Posted on Tuesday, March 20, 2018

by Anne Dunham, PR & marketing coordinator, Virginia Highlands Community College

For Kathleen Quigley and Nick Kiser, a recent Spring Break trip to the Mississippi coast provided a long list of memory-making adventures. They rose before dawn to see a family of rare red-cockaded woodpeckers in their natural habitat, used a fishing net to dip a stingray from the northern shore of Cat Island, and observed a field of carnivorous plants at Buttercup Flats.

VHCC student Kathleen Quigley

It wasn’t the relaxing spring vacation most college students look forward to, but for these two Virginia Highlands Community College science students – and their 12 classmates – the week-long trip to the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab (GCRL) is one generally reserved for those at four-year institutions. As the final project for this 3-credit course in Coastal Ecology, they will spend the rest of the semester turning their field notes into a journal that tells the story of their trip through the species they observed.

“We kept track of everything we saw,” Kathleen said. “We were going non-stop every day and literally saw hundreds of species.”

Led by Dr. Kevin Hamed, professor of biology, the honor’s course began in 2005 and now is offered only in even years. Many past participants were so inspired by the experience that they have pursued careers in marine science and related fields.

Nick Kriser and lab partner, Alex Compton

Nick, who hopes to transfer to Virginia Tech when he completes his VHCC degree, said he wants to focus on ichthyology, the science of fish, and hopes to return to GCRL in future years.

“Out of 30 (students) who applied, I feel really lucky to have been chosen for this class,” he said. “I’m a fish guy, so my favorite part of the trip was being able to go out to the Barrier Islands to fish. I’m definitely thinking of going back there for graduate school.”

Using shells and preserved fish, students spent the first half of the semester familiarizing themselves with animals that are native to the region. Once they arrived at the research facility, they used trawling nets and fishing rods to pull fresh specimens from the sea. They also hiked through De Soto National Forest, observing diverse pine forests and carnivorous plants like the pitcher plant, then turned their attention to the skies.

Both Kathleen and Nick said they were surprised at how much they enjoyed birdwatching. Dr. Hamed and faculty members Ben Casteel and Sandy Davis knew exactly when and where to wait for rare species. Thanks to them, the group was able to spot a long list of birds, including the family of woodpeckers that demanded the early start to their day, plus a Bald Eagle, American Kestrel, Shrike and two of only 135 Mississippi Sandhill Cranes still in existence.

Kathleen will graduate from VHCC in May and already has applied to Virginia Tech, The University of Virginia, and William & Mary. She is contemplating a variety of science fields and said the recent trip has given her much to consider.

And, despite the tiring schedule, she and Nick agreed that they wouldn’t trade their Spring Break adventure for a traditional trip to the beach.

“The opportunity to explore the Mississippi Coast with like-minded students and faculty members with so much expertise was really incredible,” she said. “It was exhausting at times, but also an incredible opportunity for all of us to become better friends and expand our knowledge.”'

Virginia's Community Colleges

Created more than 50 years ago, the VCCS is comprised of 23 community colleges located on 40 campuses across the commonwealth. Together, Virginia’s Community Colleges serve more than 270,000 students a year in credit and workforce courses.

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