The beaches of the Caribbean island of Saba are changing. It is a fact documented over several years by Samford University geography professor Jennifer Rahn, whose research benefits the residents of the tiny island as well as her students. 

Using low cost survey instruments she developed herself, Dr. Rahn has collected sediment and profiles from Saba's beach and adjacent reefs since 2008. The cartographer and coastal geomorphologist uses the data to assess erosion and deposition patterns due to sea level rise and tropical storms.

Her mapping research has informed the local Saban community about the dynamics of their one and only accessible recreation sandy beach.

"No one knew before why the beach disappeared and reappeared seasonally. I have shown with the data collected that it may not reappear for a while," said Rahn.

The research also revealed environmental issues caused by the illegal dumping of more than 1,000 truckloads of soil "fill" from nearby building projects.  Rahn's reports helped the Saba Conservation Foundation leverage a legal ban on dumping and a mandated removal of existing fill to prevent harm to an adjacent coral reef. The reef, according to Rahn, is "one of the best and most highly visited" on the island, which claims ecotourism as a major economic source.

Almost 2,000 miles away at Samford, Rahn transfers the research methods and skills she uses on Saba to enrich the student experience in her geography classes on campus and on field studies.

Each winter, students in a "Samford in the Caribbean" Jan Term course learn Rahn's scientific data collection process first-hand on the five-mile square island of Saba. Closer to home, students in the semester-long marine geography course survey the beaches of Dauphin Island, Alabama. Photos and videos from the research prove useful in Rahn's other introductory and advanced geography classes.

 Rahn's contagious passion for beaches, coral reefs and island research has resulted in students pursuing related internships and projects, as well as identifying new career goals.

Shelbie Landry, a junior English and geography double major, calls her two Jan Term study trips to Saba "the best experiences of my life."

"I learned much about Dr. Rahn's research and about marine biology as well as coastal geomorphology," said Landry, who says the life-changing adventures whetted her interest in travel journalism as a career and in traveling the world in general.

Rahn's ongoing research on Saba received recent support from a Faculty Development Grant (FDG) awarded by the Samford provost's office. Her efforts delivered on all four categories that FDG-assisted projects are expected to meet:   teaching, research, service and creative/scholarly activity.

 Rahn notes the enhanced creativity that comes from engagement in research. "Whenever I am working on a project, I have many ideas and thoughts that provoke further thought and critical thinking," said Rahn, who also appreciates the benefits of scholarly "brainstorming" with coastal geography colleagues.

 She has chronicled part of her research in a paper about a new underwater survey method for the March, 2013 issue of The Journal of Coastal Research. Rahn, a veteran divemaster, presented parts of that research at national meetings of the Association of American Geographers in 2011 and 2012.

In addition to sharing research findings with local environmental-minded agencies, Rahn has participated in Sea & Learn events on Saba. Held each October, the program explores nature and helps to enhance environmental awareness for residents and visitors of all ages.  In 2011 and 2012, Rahn presented her research results in public lectures and participated in other ways.

"I find it extremely rewarding to talk about my research in the schools with local children, and on field trips with adults," said Rahn.  Last summer, local school children helped her conduct a beach survey that was chronicled on YouTube.

"This interaction allows me to be of service to the local community as a researcher, but also as a science role model, especially to young women," said Rahn, who earned a bachelor's degree in geography (cartography) at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

She learned to dive on Saba while on vacation in 1991, and returned there to work two years as a divemaster after completing a master's degree in cartography (map making) at Temple University. Later armed with a Ph.D. degree in coastal geomorphology from the University of Florida, she worked with the U.S. Geological Survey's Coastal and Marine Geology Program and the Mapping Division of the U.S. Coral Reef Task before teaching at Baylor University and Old Dominion University.  She joined the Samford faculty in 2007.

Editor's Note: This story is part of an occasional series highlighting projects supported by faculty development grants funded through the Office of the Provost.


Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.