Mike Desjardins '14
Schools of fish eyeballed Mike Desjardins, his scuba gear giving him away as not being from around there. Even at 85 feet below the surface, the water was still warm and he could still see a good 100 feet in front of him. He swam slow and for a moment watched the fish and other creatures pass by him.
"Everything down there is beautiful," Desjardins says of the independent study project he did for the Geography Department in the Turks and Caicos Islands. "It's a whole other world. The visibility is close to perfect in some areas. The colors you'd have to see in person – purple, reds, oranges. You see it on TV, but you can't understand the beauty and just how amazing everything is until you see it in person. It's just so amazing."
Desjardins hit on the idea for an independent study while he was taking Biology Professor Karen Cangialosi's Tropical Marine Biology class, which includes a trip to the Turks & Caicos. After he returned from the trip, Dr. Cangialosi helped him develop his interdisciplinary project and invited him to return to the Turks & Caicos as the only student on an annual reef-monitoring excursion she and Associate Prof of Biology Scott Strong conduct in September, where he learned more about the reef and interviewed some of Dr. Cangialosi's contacts and associates on the island.
Encouraged by faculty in both the Geography and Biology departments, Desjardins went for and won one of only six undergraduate research grants awarded in 2013 to chart change in the coral reef, and presented his work at the Academic Excellence Conference. The grant allowed him to apply GIS to a coral reef environment; specifically a small patch reef called Coral Gardens off the coast of the Turks and Caicos. After taking a Geographic Information Systems class, Desjardins figured out that this technology – basically computer assisted mapping – could help get raw data of what's happening to the reef now, then compare it with maps created five years ago to see how the reef is changing.
Dr. Cangialosi provided him with five years of substrate and marine-life data for Coral Gardens, which he entered into Arc GIS software to observe the spatial distribution of changes over time. The research is part of a much larger project through Reef Check, an organization dedicated to the global effort of monitoring and conserving coral reef ecosystems.
"They've only had Excel files, pie charts, and bar graphs with raw data," Desjardins said. "Being able to see maps of reefs makes it easier for the average person to look at them and see what's going on and understand it more."
Desjardins said he's always been good at locating things on a map and was passionate about traveling, which is what ultimately drew him to study Geography.
"I took Intro to Geography fell in love," he explained. "It's interdisciplinary. You can go into many different fields with it. You're not just a geographer when you graduate. You can go into the urban planning field; you can go into GIS work for the government. In my case, I'm going to grad school for marine sciences."
"Undergraduate research at this school is not as competitive as it should be and we're trying to push for that, because the school has the faculty and resources to push for that point," he says. "They definitely pushed me when I didn't realize I had the skills to do so. They gave me confidence. They love when students come to them and they just push you to do things you never thought possible."
"I know for a fact, this research has helped me stand out," Desjardins says. "Coursework isn't enough. You have to grab the opportunities. They're available. Do that and you'll definitely stand out."
Desjardins graduates in 2014 and plans to apply to graduate school and then pursue a PhD. He says he hopes to have a career that involves the monitoring and conservation of marine ecosystems through the application of GIS.