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Marine conservation from a diver’s perspective

Participants in the USC Scientific Diving program find academic and professional success while advancing their respective fields

Michele Felberg, a graduate of the USC Dornsife Environmental Studies Program (Photo/courtesy of Michele Felberg)

Michele Felberg ’13 knows about the connection between tourism and the marine environment — that’s where she’s worked for the past two years.

With the help of a significant scholarship, she wants to study how the dive industry that provides her livelihood connects its business plans to marine conservation.

A graduate of the Environmental Studies Program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Scientific Diving program, Felberg received a one-year Rolex Scholarship at an April 18 ceremony in New York City through the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society.

David Ginsburg, assistant professor (teaching) of environmental studies and assistant USC dive safety officer, extolled the significance of the honor.

“This is a very prestigious award — it’s the Fulbright scholarship of the diving community — and Michele is the representative for North America,” he said.

Ginsburg is an instructor for the Scientific Research Diving program, the course that introduced Felberg to the discipline she now represents.

Insight into the industry

Felberg credits the scientific diving program and subsequent research trips to the western Pacific nations of Micronesia, Guam and Palau — arranged through the Environmental Studies Program — as key factors in her recent honor. Her time in the program led to her certification as a scuba diver and as a diver with the American Academy of Underwater Sciences, and she has worked in Palau as a dive guide and underwater naturalist since graduating.

“USC allowed me to continue practicing my diving and research skills throughout my tenure at the university,” Felberg said. “Upon graduation, I was able to secure my job in Palau because of my research diving experience plus my network of divers there.”

The work has given her valuable insight into the industry’s effect on the ocean’s ecosystems. Felberg hopes to expand her worldwide network of diving colleagues through her Rolex Scholarship and “explore the ways the dive tourism industry is combining business with public outreach and education pertinent to marine conservation. I also want to explore the biology and ecology of various marine environments that may need to be protected, and I plan on doing this in as many places and cultures as possible.”

She believes diverse perspectives on the issue are key to ensuring the future of ocean habitats. “There is no one perfect solution but rather endless possibilities for successful marine conservation.”

A growing legacy of success

Felberg is the third diver associated with USC to obtain a Rolex Scholarship. Robin MacFadden Parish received the honor in 1976 and Sterling James Brisbin ’07 received it in 2008.

As an undergraduate student at Occidental College, Parish spent two semesters at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center, the centerpiece of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. She worked with the USC Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, took classes, conducted independent research and aided graduate students as a research assistant. Only the third recipient of the Rolex Scholarship, Felberg has been active for many years as the national coordinator for the Rolex Scholarship program.

Brisbin spent a semester at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center as a participant in the USC Catalina Semester program and, like Parish, was an active member of the hyperbaric chamber crew. He went on study at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University and currently is a U.S. Air Force pararescue specialist.

Six of our former diving students are graduating from USC, and they’ve already been accepted to graduate programs.

David Ginsburg

Ginsburg noted that the program continues to produce outstanding scholars. “This year, six of our former diving students are graduating from USC, and they’ve already been accepted to graduate programs.”

Many thanks

Richelle Tanner, who graduated this year with a double major in environmental studies at USC Dornsife and jazz studies at the USC Thornton School of Music, went through the scientific diving program during her sophomore year. She met Ginsburg in an environmental studies course on Catalina Island during her freshman year.

“He’s the one who suggested that I try scientific diving,” she said, “and I can’t thank him enough.”

In the fall, Tanner will enter a Ph.D. program in integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, with support from a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Ginsberg points to Tanner and her classmates as evidence of the program’s increasing impact.

“We’re starting to see the demonstrated success of our scientific diving program,” Ginsburg said. “The skills our students learn are broadly applicable and give them a critical boost in advancing their professional and academic careers while helping to ensure they make a positive difference in the world.”

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Marine conservation from a diver’s perspective

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