."

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OIMB offers the only undergraduate degree in marine biology in the Pacific Northwest. About 160 students have enrolled in the undergraduate program since it began five years ago, said Craig Young, OIMB's director. Students spend the first two years studying in Eugene, then spend at least three terms living and studying on the Charleston campus.

"It has the same level of rigor as a UO biology degree," Young said.

About 20 undergraduates are on campus in fall and spring terms, and 70 to 80 during summer term. In addition, about 15 students are enrolled in OIMB's graduate programs. 

Classes meet all day long, giving students the opportunity to immerse themselves in a subject matter. Fresh seawater is pumped into the labs, where students study sea life. And students take frequent field trips, including boat trips out into Coos Bay and the Pacific Ocean aboard the Pluteus, a 44-foot research vessel.  

University researchers first started coming to the southern Oregon Coast in the 1920s. Two professors, Oscar Richards and Jerry Prescott, camped at Big Creek on nearby Sunset Bay, and collected 84 species of marine animals — enough to justify adding a course in marine biology to the university curriculum.

But the remote campus, and the rainy, dark Northwest skies can make OIMB a tough place for some students.

"I don't like the weather," said Holly Keammerer, who grew up in sunny Colorado and got her undergraduate degree from Pomona College in Southern California. "It's kind of a shock to have it be cloudy or rainy eight or nine months out of the year."

Young notes that the weather on the coast is not much different than in Eugene — about the same number of rainy days, but less snow, more sunny days in winter and more morning fog in summer. And other students say they love the scenic beauty and opportunities for hiking, kayaking and other outdoor pursuits along the Oregon coast.

Myndee McNeill, a master's student, grew up in Utah and spent family vacations on the Oregon Coast.

"My Dad said, 'You get to go to the University of Disneyland,' " she said.
 
— Contact UO Web reporter Tim Christie at timc@uoregon.edu