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- by  Marty Fugate

Gerardo Toro-Farmer, Ph.D., is an oceanographer and assistant professor of coastal and marine sciences at New College of Florida. His classes are always interesting, but many of his most fascinating lessons take place in the great outdoors.

This real-world education unfolds along the northern stretch of Sarasota Bay, near and on the College’s campus.

Every summer since 2018, Toro-Farmer has directed a group of New College interns in an ongoing study of the health of the bay’s seagrass. In the process, the students have learned to think and act like scientists.

That may sound glamorous. In practice, it boils down to collecting and analyzing data—with no room for sloppiness or guesswork. It’s a painstaking methodology that demands patience and persistence. It’s hard work, and it’s not for everybody. But Toro-Farmer’s students love it.

He worked with four interns over the summer. He had taught them scientific theory in his classroom. Out in the field, they actually did the work of science. What was that like?

Isabella Chandler ’19 is planning a future as a marine biologist; her summer internship gave her a taste of that future. She described it as “captivating and compelling.”

“I really enjoy doing the work,” Chandler said. “I feel more engrossed in what I’m doing when I understand the real-world applications.”

Toro-Farmer said that his interns’ field training approaches the rigor of graduate school. It also paints a clear picture of a scientist’s professional life.

“Undergraduate institutions typically don’t engage their students in this kind of field work,” Toro-Farmer said. “Why wait until graduate school to get real? We really take our interns to that level with this project. They also get a clear idea of what it’s like to be a marine biologist. They may decide, ‘I love the sea, but I’ll express that in my work as an artist or as a political advocate.’”

Learning by doing has been around since educator John Dewey. It’s a powerful method. But Toro-Farmer takes it to another level.

His interns learn by doing something that matters. They know that the work they do will inform the public and political decision makers. It will also guide marine biologists and other scientists throughout the region.

Maria Guardado ’17 is a marine biology and philosophy student. She has interned with the seagrass project for a couple of summers. As she describes it, her fieldwork literally brings Toro-Farmer’s classroom lessons home.

“For me, it’s like working in my own backyard,” she said. “I know these are real issues that affect my life and the lives of my family and friends. It’s totally applicable.”

The seagrass study has real scientific value beyond its educational function. Seagrass is a habitat, a food source and a photosynthesizing plant-producing oxygen. It’s an integral part of the bay and estuarine ecosystems. Want to know if those systems are healthy? Seagrass health will tell you.

“We’ll share the data we gather on seafloor life with local and regional institutions, such as the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. Our work will nicely integrate with other monitoring efforts by Mote Marine and other organizations,” Toro-Farmer said. “We’ll also make the data available to everyone through online warehouses, including the Water Atlas Program.”

New College’s seagrass study (officially called “Time-Series Monitoring of Water Quality around the Seagrass Beds of Sarasota Bay”) captures the pulse of the bay. The study also comes at a critical time. Sarasota Bay is still recovering from the catastrophic harmful agal bloom of 2018. There is still increased sedimentation and salinity in the water. Common sense would tell us that this would impact the seagrass, yet it’s still thriving.

“Doing this fieldwork, you learn to adapt to unexpected things like equipment malfunctions. You also learn that nature doesn’t always react the way you’d expect,” Guardado said. “You think that the data will confirm your preconceptions, but the data doesn’t always cooperate.”

Toro-Farmer agrees.

“Sarasota Bay is a dynamic system. It’s constantly changing, and that’s why it’s so important to monitor it in real time,” he said. “We can’t really tell you the story of seagrass because the story never ends. But we can provide a snapshot of seafloor health at a moment in time. It’s the story of seagrass…so far.”

He added that the story isn’t a grand narrative; it’s a rigorous data set based on objective measurements.

“We don’t want to guess and assume,” he said. “Our goal is always to know.”

This knowledge makes the seagrass project locally relevant. Global issues like climate change and rising sea levels are on Toro-Farmer’s mind. He knows that Sarasota Bay is part of a far greater world and that it can’t escape from changes affecting the entire planet.

Toro-Farmer is also researching the local impacts of those global changes. His interns will be right by his side on this project as well.

“We’re going to be looking at mangroves, seagrasses and coastal ecosystems. In collaboration with other New College faculty and other regional groups, we’ll also investigate the impact on historic buildings and the sites of indigenous communities from thousands of years ago,” Toro-Farmer said. “What we’re doing is really a combination of archaeology, marine biology, geographic information systems and climate change. It’s a very ambitious project, and now is the time to do it. The natural world is rapidly changing. We need to understand those changes, and change our own behavior as well.”

Marty Fugate is a contributing writer for the Office of Communications & Marketing.