A Science Sabbatical in Bermuda

Thomas Higgins (in hat), professor of chemistry and physical sciences at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges in Chicago, recently spent three and a half months at BIOS for his professional sabbatical. Having just worked as a Program Officer in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation (NSF), Higgins learned about the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at BIOS and wanted to engage with the program’s interns, as well as the research taking place at BIOS. “My goal was to apply the science I learned [at BIOS] in my classrooms back home so my students can understand how much the oceans impact their lives,” he said. In addition to providing professional development activities, Higgins spent a portion of his time mentoring many of the REU students, which included the opportunity to join the biological production and exports team on a glider deployment in the field.

Traditionally, sabbaticals are offered to faculty after seven years or more of tenured work at their home institution. The sabbatical allows faculty to take paid leave and engage in a variety of activities, such as research collaborations with scientists at other institutions; full-time writing for books or peer-reviewed journal papers; the pursuit of funding opportunities; travel for field research; or the development of new professional skills.

Thomas Higgins, professor of chemistry and physical sciences at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, recently used his sabbatical to expand his teaching skills and leverage his professional experience to help improve a key university-level education program at BIOS. 

In addition to his 25 years as a chemistry teacher, Higgins also recently spent four years working as a Program Officer in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation (NSF). During this time, he learned about an NSF-sponsored internship program at BIOS: the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which gives students the opportunity to conduct individual research projects under the mentorship of BIOS faculty over the course of the fall semester.

"The research and education happening at BIOS is exciting and important - it concerns the health of the planet,” Higgins said. “My goal was to apply the science I learned there in my classrooms back home so my students can understand how much the oceans impact their lives."

During fall 2021 Higgins spent three and a half months at BIOS “fully immersing himself” in the REU program, according to BIOS assistant director of University Programs Samantha de Putron, who leads the program and is co-principal investigator on the REU grant to NSF. He performed a variety of professional development activities for the REU students, including running a “Careers in Science” workshop and presenting on the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program application process, which is relevant to U.S. students looking to go to graduate school. He also gave a talk on the NSF “broader impacts” award requirement and mentored many of the REU students, assisting with their posters and oral presentations.

“At the end of his stay, Tom provided input on everything from the REU program goals, objectives, activities, and outcomes,” de Putron said. “In particular, after observing our mentoring and evaluation procedures, he presented recommendations for a formalized mentoring plan for the program and updates for our evaluation process. Getting these right is critical, as they both speak to the changes the project is trying to foster in students. All of the information he provided will be very useful for the program going forward and especially for strengthening future REU proposals.”

But his goal in coming to BIOS was much broader than working with the REU program. Higgins says that his biggest priority during his sabbatical was to interact with BIOS faculty, staff, and students as much as he could to look for new areas of research and methods of teaching to implement back home.

At Harold Washington College, an institution he credits with providing him continued support for his research, Higgins currently teaches a little bit of everything: chemistry, astronomy, and the physical sciences, which include meteorology, geology, and physics. He notes that his home institution is a two-year college that serves primarily lower-income Hispanic and Black students who are planning to continue their education to become doctors, biologists, or veterinarians.

“Most of my students don’t want to be chemists, but I want to show them how chemistry is a central science and give examples of how it is used in other fields,” Higgins said. “My other big focus is enrolling students into general chemistry classes to encourage them to become more interdisciplinary.”

In addition to meeting the REU students, Higgins had the opportunity to meet with BIOS faculty and research staff to learn about the types of biological, physical, and chemical research taking place at the Institute.

In October 2021, he joined REU interns and two Bermuda Program students leading long-term microplastics sampling efforts at Coopers Island, helping to collect microplastic debris along the shoreline and sort samples by size in a BIOS lab afterward. Microplastics, a ubiquitous marine debris issue, piqued Higgins’ interest, and he is looking forward to replicating this type of research with his students along the Chicago River and in the Great Lakes.

“Tom was a huge asset to both the students and the mentors,” de Putron said. “It was extremely beneficial to have input through his direct knowledge from his experience as an NSF Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education.”