Where I’ve Been (Part II)

I know what you’re thinking- nobody wakes up one morning desperately wanting to see how water temperatures will affect some mussel species. So I’m going to try to break down for you where my interest stemmed from.

My parents have always been more eco-conscious than most, doing their best to separate our recyclables and to reuse plastic grocery bags. My mom lives for our local farmers’ market and my dad prides himself on taking over two weeks to use a tank of gas. But I don’t believe just growing up in a household like the one I did gave me the push I needed to start looking into climate change- though it certainly helped.

It really started in the 4th grade when my teacher assigned every kid in my class an environmental topic on which to write a short essay. Ms. Falcone nonchalantly plopped my future on my desk when she gave me a packet titled “Climate Change”.

“I think you can handle this one,” I remember her telling me. The flame was lit.

Fast-forward a few years, and I was racking my brain for ideas in my school’s ROGATE classroom (ROGATE is an optional, extra class for ‘gifted and talented’ students in elementary and middle schools). It was the beginning of 7th grade and my teacher had just announced that we could choose our topics for our year-long research projects that we would present to kids from across the state at the end of the school year.

I had no idea what to do. Looking back now, I don’t think I even knew what I was interested in at the time. Sure, I played soccer and enjoyed writing and did well in school, but I didn’t exactly have an identity yet. And I had no intentions of wasting an entire year studying something I didn’t like.

Then I remembered my fourth grade paper. From there, it didn’t take much convincing from my teacher and parents to pursue the project; everything I read about climate change fascinated me.

My hypothesis? “Manhattan will be underwater within the next fifty years.”

Yes, I was a bold one.

But I presented and was awarded a bronze “Satori” medal for my project. I can’t remember feeling prouder. The flame began to grow.

Another year and I was starting 8th grade. I had the option to continue my ROGATE project from the past year in hopes of receiving a gold Satori award. I flipped the decision over in my mind- this would require doing some sort of internship or volunteer work, getting published, and giving a public presentation all related to my project.

I was overwhelmed. I talked to my teacher about it and we came up with a plan: intern at the NY Department for Environmental Protection for a day, get published in a local weekly newspaper, give a short talk at a regional speaking contest.

Guess what? Check, check, check- I did it.

That flame was now a fire, and it was starting to spread uncontrollably.

And so I leave you with this quote:

“Everybody who’s doing anything positive in life had a teacher who turned the wattage up and wouldn’t let them turn it down.” – Chris Gardner

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Just so you don’t feel bad about yourself- how’d you like this picture to get published in the newspaper your whole town reads? Thanks, Dad.

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Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Goin’ (Part I)

I’ve been working day in and day out at Rutgers’ New Jersey Aquaculture Innovation Center (NJAIC) for the past two weeks. It’s a brand-spankin-new marine research and oyster production facility in Cape May, NJ.

I probably stepped in at the most ideal time because- no offense meant here- I’m not really interested in oysters.

I conducted an independent research project this past school year looking into the potential effects of warmer water temperatures (due to climate change) on Mytilus galloprovincialis– better known as the Mediterranean blue mussel. This particular species of mussel is invasive in South Africa and California, among other areas globally. So- putting the puzzle pieces together- I was wondering if rising water temperatures would make this mussel, essentially, more invasive or less invasive in the future.

Things did not go as planned. First of all, I ran the entire experiment out of my basement (pictures definitely to come). That meant no direct access to seawater, which meant making about 6 gallons of ‘fake’ seawater a day out of packaged sea salt and water conditioner. That also meant nobody was there to see firsthand if something was going awry. I found myself writing frantic emails to my mentor trying to explain how things looked (“Umm there’s this funky off-white foam forming at the top of my tanks. It’s sort of bubbly-ish. Sort of white- ehh, maybe it is off-white after all. Do you know what it is?”).

Not to mention the not-too-fabulous stank of decaying shellfish slowly but surely spreading into my kitchen. Mix all this together and throw in schoolwork, friends, and soccer, and you’ve got one heck of a year.

But, blessing in disguise, my troubles landed me this internship. I had asked my mentor if I could spend the summer interning with her to see how raising mussels is supposed to be done, but she said she’d be busy so she referred me to a lady at Rutgers, who referred me to the AIC.

Blessing…in…disguise.

I took a visit to the AIC in early March to see what it was all about, and my mind was blown. Imagine an aircraft hanger full of brand new tanks and pipes and direct access to both treated (UV filtered) and raw seawater. They also have some pretty neat gadgets, such as a camera that you can insert into a microscope eyepiece to take pictures of what you’re seeing.

The people that run the facility are awesome, as well. They not only allow but encourage their interns and staff to run their own experiments aside from doing their daily duties. I was in research heaven.

I arrived this summer in Cape May, and on my first day of work I was put in charge of about 7million oyster larvae. Uhh…

Contrary to what I thought at first, everything turned out- or has been turning out- fine. I’ve been working with the oyster larvae most mornings and working with mussels (!!!) most afternoons.

In fact, the reason I stepped in at the perfect time is because this year the AIC made history as the first facility EVER to spawn ribbed mussels (Geukensia demissa) in a laboratory setting. And the reason this is important is because ribbed mussels can be used to protect salt marshes from the erosion that motorboats cause.

So I spend my hot, sticky-humid Jersey afternoons counting the mussel larvae that have attached themselves to different substrates and figuring out ways to persuade the mussels to detach themselves from a substrate without harming the mussels.

‘Til next time.

My mussel babies at 6 weeks, half the size of a lowercase letter ‘o’ printed in Times New Roman size 10 (about 500 micrometers long). They look like sesame seeds.

My oyster larvae at 9 days, about 200 micrometers long. They look like grains of sand to the naked eye.

Stay tuned- the Curious YOUNG Writers wordpress blog is debuting at the end of this month! It’s a science blog site featuring articles written by high school students in New Jersey and sponsored by the NJ Association for Biomedical Research (NJABR). The current topic is how unusual animals are being used as research models for various diseases/conditions.