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Off the grid: Biology major studies ecology on remote island

Madelina Marquez stands next to her research poster from her time on Beaver Island in Michigan.

It was midnight. Above, the moon was so full it looked like it could fill the whole sky. Below, shadows danced across the crystal-clear water as Madelina Marquez swam out from the small island.

The mental picture is seared into Madelina’s memory. It’s just one in a summer full of incredible experiences for the York College of Pennsylvania student during her internship studying water quality and fish abundances on Beaver Island in Michigan.

She was one of eight students accepted to the Research Experience for Undergraduates Program funded by the National Science Foundation. It was her first internship and, as a commuter student, her first time being away from home for an extended period of time. “It was honestly a transformative experience,” Madelina says.

Now, she’s in her junior year studying Biology at York College with a new outlook on herself – and her future.

Off the grid

Madelina didn’t want to spend her summer cooped up. So, when her academic advisor recommended that she apply for internships, she looked for the coolest outdoorsy ones she could find. That’s how she ended up a two-hour ferry ride away from the mainland of Michigan on a 13-by-6-mile island.

She and her fellow researchers lived in cabins and spent their days collecting samples, doing lab work, and exploring the incredible beauty of the island. Cell service on the island was spotty at best. Madelina found herself leaving her phone at home — a first in the eight years she’s owned a phone.

“I painted, I was writing,” she says, a few days after the end of her internship. “All these things I never would have done if I was here because I’d have my phone or tv to distract me.”

She’d go days without looking at her phone. She lost all her snapchat streaks and didn’t care. She read books. She went kayaking and hiking. She felt free. “It was more basic, simple living,” she says. “Just to truly be in the moment it was amazing.”

Applying academics to the real world

Doing research and lab work out in the field is just a different experience than you can get in a classroom. “We had to do every single step of it ourselves and understand why we were doing it,” Madelina says.

She’d spend her mornings working with her peers to collect data, then they’d analyze that data themselves. When there was a problem, they had to be the ones to solve it.

Her classes at York College had prepared her for the experience. Even though she was a year younger than most of her peers on the island, she was more comfortable than many of them doing hands-on lab work and understanding research papers.

Now, she’s back to school with a new confidence in her abilities. She’s more certain of the path she wants to take after undergrad, and more excited to continue to study ecology and conservation at York College. “This is the field I definitely want to be in,” she says.

Learning more than field work

Madelina didn’t just learn about water quality and research methods on the island. “You can’t run away from yourself on the island,” she says. “You’re stuck with yourself. You learn a lot about yourself.”

She made friends with her co-workers. They played cards and sat around having genuine conversations. She also learned how to work with some people she didn’t get along with so well.

When it was over, it felt like the time had passed too fast. But, she’s got rolls of mental pictures to remind her of her time on the island.

Now, she’s looking forward to her next internship — and her next adventure.