Island Time: Student Spotlight with Delaney Lawson

Last quarter we caught up with Delaney Lawson who was down on South Caicos as part of a study abroad experience with the School for Field Studies (SFS). Delaney is currently a sophomore at the University of Washington double majoring in Marine Biology and Aquatic and Fishery Sciences while also minoring in Comparative Religion.

Delaney holding the biggest queen conch collected and measured during a Field Experiment (FEX). Courtesy of Delaney Lawson

Can you talk a little bit about where you are now and what you’re doing?

I am currently studying abroad through a program with the School for Field Studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We’re located on a small island called South Caicos and the community is really small, but everybody is really close. We live in a center with 27 students and around 12 staff members so everybody gets to know each other really well. It’s a three-month program and we are taking three different classes: environmental policy, resource management, and tropical marine ecology. We also have a directed research project at the end of the semester; we’re just starting that now and we’re finishing up all of our final exams. 

It’s been really amazing here because twice a week we have waterfront and community outreach days. We’ll go on either a scuba dive or a snorkel in the morning, and then we will go into the community. So on Saturdays, all the kids from the community will come into the center and we’ll have swim lessons for them or play some games, have a little science, take them snorkeling, fun things like that. I actually got advanced certified here so I’ve been able to go on a couple 100 feet dives, which has been amazing and really beautiful. The water is ridiculously clear here. It’s so different from Pacific northwest diving. 

On Wednesdays, we’re able to go out into classrooms and schools around the island to teach. I’ve been going to teach violin and viola lessons to high schoolers and teaching science to fifth and sixth graders. So that’s been pretty amazing. I love it here. It’s such an experience and it’s really different from the big campus in UW. It’s been really cool to get that small class vibe and get close to everybody.

The students and staff showing off their tie-dye creations on Tie-Dye Friday. Courtesy of Delaney Lawson

Is science communication something you’ve always been interested in or is this something new that you’ve been exploring down in South Caicos?

I’ve always been interested in it, which is why I’m actually studying comparative religion as well. I have always felt that it’s really important to include all aspects of society in the fight of climate change and the science field in general. I think studying religion will also allow me to communicate with all sides of society, including the religious side, which often gets overlooked in scientific decision-making. But this has been my true first experience in scientific communication with the kiddos, and I have been loving it. I’ve also gone to two churches on the island too, and it was really awesome to try and make those connections.

What has the research experience been like so far?

What’s really cool about the research here is that it’s called directed research and you’re basically assigned a topic. They have six choices of what to research and then we’re all split into groups based on our rankings of the subjects. We’re given a lot of freedom in determining how we’re going to run the experiments, what we’re going to study, and what questions we’re going to answer. It has been amazing because I did participate in research in my freshman year at the University of Washington, but I was obviously working under Ph.D. students, and here you’re really running your own experiments with your group which is really, really cool.

Delaney participating in a weekly Saturday SCUBA Dive. Courtesy of Delaney Lawson

What is your group’s research topic?

My group is focusing on the queen conch because it’s one of the main fisheries on the island. There’s this hypothesis that queen conch will move away from middens, which are piles of queen conch created by shells that have been knocked by fishermen [the process of removing the animal from the shell]. Imagine little piles of shells in the water. Fishermen on the island believe that queen conch will actually move away from those middens and we’re trying to test that out. To do this we have three different treatments. We have a one with just a cinder block and a buoy as our control; we have a pile, or a midden, created of freshly knocked conch shells; and then a midden of bleached conch shells, which are knocked shells that have been sitting out in the sun for a while and have lost color and scent. We’re trying to determine if there’s any difference between those treatments and we’re doing this at four different sites. Basically, our group is going out and diving at those sites, counting and tagging these conch, and monitoring the differences. We are also running a short-term experiment, which I’m more focused on, and we are trying to determine whether or not the juvenile and adult queen conch will move away from the meat of a queen conch and a knocked shell over a shorter period of time.

Delaney collecting Queen Conch during a Field Experiment (FEX) to determine the health of the species in the Marine Protected Area in front of the program center. Courtesy of Delaney Lawson

How did you first learn about this opportunity, and as a student, what steps did you have to take to study abroad?

I believe I first heard about it through the UW study abroad website because SFS is an affiliate program. Then I just did more research and read about the research that we’re going to be able to do. It’s a lot of field-based learning, which is what I was looking for while studying abroad, and I was fascinated by it. So I applied and got accepted, and the rest was pretty easy. The only struggle was trying to find classes that directly applied so I can get credit for classes.

A bottlenose playfully investigates the class
A hammerhead shark swims by the class during a dive

What advice would you have for a student who would also like to do a study abroad experience?

I think the most important part is just doing the research and making sure that you go to a place you’d be happy in because I know that I have a lot of friends that would struggle to live in such close quarters with 27 people that you’ve never met. We also are only allowed to take one freshwater shower a week, so you shower in saltwater–that’s been something to get used to. It’s totally fine for me, but I know there are some people that it would be a little bit harder of an adjustment. My biggest advice would be to contact someone that’s been in the program before and get all the ins and outs and try to determine whether or not you’d be happy in that place. If you find that place is going to be an amazing experience, I would definitely suggest doing it.

Trouble in Paradise? 

“I got a small cut on my leg and it turned into a pretty bad infection. There’s only a clinic on the island, so I had to be–or I was–flown into Provo [Providenciales], which is the main island, to go to the hospital and get IVs and treatment. So it was a little struggle, a little hiccup. It was made easy by the staff here. If anybody’s trying to go on this program, I would tell them not to worry because the staff is going to take care of you. I’ve been out of the water for a few weeks now, but it’s healing very well and everything worked out!”


To learn more about the Turks and Caicos marine programs with the School for Field Studies visit: https://fieldstudies.org/centers/tci/