A week in the Bahamas wasn’t all sand, surf, and fun for Dan Rust, MS ’15; Brittny Huffman, ’16, and the other students who conducted experiments to learn more about geology in the Caribbean and studied rock formations in caves occupied by bats, crabs, and cockroaches.

Led by Lee Florea, an assistant professor of geology, six students went to San Salvador Island as part of an introduction to the geology, hydrology, and coral reef ecology of tropical carbonate islands and the natural processes that affect these environments. 

“Another objective of this course was to introduce students to field evidence of global climate change,” he says. “The Island of San Salvador is very much a product of global sea-level variation driven by fluctuations in earth climate. Students saw evidence for those changes in sea level and learned how scientists use this evidence to decipher sea-level history and global environmental change.”

The students also learned how precious freshwater can be on small islands where evaporation can exceed precipitation. With sea level rise, population growth, or mismanaged tourism, these freshwater resources can falter or fail, he says.

For his part, Rust collected geophysical data to understand how the freshwater and salt water mix near the coastline during changing tides.

“My master's thesis involves studying how electricity goes through various types of rock formations, water, and other types of land,” says the former Navy officer. “Besides spending time conducting experiments, it was fun to see rock formations and landscapes that are extremely different than what we typically see here in Indiana.”

For Huffman, a resident of Bluffton, Indiana, the highlight of the trip wasn’t the beach but a cave filled with bats.

“For a small town girl, going to the Bahamas was a real experience,'” she admits. “But my first caving experience was a real eye-opener. We had to crawl on our hands and knees through the entrance, and when we got to the main area, we found a giant room that had been carved by ocean water. That is geology in action.”

While the 2014 trip to the island was the first time Florea led a small group of college students to the Caribbean, he has visited San Salvador more than a dozen times since 2000. The station the group used, the Gerace Research Centre, is managed by the College of the Bahamas and is a renovated Navy radar base from World War II. Thousands of students use the station annually for education and research opportunities.

“San Salvador has a special place in my heart and in history because it is the island most suspect where Christopher Columbus first landed,” Florea says. “To relax in warm, tropical waters at night with brilliant starlight illuminating the same white cliffs that Columbus saw from his ship in October 1492 tends to move the soul.” Florea will serve as the co-chair for the next Bahamas Geology Symposium in 2015.

Rust, who hails from Dublin, Indiana, believes he will reach his goal of working outdoors in his new field nearly every day when he completes his master’s degree.

“I spent two years on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, as a nuclear engineer, and it was the same four walls every day,” he says. “Now, after spending a week working in the Bahamas in the sunshine, I know I don’t want to go back to a box. I prefer the great outdoors, putting these types of field experiences to work.”