Devil Fish

A CEM Semester at the Duke Marine Lab: What was it like?
by Emma Kelley -- December 5th, 2014

We no longer have perfect beach weather here in Beaufort, which is probably for the best, given we’re in the swirling storm of final exams. That said, it’s still not too cold that I haven’t found myself strolling along the waterfront before heading to campus.

Beach at Fort Macon

The beach at Fort Macon, a 15-minute drive from home. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

Around this time, I know prospective graduate students are thinking about their options for next fall and first-year CEMs might be thinking about spending next year in Beaufort.  This blog post is all about studying and living in Beaufort, a view from the inside after my fall semester as a second-year CEM student at the Duke University Marine Lab.

The Duke University Marine Laboratory

Duke University Marine Lab. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

First topic: classes. Last spring in Durham, I grossly overloaded my schedule and learned, the hard way, that it’s better to take on a smaller number of courses and get more out of each one. At Duke, it’s very, VERY tempting to try and take all the incredible classes offered to get every last bit out of this education, but you’re much better off taking a number of credits you can actually handle.


A plover at Fort Macon. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

That said, I’ve taken four classes this semester. Choosing which four to take was painful, but I finally settled on Political Ecology with Lisa Campbell; Marine Policy with Luke Fairbanks; Advanced Geospatial Analysis with John Fay; and Topics in Marine Community Ecology with Brian Silliman. Marine Policy is the capstone course required for all CEMs.  Advanced Geospatial Analysis is the last required course for the Geospatial Analysis Certificate. Last fall, after learning about all the different certificate programs offered in conjunction with the MEM program, I decided to get the Geospatial Analysis Certificate, which matched best with my career goals.  For those first-years who are almost literally drowning under the course-load of the first two geospatial analysis courses: Don’t worry, the workload of the Advanced Geospatial Analysis course is much more manageable. Rather than spending all my nights in the computer lab (really, I just might have spent more time in that lab than in my apartment last year), I spend between three and six hours working on a lab every two weeks this. After last year’s geospatial analysis courses, this is a piece of cake.

When I first signed up for Political Ecology, I really had no idea what political ecology even was. I had heard good things about the class and amazing things about the professor, so I signed up. It was one of the best decisions of my academic career. Political ecology has given me a new perspective on my work in conservation, specifically with marine protected areas. I can confidently say this course will influence the management decisions I make in my not-so-far-off professional career. Lisa is a wonderful instructor who will push you and give you constructive individual feedback that helps you gain more from the class.  Just take it.

The final course I took, Topics in Marine Community Ecology, is a small discussion course working through a textbook co-authored by my MP advisor, Brian Silliman. Each week we read two chapters of the textbook, and then meet for roughly an hour and a half to discuss the key important ideas. For someone who took many ecology courses as an undergraduate student, this course was a great refresher and an opportunity to chat about ideas in ecology.  In addition to these courses, I also took half of my MP credits.  Add on a work study job in addition to this blogging job, and I had a delightfully busy schedule.

View from Repass

The view from the porch of Repass. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

Next, I want to write a bit about the Marine Lab in general. To start, it’s very different from the Durham campus.  In Durham, I had to walk, take a bus, and walk again to get from my apartment to the LSRC.  Depending on the bus schedule, it could take anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes or more to get to campus.  Feel like driving to campus on rainy mornings?  No chance.  Even if you get an expensive parking pass, the commute from home to campus might just be shorter than the commute from your parking space to campus. Here in Beaufort, it’s about an 8-minute commute from my door to whatever classroom I’m headed to, and there’s always plenty of parking space. Biking and walking are also great options. The ease of commuting is partially due to the fact that the marine lab is a much smaller community.

oyster beds

Dana exploring the oyster beds near the parking lot during low tide. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

For me, having such a small community is wonderful. Although I miss all the other MEMs back in Durham, it’s much easier to get to know everyone when there are just fewer of us. It’s also easier to get to know your professors and for them to get to know you. Our class sizes are especially small. The writing class offered this semester has only four students, allowing them valuable one-on-one time with the professor.

Although the marine lab does not offer nearly as many events and guest speakers as the main Duke campus, the speakers we do host are more focused in our field and speak on topics I find more relevant to my interests. For example, this past week, we listened to a guest lecture from Charles Littnan, lead scientist of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Program.

Culturally, the Marine Lab also feels more laid back. This is one of the first finals weeks were I’m not a sleep-deprived mess, pulling my hair out over a never-ending pile of assignments. That’s not to say folks aren’t busy over here, we just seem to know how to make time to go kayaking or meet for dinner at Plaza Mexico.

Speaking of kayaking and Plaza Mexico, Beaufort in general is a great place to live, so long as you can survive without a Target or shopping malls. It turns out I don’t miss either of those and am very happy to trade them for a running route along the water and weekends (ok, maybe a few weekday afternoons) at the beach. Beaufort itself is a tourist town that quiets down as the days get colder. Front Street, two blocks down from my house, runs along the waterfront and has small shopping boutiques, a coffee shop, a good number of restaurants, and a couple of bars. Any other shops you need (except Target) are a short drive over to Morehead City.

Last, I’ll run through a typical weekday in the life of a second-year CEM at the Marine Lab. How about a Tuesday? I’m usually out the door by 8:15am, arriving for Political Ecology at 8:30am with time to spare. Some mornings I’ll even leave a bit early to stop at Dunkin Donuts for a coffee. Political Ecology meets in a small teleconference room in the Bookhout building and runs for an hour and a half. It’s a somewhat intimate setting with roughly eight students in the room with our instructor and another five teleconferencing in from Durham. Two students typically lead a discussion based on readings we’ve completed for a class. At 10am, I have a break until noon. Sometimes I go home for lunch, other days I run to Taylor’s Creek Grocery on Front Street to pick up a sandwich. At noon, I have a lab meeting in the new Pilkey Building. Brian Silliman is my group MP advisor, so my team members and I attend his lab meetings where we review manuscript drafts and give practice presentations.


The view from the Pilkey building. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

At 1pm, the Topics class meets in Repass, overlooking the water. More than once, I’ve been distracted by a gorgeous boat sailing by on its way in or out of the Beaufort inlet. One person in the class reviews an outline of the chapter we’ve read for that week and then we all discuss some of the figures and the key takeaways of the chapter. After 2:30pm, my Tuesday classes are done for the day. Sometimes I stay on campus to work on assignments, other days I head home to work there. Earlier in the semester, when it was warmer, I would power through class readings sitting on the porch of the house I share with four other CEMs. How late I worked each evening completely depended on the workload of the week.


Distracting yacht. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

fishing boat

Distracting fishing boat. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

All in all, it’s a wonderful life here at the Duke Marine Lab. I hope this has been a helpful blog for anyone wanting to know more about either what their second year in this program might look like, or about the CEM program in general.  If you have more questions on these topics, feel free to comment below!


A starfish at Fort Macon beach, before I promptly returned it to the water. Photo credit: Emma Kelley




  1. Bill Kelley
    Dec 6, 2014

    Emma- That was wonderful!I really enjoyed reading about Beaufort and how happy you are at this point in your life. I am so happy that you are able to experience this important part of your life in such a positive and rewarding way. I love you.

    • Emma Kelley
      Emma Kelley
      Dec 9, 2014

      Thanks Dad! I love you too!

  2. Sarah Phillips
    Dec 9, 2014

    Thank you for this day-in-the-life blog about your time in Beaufort! I think this would be similarly written for most CEMs spending time at the Marine Lab.

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