News

January 8, 2008

A Look at Islands and Isolation

Professor David Sunderlin gives first-year students a dose of island culture

David Sunderlin, assistant professor of geology and environmental geosciences, is a self-proclaimed ‘islomaniac,’ “fascinated by the natural history of islands and all isolated situations.”

“My best travel experiences have been to islands (Coastal Carolina, Iceland, Tahiti, the Bahamas, the Lesser Antilles, Mediterranean islands, Hawaii, etc.) and one can’t help but notice the unique ‘look and feel’ of island life,” Sunderlin says.

During the fall semester, he used his life-long love affair with island geography and culture to help orient his first-year students to the college experience in the First-Year Seminar “Islands and Isolation.”

  • Discovering Geology, Ecology, and Biodiversity: The First-Year Seminar “Islands and Isolation.” By Nancy Giang ’11

Sunderlin describes the course as an interdisciplinary exploration of all different types of islands and the impact that the culture of isolation associated with islands has had on the history of the world. This involves studies of the origin and evolution of the Earth’s biodiversity, the rise and fall of isolated human cultures throughout history, and the human psychological implications of isolation.

Sunderlin’s goal was to sharpen his students’ abilities as intellectuals and researchers as well as develop in them an understanding of the phenomenon of isolation.

“[I’m] concerned with fostering intellectual curiosity and developing the skills to follow that curiosity through research and writing,” explains Sunderlin. “Most important in my mind was that students developed the ability to ask probing and interesting questions and then become proficient in answering those questions in well-structured and insightful written work.

“Isolation is an integral ingredient in many of the patterns we can observe on Earth,” he continues. “I hope the students became keen in recognizing all the various phenomena involving isolation, and not just on islands like Hawaii and Madagascar.”

Students discovered during the course that isolated island habitats exist beyond commonly associated islands surrounded by water, according to Sunderlin.

“We talked about ‘true’ islands in the classical sense first; the Galapagos, Tahiti, Bahamas, etc,” says Sunderlin. “We then branched out to consider what other unconventional ‘islands’ might be. Just a few such isolated habitats are isolated mountaintop ecosystems, forests patches among agricultural lands, and ponds and lakes. Thus, most of the first half of the course focused on the growing field of ‘Island biogeography.’ The second half of the course involved an investigation of isolation’s effect on medical conditions, languages, and cultural traditions, as well as how societal change may mirror some aspects of patterns we observe in isolated ‘natural’ populations.”

Students also received an introduction to quantitative analysis with an island biogeography computer simulation.

“[In the computer simulation,] students modeled a virtual coastline and island chain offshore to test hypotheses of immigration and extinction rates among cyber-birds dispersing to those islands,” explains Sunderlin.

Fieldwork also consumed a small portion of the class. The class took a camping trip, or ‘isolation retreat’ into the Pocono Mountains at the end of September where they “boated to actual islands in lakes to observe the ecological community in isolation and also reflected on our own feelings out there on our own,” says Sunderlin.

For Sunderlin, his research interests in Earth history and paleontology are wrapped up in his ravenous curiosity about islands and isolated life.

“My primary research is on the biogeography of forest types over the last 250 million years: what forests have looked like through time and where they occur on Earth,” he explains. “Much of my work takes place in Alaska. Even though the state is now a major projection off of North America, it is actually comprised of fragments of land that existed as individual or interconnected islands off in the Pacific Ocean and came together over time. I study the fossil record of the ancient island systems in hopes of understanding their paleoclimate and how biological evolution progressed there. So, this course is not entirely isolated from my primary research interests (pun intended).”

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