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Dov Sotkowitz, Ted Lyman, and Lisa Valdez prepare for a dive in Boston Harbor
July 21, 2015

New Class Dives Deep for Scientific Research


  • Boston
UMass Boston classes are often held within view of Boston Harbor, but only one course this summer takes place in the chilly waters surrounding Columbia Point. Ted Lyman, UMass Boston’s dive safety officer and master’s student in the Biology department, is teaching the university’s first-ever course on scuba diving for research.

According to Lyman, this is a first step toward creating a scientific diving program at UMass Boston, and earning accreditation from the American Academy of Underwater Sciences to teach scientific diving to even more students.

This summer’s course, offered by the College for Advancing and Professional Studies, has three students. Students are required to complete 12 dives during the course. Some of the excursions teach students about safety, others are more focused on learning how to conduct research underwater.

All students in the course already have recreational diving experience. Lisa Valdez, who graduated in 2014, now works in a dive shop. Even with all of her previous scuba experience, she said that “having a purpose while you’re down there is new.”

Scientific diving is similar to work that scientists might undertake in a rainforest or desert, but underwater researchers must also be mindful of their air consumption, depth, time as well as the extra equipment needed for the cold New England waters; all while trying to count the flora and fauna on the ocean floor in one square meter areas.

To ensure that the students use their underwater time efficiently, Lyman devised a dry-land experiment in which the students pretended that the Integrated Sciences Complex was a dive site.

“I’d like [the students] to take away a better sense of keeping themselves safe, a better sense of the cool world underwater, and a better sense of how to quantify that world,” said Lyman.

On a sunny late June day, Lyman, Valdez, and her classmate Dov Sotkowitz, loaded up a boat at UMass Boston’s dock on Boston Harbor. Despite the warm weather dockside, the water is a chilly 66 degrees. Lyman points to his drysuit, which will keep him warm while the class dives near the Harbor Islands. All the class dives this summer will all take place in Salem Sound or Boston Harbor.

As the class winds down, students have joined ongoing data collection efforts by scientists in the biology department and School for the Environment. Students will also work with biology graduate students investigating changes in kelp and other algae on the seafloor.

For Valdez, diving is about collecting crucial data, and forming a stronger bond with the natural world. 

“You’re a lot more at home under water when you’re diving,” said Valdez. “It makes you a part of the world, rather than just an observer from above.”

Biology professor Jarrett Byrnes agreed. “This is the reef in our backyard. In Massachusetts and New England, we have a tradition of working on the water and with the ocean as an integral part of our lives. By doing underwater research, you are able to experience that ocean in a completely different way