Nature’s Biology: Swarthmore and the World

“I cannot think of a single field in biology or medicine in which we can claim genuine understanding, and it seems to me the more we learn about living creatures, especially ourselves, the stranger life becomes.”

Lewis Thomas

What truly binds me to Swarthmore as a student is biology. When I walk between classes, I can often feel stressed or anxious about anything and everything going on in my day, week, month, or year. This feeling subsides the longer I spend time outside. There are many studies that have touched on the topic of how the outdoors can improve the human psyche, but personally, what really gives me those “nature endorphins” is the biological, non-human life that surrounds me on those walks.

As an aspiring biology major at Swarthmore, I am constantly learning about the natural world around me and about myself as an organism. I’ve worked on gardening to understand how plants grow (with the Good Food Garden club), I’ve studied animals and their reproductive cycles to learn about anatomy (in my Bio 2 lab), and of course I’ve looked into myself during the many quiet moments I have had at my favorite study spots in Pearson or Singer Hall. These things that extend beyond the classroom, with its often inanimate slideshows and textbooks, are what really tie me into my interest in all the incredible living things that pervade this planet.

The space in my brain that is interested in biology is just that: a space. Sure, it’s got some knowledge floating around in it, but overall, it is still really empty. That’s because biology is a field that can never be fully completed or understood. Every discovery in this field expands it further, rather than closing the gap between biologists and an imaginary “finish line”. I learn about photosynthesis, and suddenly I look at plants in a different way, picturing the pigments that make them green and the photosystems that turn sunlight into energy. I learn about the larger picture of evolution, and now I can theorize about past events that could have turned one long-gone ancestral species into the one in front of me. I even learn about myself when I study ecology and see the impact my species has on this planet and all the organisms I hold dear (don’t worry, that includes my family).

While all of these discoveries allow me to experience the beautiful arboretum campus at Swarthmore in new ways, in reality, what newfound biological knowledge really does is give me more questions. Maybe those questions are more specific, more pointed towards a specific goal of discovery, but they are still questions that simply expand the ever-hungry space in my mind. Fortunately, as I continue wading through the diverse swampland of biology, I have figured out what specifically the questions I have are leading me to: marine biology. The oceans of Earth are a prime example of the tendency of biology to expand with new discoveries, as more than 80% of our oceans are still unexplored and unmapped.

Swarthmore College gives me hope that I can make my way to earn a professional degree and help with the global search through our oceans. A program the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) runs every summer is EV Nautilus. This group of incredible marine biologists make their way out into the middle of the ocean (Atlantic, Pacific, take your pick) and send down an “ROV craft” that films its view thousands of feet (hundreds of meters) underwater. These scientists collect samples from the seafloor for study, but their main job is to just watch the ROV POV (I thought that sounded nice) from their boat on the surface and comment on the things they find. And WOW, do they find things!

I encourage you to view these amazing photos of NOAA EV Nautilus 2023 expedition findings.

The EV Nautilus program has discovered multiple new species, mapped many uncharted parts of our oceans, and even reached learners like me in places like Swarthmore. The Ocean Exploration Trust, which funds this group and many others in the expedition branch of the NOAA, has broadcasted over 6,000 livestreams to almost 700,000 learners in classrooms and science centers (think Singer Hall) across the world. One of my goals as a Swarthmore student that was largely influenced by the campus I have described is to reach out for an internship with The Ocean Exploration Trust, as it has connected with over 150 colleges and universities, and I hope to see Swarthmore become one of them!

As a final thought, I wanted to reflect on why I set my sights so directly on the NOAA. When searching for active marine exploration projects online, I found that the NOAA matched with the Quaker beliefs that founded Swarthmore, one of which is that all of our lights shine equally, and so in all academic fields, and especially in the natural sciences (where women and minorities have been historically underrepresented), we, as a society of organisms, need to work in equality to best succeed in expanding that void of knowledge we strive for. The NOAA has made huge progress in this regard, having awarded 70% of their opportunities to female-identifying scientists and taking 45% of their interns from minority groups within STEM.

If you got this far, thank you for taking the time to read my marine biology ramblings, and I hope if you ever decide to visit Swarthmore, you’ll be able to appreciate the beautiful arboretum campus here in a unique way through the lens of whatever subject you feel as passionate about as I do with biology, and look for new opportunities to guide your journey through college!