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Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences

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A Passion for Marine Science

Environmental Science major Fiona Mulhern ’21 got the opportunity to study marine biology as a research assistant funded by the REAL program.

Environmental Science major Fiona Mulhern ’21 got the opportunity to study marine biology as a research assistant funded by the REAL program.

by Sarah Stoddard ’23

At Santa Clara University, a marine biology major, unfortunately, doesn’t exist. This can be a sad fact for those who have a passion for marine science like Fiona Mulhern ’21 (Environmental Science). But, with the help of the REAL program, Fiona was given the unique opportunity to participate in a rocky intertidal field research project through an internship as a research assistant to SCU’s Dawn Hart (Biology). “I love the ocean more than anything,” she says. “I have a huge passion for the conservation of marine ecosystems and organisms, and my REAL internship allowed me to continue to learn about marine science.”

Fiona assisted Hart with her research project through both remote and in-person fieldwork. She was one of the few REAL students who was able to work in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  “My internship was a research assistant position studying species interactions and community-wide consequences of sea star wasting disease in the intertidal zone of California,” Fiona explains. On an average day, she would complete tasks such as entering data into spreadsheets, compiling data from prior years, creating graphs of species abundance over time, and researching relevant literature. On days where in-person work was possible, Fiona and Hart worked together at various field sites along the central California coastline. “We wore face masks and hiked out to the tide pools where her study spots were. We would then measure aspects of community structure such as California mussel (Mytilus californianus) abundance and sea star counts. In addition, we collected data on the prevalence of sea star wasting disease within the Ochre sea star population (Pisaster ochraceus) by monitoring them for signs of the disease,” Fiona says.

Although Fiona has few opportunities to study marine biology at SCU, her Environmental Science major has provided her with valuable skills and knowledge that have contributed to her research which began over the summer and will continue until she graduates this spring. “Majoring in Environmental Science has also influenced the way I see the world, and this research will contribute to data that can be used to address the consequences of human-caused climate change,” she says, explaining the connection between environmental and marine science. The work she did made an impact in both fields. Diseases like sea star wasting disease will only become more common and detrimental with the increasing effects of climate change. “Ocean conservation is critical to moving towards solving the negative impacts of climate change,” Fiona explains. “Our Earth is quickly becoming warmer than our climate system can handle, and investigating how ocean organisms are responding to this warming is pertinent to saving these ecosystems.”

This experience has confirmed the career path Fiona plans to pursue after she graduates. “My REAL internship this year has only strengthened my goal of following my passion for marine science,” she says. To others who are interested in the same field, she says to “do everything you can to pursue that passion! Even though Santa Clara doesn’t have a marine biology major, we are so close to the coast, and there are so many opportunities to get involved in marine research.” If you’re seeking out an opportunity in any interest, no matter how common or rare, the REAL program will work with you and help you gain experience in a field you’re passionate about.


About the REAL Program

The REAL Program provides paid experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences. Developed to allow students to discover their interests, gain a rich understanding of a particular field, discern their career goals, and explore future employment fields, the program has distributed nearly $1.7 million to more than 300 students across all majors since its inception in 2018. Placements range from non-profit and community service organizations to research labs, governmental organizations, and beyond.

REAL, student story, Class of 2021