‘There are big researchers here!’ Marine science symposium gives high school students an opportunity to see Northeastern scientists at work

High school students dissecting marine life
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Not every student attending the High School Marine Science Symposium at the Curry Student Center on Northeastern’s Boston campus Thursday will become a scientist.

But each of them has the opportunity to advocate for healthy oceans and sustainable environments, whether they become researchers, teachers, artists, policymakers or simply informed voters, Sierra Munoz, outreach program coordinator for Northeastern’s Marine Science Center, told the 170 Boston-area students. 

Reclaiming coral reefs, oceans and biodiversity is important for the future, Munoz said. “And that future includes all of you.”

The annual symposium, held by Northeastern jointly with the Massachusetts Marine Educators group, was the first to meet in person since March of 2020.

“We hope that you’ll learn something new about our coastlines and oceans, that you’ll meet some scientists and conservation leaders whose work interests you and that you find some inspiration to continue on your current path towards affecting change on this planet,” Munoz said.

The morning symposium gave students the opportunity to attend workshops where they learned why ocean acidification poses a threat to the environment and how hard it is for marine mammals to communicate when there’s a lot of human-made noise.

Students got a chance to use seaweed to make pressings or rubbings. They dissected oysters into parts most gourmands don’t give a thought to, including gills, digestive tracts and gonads, and learned what it takes to be a shark scientist.

Amelia Laguerre of Somerville High School put a drop of water in a device called a refractometer that allowed her to measure salinity. She aimed it at a ceiling light to see the salinity score. “It’s 35. Super salty! Straight from the ocean,” Laguerre said.

Water from another jar had zero salinity. “This is freshwater,” Laguerre said, adding that she wished her school had a refractometer.

“I like everything about (marine biology),”  she said.

The symposium is a way to bring the ocean into the classroom, said Pat Harcourt, a volunteer with the Massachusetts Marine Educators group.

“Many high schools don’t have courses dedicated to marine science,” she said.

Jesse Mechling from the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, which was one of 20 groups doing presentations at the symposium, said the Massachusetts Marine Educators group representing teachers in grades K-12 has been hosting the event for 50 years, the last 10 or so in conjunction with Northeastern.

Harcourt said marine science cuts across the curriculum and touches on everything from art and science to engineering. It’s especially important that Massachusetts students learn about the marine environment, she said.

students attending marine science symposium
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“We are the Bay State. Our history is connected to the ocean,” she said.

During the Ocean Science Activity Fair part of the morning, students were treated to demonstrations on identifying fish species, observed differences between types of live crabs and learned why scuba diving isn’t just a sport—it’s a scientific tool.

Sam Zhang, a graduate student with Northeastern’s Three Seas Program, talked about diving off Massachusetts versus Panama with a group of students from John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury.

Senior Derian Pena, 17, who hopes to study marine biology in college, said the day was a great opportunity to learn about fish living in their natural environment, “not in a glass box.”

Geoffrey Garcia and Vincent Nguyen, also seniors at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, watched a staff person from the Urban Harbors Institute use a filter to decant plastic particles from sandy water so that particles of five millimeters or less could be examined under a microscope.

The symposium gave the students an opportunity to see actual scientists at work, said Nguyen, 17. “There are big researchers here!”

“We’re learning from people’s experiences,” said Garcia, 18.

“The ocean’s very unexplored. Most people aren’t thinking about it unless they live on the ocean,” said Maisie Pierce, 17, a junior at St. Mark’s School in Southborough.

Pierce listened when Rosie Poulin from Northeastern’s Ocean Genome Legacy Center showed off the waterproof collecting kit containing tiny test tubes that Northeastern scientists use to solicit fish and animal tissue samples from marine researchers around the globe.

“I’ve always loved marine science,” Pierce said. She said understanding the marine ecosystem is important since oceans take up most of the planet and have a profound impact on land ecosystems as well.

The symposium was a great opportunity to show students the types of jobs they can have in science while exposing them to a college environment, said Maynard High School biology teacher Valerie Cairns.

Violet Doucette, who earned a master of science degree from Northeastern’s Three Seas Program in 2020 and recently completed a NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship, told students in a keynote address to say yes to opportunities that come their way, follow work that excites them and to “apply for everything.”

Doucette, who currently works for NOAA, learned to scuba dive and drive boats in the course of her career.

The marine environment needs musicians and artist advocates as well as scientists and policy makers, she said. “Trust you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”

Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at c.hibbert@northeastern.edu or contact her on Twitter @HibbertCynthia