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UNC boasts a rich tradition in marine sciences dating back to 1894, when Biology Department faculty member, “Froggie” Wilson, began teaching summer laboratory courses in marine zoology at Beaufort, NC. Beginning in 1904, all Zoology Department graduate students were required to spend summers at a coastal lab doing research. Over the next thirty years, a number of students earned graduate degrees in zoology with marine specializations and went on to scientific careers, typically in fisheries-related research.

In 1922, Wilson recruited Dr. Robert E. Coker, then Director for Research at the US Bureau of Fisheries, to the UNC faculty. Coker was internationally respected for his work in ecology and organismal biology, and his commitment to public and professional service. In 1945, Coker submitted a proposal entitled, “Marine Biology as an Economic Resource of Eastern North Carolina”, to Consolidated University President Frank Porter Graham that included the establishment of a coastal research institute. The proposal was vetted by state advisory and administrative groups and by a Consultative Committee appointed by President Graham. With the Committee’s endorsement, the Institute of Fisheries Research (IFR) was launched in 1947 with Dr. Coker as its first director and a purpose to provide “service to the State through basic and applied fisheries research”. The IFR occupied a 6.3 acre campus on the shore of Bogue Sound in Morehead City, NC, 175 miles east of Chapel Hill. In 1967, the IFR was renamed the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) to better reflect the broadening range of research projects underway by its 8-person faculty, and Coker Hall, its new laboratory building, was opened.

In 1968, after a multi-year planning process, the State Board of Higher Education approved a joint proposal from UNC-CH and NC State University to set up graduate curricula leading to M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in marine sciences at each institution. UNCCH’s Curriculum in Marine Sciences (MASC) admitted a class of nine graduate students in fall 1969. At first MASC had no primary faculty appointments; rather, all 20 faculty were part-time and drawn from other campus units. By 1975, four MASC faculty had been hired representing the four main sub-disciplines of marine sciences. In 1997, in recognition of the growth and success of the Curriculum, MASC became the Department of Marine Sciences.

In the 1980s, the UNC-CH Marine Sciences Program was created as an administrative tool to strengthen the coordination and function of MASC and IMS both within the university and externally with the Duke – UNC Oceanographic Consortium.