by Sullivan Kimball

This year, Shoals Marine Laboratory is proud to have launched a new and unique class, R by the Sea. Taught by Dr. Easton White and Emily Malcolm-White of Middlebury College, it combined virtual, in class, and field work to instruct students in an advanced coding language called R and its applications to marine sciences. R is used to communicate data effectively and has many uses such as analyzing marine animal populations, mapping intertidal zones, and managing long-range data sets. 

The class started out virtually on May 30th, with students learning the nuts and bolts of the programing language from the comfort of their homes. During this time, instruction was during the morning through zoom, with group work in the afternoons. The second week started on June 5th, with the students actually coming out on to the island for an intensive week of field work. A typical morning was spent collecting data in the island’s many intertidal zones using cameras, sensors, waders, and other tools. After a morning spent in the field, afternoons and evenings were spent crunching the data collected that morning, as well as data collected over previous years. The continual aspect of the data analysis is essential to giving scientists in the Gulf of Maine long term information to draw from. 

Throughout the course, students did lab assignments in groups and individually, building on information learned from day to day. Each built up to the final project, where their hard work would pay off. Using skills learned from the lab assignments, students created a standalone research project based on a data set of their choosing. Students picked topics ranging from intertidal populations to lobster sizes. By compiling the data with R, they were able to crunch, compute, and display the data in one place.  

One of the students, Lydia Ubry of the New College of Florida, said “R studio is a really important database and way of coding that scientists can use, especially going into the 21st century where so much of what we do is online... it makes me very marketable to eventual job openings.” Another student, Amanda White of the University of New Hampshire, said “I knew that to be competitive, or just to be a good scientist going forward, R would be such an important tool to have, so I welcomed the opportunity to gather those skills that would make me a better scientist.”  

Dr. White said that R is “one of the most prevalent codes in ecology and marine sciences.” He also drew attention to the long-term implications of R language, and the program at SML. “Intertidal data goes back decades and to understand long-term changes, you have to have that long term data. That is why places like Shoals are important.” He also highlighted the importance of Shoals for fostering a sense of community while learning a difficult subject. “You are going to make mistakes and the sense of belonging makes it easier for students to fail and still ask questions going forward.” Overall, the trial run of the class went very well, and Shoals Marine Lab intends to run it again in the future.