Scientific and Cultural Internship on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico Inspires Wellesley Junior

July 22, 2014
Helena McGonagle sits among roots of a giant tree

Helena McMonagle has known for awhile that she likes biology. After all, she chose it as a major. But her experience to date had been in the laboratory—indoors. Thanks to a Global Engagement Internship from Wellesley’s Center for Work and Service this summer, she has found that she loves biology even more, having discovered through hands-on field work that the world, including amazingly beautiful places, can be a laboratory as well.

She is spending this summer in an internship on Vieques, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico, home to one of the world’s brightest bioluminescent bays.

The internship, which offers a stipend for living expenses, is made possible by the generosity of the Littleford family, whose vision is to unite both Wellesley and the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust (VCHT), having been involved in both organizations.

The Trust was first founded to protect the island's bioluminescent bay, one of the brightest in the world, but has expanded to also do community outreach, marine biology research, and educational summer camps for local and visiting children. The Trust has accepted a Wellesley student every summer and Wintersession for many years. Mark Martin, director of community relations for the nonprofit, has been the coordinator for all Wellesley interns at the Trust. Interns have the chance to be involved in all of aspects of the work of the Trust. McMonagle says, “I am so thankful for this because I love working with the children, learning about the environment we live in, speaking Spanish, and being outside doing field work; and I work with incredible people here who make this nonprofit an integral part of the community in Vieques.”

McMonagle credits her Wellesley courses in Organismal Biology, Biology of Whales, and Environmental Studies as being “enormously helpful” in preparing her for this internship, along with coursework in Spanish, as this is a bilingual work environment.

Lirio Márquez D’Acunti, the executive director of VCHT, in the Vieques community news site, introduced readers to McGonagle and her own blog, Bahía Brillante, Vieques Vibrante. "The blog will show you the virtually non-stop activity that is happening at the Trust. Between the MANTA summer programs and the extensive scientific monitoring work there is no time to rest," writes Marquez D'Acunti.

McMonagle recounts with colorful prose and photos the amazing range of the internship on this tiny island:

“Job #1: collecting water samples with Mark Martin, my boss and the director of community relations and field research at the VCHT. After an exciting drive down one of the bumpiest roads I've ever seen, we arrived at Puerto Mosquito, the famous bioluminescent bay. We unloaded the boat off Mark's car, and set out under the half moon across the water with the chorus of a million chirping frogs cheering us on.”

Job #2, serving as counselor for camps the Trust runs for local and visiting children. Some classic camp activities (singing, archery, swimming, and the like) round out the days focused on environmental education, from appreciating sea life to understanding composting and solar energy. The first week was with little kids, the second with young teenagers. “What made that week at camp so fun,” she says, “is that we learned about the environment not from textbooks or lectures, but from swimming, touching, hiking, smelling, feeling, seeing, and being in nature herself.”

Visiting scientists from Puerto Rico, Montana, Nebraska, and elsewhere have joined the Trust for research throughout the summer and McMonagle has met and worked with many of them, tackling complex problems of invasive species, pollution, climate change, and other challenges to biodiversity, and the pros and cons of ecotourism.

She writes, “It can be a little depressing to take it all in once you start to delve into human impacts on the planet. But Mark reminded me that while it can be overwhelming, we can't be defeatist; we won't get anywhere if we throw up our hands and give up on protecting our natural resources.”

Indeed, McMonagle hopes to continue this kind of work in the future by exploring careers in conservation and environmental biology. She values her Global Engagement Internship for all it has taught her about problem-solving, hands-on work, and practical applications of what she has studied in the classroom.

Her blog begins by saying, “I already cannot say thank-you enough to:

  • the Trust (VCHT), which has offered me the internship of a lifetime
  • the local Viequenses, who have welcomed me here to share their slice of paradise for the summer
  • Wellesley College, which has connected me with an incredible organization and has prepared me with many of the tools I will need to be useful here, or at least the open mind to learn how to be useful.”

Since around Commencement time, the Daily Shot has featured senior projects on a near weekly basis. As the midpoint of the summer comes and goes, the Daily Shot begins a series of stories sharing what current students are undertaking between academic years. This is the first in that series.