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UNF's new coastal classroom


A drive to the beach down JTB over the Intracoastal Waterway provides almost a birds-eye view of the University of North Florida’s newest acreage — an expansive living laboratory for UNF research and exploration, just minutes from campus.

researcher standing in the water of the wetlandsThe 1,050-acre plot of pristine salt marsh wetlands was donated to UNF by the Widan Investment Corporation in December, expanding opportunities for student excursions and field research.

“It provides habitat for many upland and aquatic species and is one of the most scenic properties along the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida,” said Dan Webb, president of Widan Investment Corporation. “I am proud to give this unique property to the University of North Florida Foundation in honor of my father, William C. Webb.” He is especially pleased with the University’s enthusiasm for the property, now dubbed the William C. Webb Coastal Research Station.

Almost immediately after the University took ownership of the marshland, which was appraised at $8.8 million, faculty and students were eager to explore the area.

“There is only so much you can learn in the classroom,” said Samantha Shaw, a junior majoring in coastal biology. “It’s great to be on the water and get hands-on experience,” she said during a recent boat trip with Dr. Eric Johnson, assistant biology professor, and other students in his Marine Ecology class. 

Within minutes, the students were pointing out the intricacies of the salt marsh and oyster development, while identifying countless species of waterfowl, crustaceans and other wildlife along the mudflats and mangroves. The salt marsh is an optimal home for many creatures including bottlenose dolphin, alligators, blue crabs, shrimp, black and red drum, flounder, spotted sea trout, eagles, ospreys, herons and more. For Johnson, who specializes in fisheries ecology and management, the property is ideal for his courses and those of other faculty who focus on estuarine ecology.

“This provides us with a place in the field to demonstrate to students what they are learning in the classroom,” Johnson said. “Our students will get exposure to a vast, natural ecosystem,” he said explaining that the property is particularly valuable because it is not fragmented like many wetland environments in the area. “Big blocks like this are a real rarity so close to a large urban environment,” Johnson said. “That makes the property a great resource for us.”

Johnson teaches at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and hopes to develop a long-term database of the area so that students can study trends over time. He said the Research Center would be useful for analyzing impacts of erosion and climate change, as well as monitoring important animal populations.

“The proximity to the University is what makes this property so special,” said UNF President John A. Delaney, a longtime champion of land preservation and conservation. Delaney, who began the Preservation Project when he served as Mayor of Jacksonville said, “UNF will be good stewards of this property, and our students will learn firsthand the value of these types of property and why it is important to preserve them.”

Dr. Jim Gelsleichter, director of UNF’s Coastal and Marine Biology Flagship Program, agrees that the property is a great boost to the program because it provides students with unique hands-on experiences, as well as opportunities for research. He said the property is ideal for biological sampling, as well as monitoring impacts of environmental stressors and restoration efforts.

“I also believe the property will play a valuable role in increasing student interest, retention and recruitment,” Gelsleichter said commenting that he hopes to get freshmen involved early. He feels strongly about providing immersive “first-year experiences” for those interested in the sciences, and even hopes to craft a course built around monitoring the property’s ecological system.

Paige Duffin, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in marine biology, plans to continue her studies to get a Ph.D. She hopes to teach one day and research seagrasses and ecological genetics. Duffin agrees opportunities on the water or doing research go far to build and maintain interest in science programs. 

“As an undergraduate, I was not always sure it was what I wanted to do,” she said. “Some of the classes were really hard, but having real-world experiences really made all the sleepless nights studying worth it in the end.” Duffin sees the new property as a huge boost to the coastal and marine biology program. “So many more students will have these experiences as a result of this gift,” she said.

This property expands those opportunities and puts UNF in a competitive position for recruiting, teaching and graduating students who are knowledgable and job-ready.

“Because STEM fields are so competitive, it’s good to have hands-on experiences like this,” said Lucas Welch, a junior studying ecology and evolution biology. “Seeing it firsthand really highlights the importance of this type of work.”