Written by Nereus Fellow Julia Mason
Four hundred miles south of their San Diego homes, where cardon cactus and ocotillo overlook a startling turquoise sea, twenty high school students spend their summer clad in rubber boots and toting waterproof data sheets, scanning the horizon for whale sharks each day on the way to their research sites. These Ocean Leaders have been handpicked and painstakingly prepped by Ocean Discovery Institute, a science education non-profit serving City Heights, a low-income community in San Diego. They’ve brought students down to Bahía de los Angeles in Baja California, Mexico for over a decade to contribute to rigorous, long-term ecological research projects. Seventy-five percent of these students will go on to graduate from college, compared to the national background rate of less than 10% among low-income, first-generation students. The majority major in science, and many of the permanent Ocean Discovery staff are Ocean Leader alumni. This summer, I joined them for the final week of their month-long program as a “Scientist in Residence.”
Given the 100+ degree heat, I was eager to join Team Bycatch on the water, testing deterrence devices to reduce accidental catch of sea turtles in fishing nets. Over the years collaborating with National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association scientists and local fishermen, students have proven the effectiveness of LED lights and low-frequency “pingers” in helping turtles avoid the nets. This year, we tested combinations of devices for a “multisensory” approach. By the time I joined the students, they were a sharply honed team, expertly retrieving, identifying, and measuring various species of fish, sharks, and rays, and gently releasing any non-target species back into the bay. I remarked that the data they were collecting—the type and size of species caught in a net, and when and where they were caught—was exactly what I was using in my PhD research. The only difference between their work and mine is that theirs involves much more singing along to Shawn Mendes.
My task as a Scientist in Residence was to just be a real human scientist with the students, someone tangible and hopefully relatable. At one point, a small group of students had an hour to grill me with a stack of pre-written questions, ranging from “What’s your favorite type of junk food?” (cookie dough ice cream, of course) to “What really keeps you up at night?” (Uhh…my own complicity in perpetuating the fundamentally inequitable, greenhouse gas ridden, biodiversity-depleted world you will inherit?)
I had many moments like this during my week with these students. On the surface, it’s always a joy to see students take ownership of research and form a connection with the oceans, while getting to goof off with them a bit. But right now, against a backdrop of cuts to programs supporting low-income communities and erosion of policies protecting marine ecosystems, this kind of community-oriented science education felt incredibly urgent. Sometimes, in the face of all that is threatened, all that’s unjust in the world, I wonder if marine conservation biology is defensible, or what’s worth saving. But these students’ exhilaration after swimming with whale sharks, and their genuine bonds of affection and respect with the fishermen working with them, were a vivid reminder of why I do what I do.
As we concluded our time in Baja, I was proud to watch their polished final presentation to the Bahía de los Angeles community. Many fishermen and their families came out to support these students and their important work. We weren’t just witnessing the wrap-up of summer projects; we were witnessing young people becoming invested in their community and in science. In my career as a scientist I’ve sought out many outreach opportunities and thought at length about how best to engage diverse minds in science and conservation. This model, with a holistic approach and such an emphasis on relating and giving to the local community, is one I hope to emulate.
Our twelve-hour return drive across the relentless sun-scorched landscape was a poignant and troubling time to reflect on how easily I crossed the border, where families were being torn apart even as we brought a bus full of homesick teenagers back to reunite with theirs. My time in Baja was a bright spot, but there’s more work to be done, both as a scientist and a citizen.
Edited by Victoria Pinheiro, Nereus Program Strategic Communications Lead