Claire Hancock's childhood dream was to be a marine scientist, but she wasn't sure it was a practical career goal for someone who grew up and attended college hundreds of miles from the coast.

Hancock is one of eight undergraduate students dipping their toes in the waters of marine science research this summer through a 10-week, College of Charleston program called the Fort Johnson Undergraduate Summer Research Program.

The senior at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., is studying an aspect of a phenomenon called "coral bleaching." That's what happens when coral is under environmental stress and expels too much of the algae inside it. Bleaching can cause the death of coral colonies.

Hancock said she wondered if she was qualified when program director Karen Burnett first told students about the research opportunities available. They sounded quite advanced, she said. "But I dove in head first."

Burnett, a research associate for the College of Charleston, said students take on a research project that's part of a larger project already underway by a scientist at one of the six research organizations at Fort Johnson on James Island. In addition to the college's Grice Marine Lab, Fort Johnson is home to the Hollings Marine Laboratory, Medical University of South Carolina, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Other student projects underway this summer explore how sea urchins adjust their eating patterns to deal with toxins in seaweed; the population genetics of red drum; and the heart rate of blue crabs while they are under stress.

Burnett said the program, which has been running since 1992, is for students who have "a genuine interest in trying to explore whether research is a career they want to get into."