The J.N. Roth Marine Biology Station, a Goshen College research compound located in Layton, Florida, is undergoing a $400,000 renovation that, when finished, will serve as a home base for students contributing to the study of climate change and marine environments.The marine facility is a single building surrounded by residential homes on one side and a channel leading out to the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. The ground floor hosts a rudimentary laboratory while the upstairs has a living room and kitchen, with two rooms filled with bunks. Since the 1980s, Goshen students have traveled there to research and experience marine life up close.
However, worries about the building standing at all were in question following Hurricane Irma, a Category-5 storm, which struck the facility in 2017. The storm damaged the foundation and inspectors deemed the building unsafe for occupants.
“A storm surge came up off the channel,” said Ben Bontrager, vice president for operations. “It basically flooded the lower level… the concrete floor cracked as well as the walls of that lower level.”
Though Bontrager oversees operations on the Goshen campus, he and Brian Mast, the director of facilities, have also been overseeing the process of getting the Florida facility back to hosting students.
“Inspectors said we needed to now abide by commercial code, which meant a lot of changes,” said Bontrager.
Among the changes is taking out the lower level of the facility which housed the lab, updating electric, making an accessible bathroom and chair lift, and adding fire safety measures.
“It’s a sizable project,” Bontrager said. “We could easily spend over $400,000.”
The funds have been raised and Bontrager and Mast headed down to the Florida Keys in early November to check on progress as well as to meet with local officials to make sure that codes are being met and the project is headed in the right direction.
Even though students have not been able to stay on site at the facility, the college arranged for alternative accommodations for lodging so that research could continue. Elijah Stoltzfus, sophomore, was a part of the last unit to spend time in the Keys.
“We spent 17 days living in the Keys,” said Stoltzfus. “The experience allowed me to experience a new environment and gave me direction in terms of my career path.”
Stoltzfus said that the group starts by studying basic marine biology and the ecosystems involved, eventually focusing on specific areas of interest and exploring that habitat.
“My project was measuring biodiversity in sponges,” Stoltzfus said, “but by the end of it we had explored many different habitats, including shallow coastal bays, offshore seagrass beds, hard and soft bottomed sites, and even a deep-water reef several miles off- shore.”
The Goshen College’s marine biology program has existed since the 60s when a group of students went to Pigeon Key with two professors, Jonathan N. Roth and C. Franklin Bishop.
While groups continued to go down, the small town of Layton, located on Long Key, took interest in Goshen College’s continued research trips. For several years students even set up makeshift laboratories in the Layton Town Hall.
The town of Layton eventually donated a piece of land on a channel to be used as a site for a new marine facility. The Goshen College research center opened in 1985.
Jody Saylor, the chair of the biology department, has co-taught the class for years and will lead the research trip down to the Keys next May.
“Part of the college experience is learning about new perspectives,” Saylor said. “Our students are going to ground zero for climate change.”
Saylor said that in her time in the Keys that there has been a noticeable change in the diversity of the waters. She hopes that the research projects being conducted can and will be used in the future to advance knowledge and action surrounding climate change.
“It’s really one area we want to make more of a difference,” she said. “It is very personal for these students with their research projects but we are really looking at a goal of having long term monitoring and research that will contribute to the conversation of climate change.”
Bontrager is hopeful that students will once again be able to use the facility in May.
“We are pretty optimistic about getting students to the facility this spring,” he said. “We have made a lot of progress this last month alone and we have all of our plans approved for what we need to do by the city.”
Layton had another close call this fall. Hurricane Ian swept through most of Florida and was on track originally to hit the facility again; however, the storm changed paths, sparing any damage to the building.
Even with students able to travel and do research once again in the Florida Keys, a 60-year-old facility will show its age in other ways.
“Eventually we would like to put in a new dock,” Bontrager said. “These old docks tend to rot out at the bottom and cause problems which we are starting to see with the current one.”