Morgan Bennett-Smith, ‘13, is a junior at Occidental College, where he is studying biology with a concentration in marine science. He is also a striker for the soccer team.

Q: What kind of work are you doing?

A: I work in the marine biology lab, which is an independent research lab tied to Occidental. I have been there 5-10 hours a week for the last four semesters.

Next semester I will start scuba diving with the lab. I am also a TA for the class Marine Biology 105.

This tank system in Sacramento is one of Bennett-Smith's many. He controls it remotely through a cloud-based controller he accesses on his phone. He was asked to consult with a coral researcher he worked with over the summer on a large coral tank set-up of more than 600 gallons at the University of Puerto Rico. Bennett-Smith has even been asked to possibly come to Puerto Rico to help set up a system similar to this one he set up in Sacramento.

(Photo used by permission of Bennett-Smith)
This tank system in Sacramento is one of Morgan Bennett-Smith’s many. He controls it remotely through a cloud-based controller he accesses on his phone. He was asked to consult with a coral researcher he worked with over the summer on a large coral tank set-up of more than 600 gallons at the University of Puerto Rico. Bennett-Smith has even been asked to possibly come to Puerto Rico to help set up a system similar to this one he set up in Sacramento.

Q: I heard you set up a tank system in your dorm. What’s in them?

A: I have a reef tank in my room with sea stars, coral and fish, and I’m about to get an angler fish.

My tank is technically not allowed in the dorms because it’s too big. It’s actually two tanks connected with a pump, and wherever I go I usually have a tank. I have several at home in Sacramento, and I’ve had one at school since freshman year.

Gary Martin, who is a biology professor and has a lab in the biology department, asked me to be in charge of all the saltwater tanks in the biology department next semester. That means I’ll be the head aquarist, which will be a lot of fun. And they’ll also pay me.

Q: What were you doing over the summer?

A: The National Science Foundation has a program called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), which funds eight to 10 students per institution to conduct 12 weeks of paid research.

There are REU sites all over the country at large research institutions. I applied to the REU program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.)

I’m actually surprised they accepted me; there were around 500 applications.

At Woods Hole Oceanographic, I studied ocean acidification and calcification in marine bivalves. It was really cool, and I’m continuing that work here.

I will hopefully be going back to Woods Hole next summer as a guest undergraduate in a lab working on bioacoustics research on reefs in the British Virgin Islands.

Bennett-Smith scuba dives off Catalina Island.

(Photo used by permission of Bennett-Smith)
Morgan Bennett-Smith scuba dives off Catalina Island.

Q: What is the process of getting certified to go scuba diving like?

A: To scuba dive in a research lab, you first have to be certified recreationally through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), then advanced open water certified through PADI, and then certified through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS).

The PADI certifications are two-week courses with some classroom learning and then ocean dives. The first PADI course is a basics course, and the advanced one has things like night diving, underwater navigation and deep diving.

The AAUS course is much, much more involved. It’s over winter break with a ton of diving and testing.

I’ve finished the two PADI courses, and I’m planning on finishing the AAUS course in January.

Q: I heard you were pulled over by the Coast Guard in Massachusetts. What happened?

A: I fixed up a small boat and its motor as a project for someone else in the lab and me. It was roughly a 30-year-old motor, and we fixed it, and I took it out fishing in the ocean.

It was in a stretch called Woods Hole Passage, and there was a pretty big current and the motor died, so I had to row back to shore. It took me an hour and a half, and during that time the Coast Guard was told that there was someone alone in a rowboat.  

They found me, but I didn’t have a life jacket on the boat, and there were just a lot of problems. I was practically already at the shore, so I didn’t get a ticket.

But it would have been more useful if they had found me earlier because that would have saved me a lot of rowing!

Q: Are you really busy this year?

A: Right now, I have an insane amount of stuff going on. I’m taking three lab sciences: organic chemistry, genetics and evolutionary biology, which are pretty hard, and calculus, which I hate.

With a lab course I have a lecture portion and a lab session, so it’s like two classes.

On top of that I’m doing independent research in the marine biology lab, and I’m a marine biology TA, which takes around eight hours a week. And soccer is 25-30 hours of commitment a week. So time management is really important.

Q: How is soccer going?

A: Soccer is going really well. We tied for first place (in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference), and I’m leading the team in goals.

I love soccer, and our home games get a ton of people. It’s a blast to play in front of 500-600 fans.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

A: I’m planning on getting a Ph.D. and studying biological oceanography.

My current favorite choice for a graduate school is the MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute joint program.

—By Allison Zhang

Bennett-Smith stands in front of his Research Symposium poster. His project focused on measuring larval bivalve growth in various chemically-manipulated seawater treatments.

(Photo used by permission of Bennett-Smith)
Morgan Bennett-Smith stands in front of his Research Symposium poster. His project focused on measuring larval bivalve growth in various chemically manipulated seawater treatments.

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