Near the wide mouth of the Choptank River, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a dozen students are learning how to sail a 53-foot rig on the open waters of Chesapeake Bay. At dusk, one student takes the wheel, while another shines a flashlight on the wind vane atop the mast. Doc stands guard.
For the last nine summers, Ben "Doc" Cuker, a professor at Hampton University in Virginia, has taught sailing and more to college students from diverse backgrounds. Each June and July, his MAST (Multicultural Students at Sea Together) program takes these students on a four-week adventure aboard The Chesapeake to learn about marine science and local minority heritage. On average, the makeup of the crew that Cuker has recruited is 59 percent African American, 28 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Native American.
But his student sailors may have navigated The Chesapeake along its final Bay voyage last summer. Cuker is struggling to secure funding for next year's program, after finishing a three-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For MAST to continue, Cuker says he needs a guarantee of about $125,000 for this year. He said that if he doesn't secure funding in early 2009 it will affect his ability to recruit effectively.
"Right now it's looking like the program is at an end," said Cuker by phone from his Hampton University office. The Chesapeake Bay Program rejected his grant proposal last May, while NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration turned down his pre-proposal.
The economic recession, which is limiting the availability of grant money, has hindered Cuker's search. "The way the economy is now, it's just tough to get funding," he said.
Many student participants said that MAST has had a profound influence on them. Before attending the MAST program in 2006, Angelica Zavala-Lopez had never set foot on a boat. "The only water I ever saw was the puddles when it rained," said Zavala-Lopez, who grew up in a small town in central Mexico. "I had no idea what I was getting into," she laughed.
She got seasick her first night on the sailboat and couldn't fall asleep in the rocking cabin. But this gave her the chance to sleep on deck and enjoy the Chesapeake at night. "The sky was gorgeous-all the stars and bioluminescence in the water. I was glad I got sick that time."
By the end of the program, Zavala-Lopez had grown close to fellow MAST participant Gabriel Rodriguez, and both had become competent sailors. Cuker suggested that Rodriguez, with his mechanical ability, get a boat of his own. Zavala-Lopez told him, "If you can get a boat, I'll move in with you."
Today, the two live on a 34-foot sloop at a harbor in Santa Barbara, CA. Both are pursuing careers in marine biology-Zavala-Lopez is doing education and outreach for Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, while Rodriguez is getting his master's degree in ecology, evolution and marine biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
The pair is deeply grateful for their experiences in the MAST program. "For me, it was clearly a life-changing event," Rodriguez said. "I wouldn't be here on this boat now." Zavala-Lopez is worried that if the program ends, students from similar backgrounds will not have the opportunity to study and appreciate the natural environment.
Exposure to marine science in programs like MAST increases the odds that minority students will consider a career in the field, said Kelton Clark, who directs the Estuarine Research Center at Morgan State University, a historically black institution. The MAST program's trips to several research facilities on the Bay are key. "Not only do you get exposed to the marine sciences, but also to the people at different places who are doing it," Clark said.
Kamil Armaiz, a Puerto Rican student from the 2008 program, said that the exposure to marine science boosted her confidence as a scientist. "Now I'm sure that a career in ocean sciences is what I want to do." She has decided to apply for doctoral studies in oceanography.
The MAST program also provides a supportive environment for budding minority scientists by exploring the contributions of different cultures to life on the Bay. In addition to taking water quality readings from the mouth of the Bay to the Susquehanna Flats, last summer's students stopped at sites rich in minority history. They visited the town of Reedville, VA, a former base for African American watermen who sang chantey songs to coordinate their movements while hauling nets of menhaden. The students also read "Blackjacks," a book about the importance of African Americans to maritime sailing.
Kim-Chi Nguyen, a Vietnamese American who took part in the program in 2008, praises its unique focus on minority heritage. "It's so different from just a science internship because we also learned about Native American and African American history."
By inspiring students like Armaiz and Nguyen, MAST has already borne fruit. It is Cuker's hope that renewed funding will enable his program to continue reaching new students. In a scientific field with a growing but still underrepresented number of minorities, he wants to continue opening doors of hope and opportunity.