Inspiring the next generation of marine scientists

Students learn about marine life rehabilitation practices at the second annual Boston High School Marine Science Symposium, held at Northeastern’s Curry Student Center. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The sea raven, a bottom-dwelling fish with spiny scales and sharp teeth, lay on a slab in room 346 of the Curry Student Center, its innards exposed. Six Boston-area high school students hunched over the specimen, one probing for its ear stones, called “otoliths,” with the dissecting knife.

“They’re learning about fish age and growth,” said Scott Elzey, an aquatic biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who was overseeing the workshop. It was one of 18 underway last week as part of the second annual Boston High School Marine Science Symposium, presented by Northeastern’s Marine Science Center and the Massachusetts Marine Educators.

The otoliths—calcium carbonate structures that fish use for hearing and balance—grow in rings, with each ring corresponding to a year’s worth of growth. The experiment called for the students to remove the otoliths and view them under a microscope, counting the rings to gauge the age of the fish.

“Knowing the age distribution of fish in a particular area along with other measurements, including historical data, can provide a sense of the health of the stock,” explained Elzey. “That assessment can then be used to help set management guidelines.”

In a workshop titled “How Old Is That Fish,” students remove a specimen’s “otoliths,” or ear stones, and view how many rings they have under a microscope to ascertain the age of the fish. Photo by Matthew Moodono/Northeastern University

The four-and-a-half hour symposium provided that and other insights into the watery world of marine science to 250 students grades 9 to 12 from 15 different schools or homeschool groups throughout Massachusetts. In addition to the workshops, the event featured brief “Lightning Talks” on topics from the solo sailing adventures of Richard Baldwin, director of Educational Passages, in Belfast, Maine, to the inspiration behind the conservation efforts of Jesse Mechling, director of marine education at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Heather M.H. Goldstone, WGBH-radio science correspondent, delivered the keynote address, “The Future of the Planet Is in Your Hands.”

“One of the main focuses of Northeastern’s Marine Science Center is the sustainability of cities by the sea,” said David Budil, associate dean for research and graduate affairs in the College of Science, in opening remarks to the packed Curry Student Center Ballroom. “What happens as the sea level rises? How can we deal with cities’ ecological impact on the ocean? These are important questions. We don’t know the answers yet.”

Learning by doing

In the workshops in Curry and Robinson Hall, the high school students explored ways to begin finding some of those answers. The subject matter ran the gamut, from the role of oysters in estuaries to marine-life rehab, marine mammal bioacoustics to the importance of algae.

In 320 Curry, Milo Rossi, a junior at Minuteman Regional High School, stood in front of tubes of brightly colored water—red, blue, yellow—as he explained how pH and salinity can shape the health of oceans and the animals living in them. “If the water is too acidic or basic it can burn a fish’s gills, so it will stop breathing,” said Rossi, an alumnus of the Marine Science Center’s Coastal Ocean Science Academy, a summer program offered to students in grades 7 to 12. “Excess carbon dioxide in water whose pH is off can dissolve the shells of soft-shell crabs and mussels.”

Ellen Keane, a biologist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries division, led a session looking not at water itself but the lobster traps and gillnets fishermen put into it. Using models of the nets and traps, participants brainstormed ways to modify the gear so sea turtles, an endangered species, would not be inadvertently captured along with the sought-after fish. Bindiya Singh, a senior at Boston Latin Academy, proposed a new gillnet design. “If you made the openings in the nylon mesh smaller, fish could still be caught but a turtle’s large head would not be,” she said.

Sylvia Scharf, education program coordinator at the New England Aquarium, began her session by describing how to frame climate change conversations so messages of hope predominate rather than “gloom and doom” scenarios. “Hope is an active verb—it lasts longer,” Scharf told her workshop participants. “Gloom and doom makes people run away.”

Marine science becomes art as students discuss sustainable fisheries and environmental art and practice “gyotaku,” a traditional Japanese form of fish printing. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Abigail Muscat, a junior at Ipswich High School and a member of the aquarium’s ClimaTeens volunteer program, echoed the sentiment. “I love the ocean and am passionate about helping to educate people about climate change in a positive way,” she said.

Mary Hogue, education and outreach coordinator at the North American Marine Environment Protection Association, engaged her high schoolers in a roundtable discussion about the diverse career opportunities in the marine industry. Referring to a color-coded chart addressing drivers of job choice such as location, sector, and motivation, she urged the students to take chances. “Be open to try new things,” she said. “If something is not for you, move on.”

Benjamin Mattson, a senior at Fitchburg High School who’s considering a career in pharmacology, addressed the ethical balance required in choosing a direction. “You can develop a drug that makes things worse by contaminating the environment or having bad side effects,” he said. “You can’t just put out something like that. You have to address the issue of profit versus potential problems.”

Long-term impact

Valerie Perini, outreach instructor at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center and coordinator of the symposium, vouches for not just the experiential but also the long-term value of the event.

“Students come away from the symposium with an understanding of what it means to have a career in a STEM field and a greater awareness of the potential careers available to them,” she said. “They also get an early exposure to the feel and setting of a professional conference. They can bring the experience back to their school and home lives, and draw inspiration from it for their future studies.” The event has an impact on educators, too. “Teachers say the program strengthens their curricula and comes up in class long after the event is over,” she said.

In Hogue’s workshop, Michael Litle, a senior at Dover-Sherborn High School, described the motivation behind his own career aspirations. His words could stand for the driving force behind the symposium as a whole. “Whatever you do should help people in some way,” he said. “You owe that to the Earth.”