BY MARK SHWARTZ
Nate Oleson has loved sailing ever since he was 10 years old.
"I especially enjoyed going out on the big boats in San Francisco Bay when I was in high school," says the California native.
Now a sophomore at Stanford, Oleson hopes to turn his passion for water into a full-time career by enrolling in the university's first academic program dedicated to studying the world's oceans.
"It's really exciting," says Oleson, one of a dozen undergraduates who intend to sign up for courses in the newly created Oceans Track in the Earth Systems Program -- an interdisciplinary major that focuses on environmental science, policy and technology.
A group of students led by Professor Rob Dunbar, second from left, examines life in a tide pool at the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, near Half Moon Bay. Similar undergraduate field trips will be a part of the new Ocean Track curriculum being offered by the School of Earth Sciences starting next fall. (Photo: Mark Shwartz)
Although Stanford operates one of America's oldest marine laboratories, the university has never offered a separate degree in oceanography or marine biology.
"Since 70 percent of the Earth is ocean, there should be a great deal of interest in oceanography," observes Adina Paytan, assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences -- one of three faculty members recently hired to teach the new Oceans curriculum.
"I think it's going to be a fun program and very relevant," she adds.
The School of Earth Sciences established the Earth Systems major in 1992, offering B.S. and M.S. degrees to students interested in studying the Earth as a single system.
Until now, Earth Systems majors could focus their studies only in one of four academic tracks: Geosphere, emphasizing the Earth's geological processes; Biosphere, concentrating on ecology and ecosystems; Anthrosphere, focusing on economic and environmental policy; and Energy, examining natural resources and energy conservation.
Beginning in Autumn Quarter 2000, students will be able to earn Earth Systems degrees in a fifth specialty, the Oceans.
"This is a very new direction for Stanford," says Robert B. Dunbar, professor of geological and environmental sciences.
Dunbar, whose research focuses on global warming, notes that the oceans play a crucial role in determining the Earth's climate, which is one reason why the university decided to create an Oceans curriculum.
He points out that students enrolled in the program will get firsthand experience studying the rich and diverse ecology of California's Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Located less than an hour from the main campus, the sanctuary is home to thousands of gray whales, elephant seals, great white sharks and sea birds -- as well as countless species of algae, plankton and other marine life.
Dunbar and geophysics Assistant Professor Kevin R. Arrigo recently took a class on a day-long field trip to the sanctuary, where Oleson and other undergraduates walked among elephant seal pups and waded knee-deep in tide pools teeming with sea stars, hermit crabs, kelp and anemones.
Arrigo, who will teach a new course in biological oceanography, told students about the importance of the intertidal ecology, while Dunbar described recent biological and geological changes along California's central coast.
Meanwhile, students genuinely enjoyed getting to handle the hundreds of bizarre creatures that emerged at low tide.
"I had a blast," says Oleson. "It was great to be out there in the tide pools."
"This is the most exciting curriculum to come along in a while," says Dunbar, noting that the spring field trip was a small sample of the kind of hands-on research opportunities that Oceans Track scholars can expect in the new program.
In addition to attending classes at the main campus, students will be able to take courses from leading ocean researchers at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station near Monterey, the oldest U.S. marine laboratory on the West Coast.
Hopkins also will offer distance-learning courses via closed circuit television and interactive white boards that will allow students in Palo Alto to interact instantly with Hopkins instructors.
Students enrolled in the Oceans Track eventually will have access to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, a world-class oceanography center whose research vessels are equipped with remotely operated cameras capable of observing jellyfish and other animals that live 12,000 feet below sea level.
"There's been a lot of student interest in the program already," says Paytan, whose expertise includes paleoceanography -- the study of past oceans and climates over time scales of centuries to millions of years.
She also conducts field research in environmental chemistry, looking at how the mangrove ecosystem in Mexico contributes to the global methane gas cycle.
Paytan hopes that she will be able to bring eight to 10 students with her to Mexico some day for an undergraduate field study class.
"I think it's great," says Arrigo, who will teach "Remote Sensing of the Ocean," a new course that uses satellites and other remote technologies to interpret physical and biological changes in the sea.
Arrigo points out that two-thirds of the human population lives in coastal regions, so understanding the oceans will become increasingly important.
"I hope the university goes on and creates a Ph.D. program," he adds.
Prospective students hoping to spend most of their time sailing the high seas should think carefully, however, before enrolling in the Oceans Track.
From an academic standpoint, the Oceans curriculum is no day at the beach, as students will be required to take courses in chemistry, mathematics, physics, geological sciences, biology, economics, computer programming, statistics and, of course, oceanography.
"Our program was created to provide Stanford undergraduates with a unified, coherent and demanding curriculum on environmental subjects," says Professor Pamela Matson, director of the Earth Systems Program.
"It describes Earth as a dynamic system in which physical and biological processes link the ocean, atmosphere and solid earth together with Earth's biological components," she adds. "Critical to this systems approach is the inclusion of people, and especially their economic and political institutions." SR