Niagara Gazette

Niagara Living

September 4, 2008

UNDER THE SEA: Back to school with flippers and goggles

As many young people head back to school this fall, Mary Akers’ students are going under the sea.

Akers, of Lockport, is the admissions director for a school on the island of Dominica in the Caribbean where students engage in ocean exploration and environmental research.

Akers, who was a co-founder of the school, now works from the landlocked environs of her Woodbury Drive home on her home computer.

The job is the evolution of a childhood dream to do ocean research.

“I’ve always loved the ocean,” she said.

She went to William and Mary College to study marine biology but was waylaid by a course in pottery, where she found her passion as an artist and began a career as a potter. Her first marriage to a Army diver led to their jobs at a West Indies school of marine biology, where she worked as a student liaison and met a marine biologist, Sascha Steiner. She and Steiner talked of some day opening a school of their own.

“We just started. This was 1998, and the Internet was already up. We just started a bit at a time. We had our first group of students in 2000.”

Steiner now runs the current school, called the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology, a non-profit teaching center located above a fishing community overlooking the ocean. Students — up to 25 per semester — stay in apartments at the facility.

“It’s like a study abroad program,” she said, noting that the students learn the history of the area and study ocean reefs and marine creatures.

An eight-week semester results in 16 college credits and a four-week semester earns five credits, Akers said.

“We work six days a week, three days in the field and three days in the classroom,” she said.

The day off gives students an opportunity to explore local culture and geography, including three 4,000-foot mountains in the middle of the rain forests, as well as volcanos and a boiling lake.

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