Saint Leo Students Pursuing Bachelors Degree in Biology Dive into Science with Hands-On Field Work

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Marine biology class students kayak, snorkel and camp their way through Florida.

This summer, Saint Leo University students pursuing a degree in biology will dive to new learning depths. A nine-week intensive class introducing students to marine biology fieldwork will take learning out of the classroom and into the mangrove swamps, salt marshes and oyster reefs surrounding the Florida university's liberal arts campus.

With its central Florida location providing quick access to nearby waterways and beaches, Saint Leo University is ideally situated for field research in natural outdoor settings.

Now in its second year, this summer's "Field Problems in Marine Biology" class alternates between the field and the classroom, with students conducting research in a variety of natural habitats and then coming together in the classroom for reflection and analysis. To expand their knowledge of major marine environments, students will kayak, snorkel and camp in several locations, including Tampa Bay, Sapelo Island, Rookery Bay and the Florida Keys.

“We want to make the field the students’ sole focus,” says Dr. William Ellis, associate professor of biology, who teaches the innovative class. “Throughout the nine weeks, students eat, sleep and breathe biology.”

Capped at eight students to encourage student-professor interaction and small-group discussion, the course is open to students pursuing their bachelors in biology, as well as students from other disciplines, with instructor permission.

Close Encounters of the Marine Kind
Saint Leo's popular marine biology course has been called “the toughest class you’ll ever love” for offering students challenging, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

In the previous class, student work has included a link between the abundance of a marsh periwinkle and the height of cordgrass in a southeastern salt marsh, as well as research about flow rates in a mangrove system affecting settlement by crab larvae. While eating dinner together each night, students present their work to the group.

The course is filled with unexpected, up-close encounters with wildlife. Students photograph birds for a field guide. They catch their own lobster for dinner. They snorkel in the Florida Keys, and spy underwater fireworks created by crabs bumping into plankton. Students have even welcomed surprise visitors within a few feet of their campsite—green sea turtles, which are among the largest sea turtles in the world at up to 700 pounds.

More Marine Biology Opportunities at Saint Leo University
Working hand-in-hand with biology professors, Saint Leo students can conduct their own research in directed, independent studies and submit their findings for publication. Currently, Dr. Ellis is helping a student publish the first study of its kind that quantifies the structural complexity of oyster reefs using CT scanning.

In addition to this summer's “Field Problems in Marine Biology” Saint Leo’s biology department also offers an oceanography class.

With a distinctive combination of hands-on learning and faculty mentorship, Saint Leo students who have received their degree in biology have found internships and careers with a variety of competitive organizations, including Harvard Forest, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the University of Wisconsin, University of South Florida and Southwest Florida Water Management District.

About Saint Leo University
Saint Leo ranks as one of the top universities in the South, according to U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” list. Saint Leo’s traditional liberal arts campus, located 30 miles north of Tampa, educates nearly 2,000 students. Total enrollment across its campus, regional education centers, and online programs exceeds 15,000. Among the oldest Catholic universities in Florida, Saint Leo is one of the nation's 10 leading providers of higher education to the U.S. military, and is a nationally recognized leader in online education.

To learn more about Saint Leo’s bachelors in biology degree, visit


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Jo-Ann Johnston
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