A Deeper Dive into the Duke Marine Lab

April 16, 2024
Science Magazine

The Duke University Marine Lab, better known by its abbreviation DUML, is Duke’s renowned coastal campus located near the quiet town of Beaufort, N.C. Here, researchers and students integrate sciences from a wide variety of fields—including molecular biology, marine policy, and robotics—to better understand, protect, and harness the resources of our oceans. 

This March, I had the opportunity to live at DUML for three nights, courtesy of Duke’s Spring Breakthrough Program. I explored not only the local area surrounding DUML but also its research resources.

Above: An aerial view of DUML. Image courtesy of The Nicholas School of Environment

Above: A sunset overlooking DUML’s student recreation center. Image courtesy of Will Sun (Trinity ’27).

Above: A skeleton of a beached whale hanging in the Kent Repass Center. Image courtesy of Will Sun (Trinity ’27).


Situated just a few paces from the coast, DUML has access to the ocean that allows scientists to conduct real-time marine research. One example is DUML’s very own oyster farm. During my trip, I traveled by boat to the oyster farm, where we helped clean and monitor the oysters. Following a 20-minute boat ride (with speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour!), we arrived at the oyster farm, which holds more than a hundred buoyant bags of oysters strung together with wire. Donning large overalls and boots to avoid the cold water and piercing oyster shells, we leaped straight into the water to explore the aquafarm. Not only did we help turn over bags to prevent a build-up of substances on the oysters, but we also spotted a stray jellyfish in the water.

Researchers deploy sensors to monitor environmental parameters to measure oyster mortality. This method allows them to utilize the oyster farm as a model system to analyze how oysters are responding to climate change. Close access to the ocean allows researchers at DUML to study organisms, like oysters, in their natural habitats rather than simulated lab environments. Researchers then communicate their data and findings to local oyster farmers and residents, allowing DUML to connect its research to the community. 

Apart from research, these oysters also provide an unfiltered look at another adventurous and unfamiliar realm: seafood. While some students bravely ate raw oysters right out of the shell, I, unfortunately, lacked the courage to do the same. 

Above: Students from Spring Breakthrough explore DUML’s oyster farm. Image courtesy of Jodi Psoter, Head of the Marine Lab Library.

Another unique research opportunity is DUML’s very own research vessel: the R/V Shearwater. The first night I arrived at DUML, the Shearwater was still docked. The next morning, however, it suddenly disappeared. It turned out that the Coast Guard had spotted whales and dolphins off the Gulf of Mexico at around dawn and relayed that message to DUML. On a whim, several graduate students and faculty members took off on the Shearwaters in pursuit of these migratory mammals.  

Above: The R/V Shearwater on water. Image courtesy of The Nicholas School of Environment.

Such impromptu trips are made possible through DUML’s partnership with other institutions like the Coast Guard and the ease of having its own research vessel. At more than 77 feet long, this boat is a mobile laboratory with meeting tables, more than 10 beds, and a fully equipped kitchen. The Shearwater has also released rehabilitated turtles back into the wild, served as a teaching space for a 10-day field trip for an integrative oceanography course, and provided outreach to the Beaufort community. 

The research facilities on land at DUML are no less advanced than any of the labs in the Biology Sciences building on Duke’s home campus. The largest and most prominent building at the marine lab, the Bookhout laboratory, contains more than five lab spaces fully equipped with thermal cyclers, dissecting scopes, and electrophoresis gel systems. Through these facilities, researchers at DUML use molecular biology to explore, test, and analyze fresh live samples from nearby coastal environments. 

Student Life

Living at DUML was a big shock after living on Duke’s main campus for nearly two semesters. At around one percent of the number of residents on Duke’s East Campus, DUML typically only houses around 20 to 35 undergraduates in the school year. As a result, the marine lab is a lot quieter than Duke. Yet, by living in such a small community, you can form tight-knit bonds with the other students living there. 

After the first night of my trip, I had already found a small group of friends. From watching a movie until 2 a.m. in the boathouse (think of it like DUML’s common room) to exploring the nearby beaches on Radio Island, I was able to connect with those around me through DUML’s intimate and tight-knit campus.

Above: A typical DUML dining hall meal. Image courtesy of Will Sun (Trinity ’27).

Almost all of DUML’s facilities are open to students 24/7. In theory, students could work at the library at 2 a.m., play pool at the student recreation center at 4 a.m., and watch the sunrise on the Pilkey observatory deck. To me, the size of DUML—combined with the community fostered by the students living there—makes DUML feel much more “homey” than main campus. 

Above: An observatory deck of the Pilkey Research Center. Image courtesy of Will Sun (Trinity ’27). 

The surrounding towns, Beaufort and Morehead City, are also no strangers to the DUML students. Many students enjoy going to a local gym in Morehead City by carpooling. Other fun activities in the area include visiting aquariums, exploring historical sites like Fort Macon, and, of course, going to the beach

How to Get Involved

To get involved at DUML, it's as easy as registering for any other course at Duke! With no prerequisites, requirements, or applications, learning at DUML is an option for anyone. 

Apart from classes, several scholarships and specific research opportunities are available at DUML including the Marine Medicine Scholars Program, the Rachel Carson Scholars Program, and the Repass-Rodgers Scholars Program.

Will Sun

Will (Trinity ’27) is originally from San Jose, California and plans on majoring in Biology. In his free time, he enjoys collecting keychains, playing basketball, and going on walks.

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