At the Salty Edge
The best present that I have ever received is a sign that reads, “You Smell Like Low Tide.” The real gift was not the wood that the words are painted on, but the fact that my family knows the conditions where I feel most myself….at the salty edge, preferably at low tide.
Helping young people connect to the environment and find their own “low tide” is by far the most important aspect of my work. This past summer, 38 students ages 11 to 18 from seven towns joined a coalition of scientists and citizen activists working to preserve the Great Marsh located on the North Shore of Massachusetts and build resilience in their communities.
The students contributed valuable energy to three inter-related projects focused on restoring eelgrass beds, understanding the population dynamics of green crabs and developing commercial markets for this invasive species.
Students collected data (lots of data) on green crabs and harvested and planted eelgrass for projects spearheaded by Dr. Alyssa Novak, coastal ecologist at Boston University, and Peter Phippen of MassBays National Estuary Program as part of the Hurricane Sandy Resiliency Grant.
They had opportunities for both “muddy boots” work and “dress-to-impress” work for Roger Warner, who is leading the Green Crab R&D Project’s effort to encourage consumers to “eat the enemy.”
On the leading edge of a steep curve to understand the green crab molting process, a select group of meticulous high school and college students completed painstaking work trapping and examining crabs for obscure signs of imminent molting. When softshell crabs were needed to feed to Senator Bruce Tarr, a hardy crew went to work hand-collecting crabs through a technique we coined “flipping seaweed.”
A group of middle schoolers proved to be especially adept at using their knowledge and creativity to draw crowds at area festivals-- entertaining, informing and engaging the public in solutions simultaneously. It was at one of these events that Katie Gootkind of Newburyport was recognized for her verbal acuity and asked to star in a documentary film about the issue.
It was tremendously satisfying to do authentic work alongside these interesting and capable young people. And, it matters little to me whether they found that they love field work or that they hate it. I am as pleased for the young man who found that he likes photography more than he likes the ocean, as I am for those who are applying to college with marine science as their intended major. We all have to find our own low tide.
Ellen Link is a science teacher in Gloucester, Massachusetts who specializes in project-based science and ocean literacy. She holds degrees in resource management, geography, marine affairs, and science education and came to teaching after working in the fields of environmental education and marine resource management. She believes that helping young people connect to nature and gain skills of agency are key to their ability to be stewards of a changing world. She is happiest when tromping around outdoors with children...preferably at the salty edge. Ellen’s overview of the summer citizen science project is followed by accounts of two student interns, Caroline Link and Tucker Hase, who followed her to the salty edge and beyond.
Finding My Passion
Going into my senior year at Newburyport High, I feel comfortable saying that I have a fairly good idea of what high school is like. Name any type of project, paper or presentation, and it’s likely that I’ve completed it at some point in my educational career. However, something that I’ve struggled with throughout the past four years has been a nagging feeling that even though I’m always busy, I’m never truly doing anything. It’s often hard for me to see the meaning behind my assignments, they are usually busy work without any personal sense of purpose. In all of the clutter of test taking and typing essays, 12-point Times New Roman font-always, it can be far too easy to lose sight of the purpose of it all. I spend all of my time working to gain knowledge and develop new skills, but often find myself asking when will this begin to apply to something I’m actually passionate about? That is, until last May.
I’ll admit it, when I was first asked to drive one of Boston University’s research boats out to a site in the Essex River at 5am on a Sunday, I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the idea. I was even less excited when I was recruited to measure and sex over a hundred agitated green crabs. But, despite my initial hesitation, I quickly realized that this was the fulfillment of my interests and application of my knowledge I was missing in high school. There’s no telling whether it was being crouched in 55-degree water when the sun was still rising over
the salt marsh or the unmistakable sound of 30 pounds of crab legs scrabbling around against the plastic of 40-gallon buckets, but I was immediately sold. I had finally found my big breakthrough: gaining experience doing the type of work that I’d like to pursue while also contributing to actual scientific research and public outreach in my community? How could I possibly pass up such an opportunity? I quickly began to help out with both the green crab R&D and eelgrass efforts in whatever ways I could whenever I got the chance.
After I had learned about both the objectives of the two projects, and how to assist with them, I began looking for ways to take on a leadership role within the programs. For example, in August I was able to coordinate and lead a day of green crab data collection as a part of a tri-annual assessment of the abundance of the invasive species in the Parker River watershed. For this event, I was charged with providing the materials needed for the data collection, recruiting and training volunteers and ensuring that the data being collected was accurate. One of my favorite aspects of that day was the fact that all of the volunteers were either my peers or younger students that I know from my former elementary school. Seeing as I had been so changed by my participation in “citizen science,” I was excited share this same experience with members of my own community. And, though counting green crabs for hours at a time certainly try one’s patience and commitment, by the end of the day, you could tell that something had changed in the eyes of the participants. I remember one girl excitedly telling me that “I thought that this was going to be super boring, but it was actually pretty fun!”
Throughout their education, students gain lots of experience with conceptualizing; we design science experiments, we think about how a certain math topic could be applied, and write papers on how we might solve current world issues, but very rarely are we given the chance to actually implement our solutions or ideas in the real world. We spend our time developing critical thinking and creative problem solving skills in preparation for a future in which we’ll have an opportunity to apply them to a real issue, but why does that kind of valuable experience have to wait until adulthood? There is an undeniable power in the process of striving to solve a real problem and being able to see the concrete products of that effort. This is especially true for young people who are still working to find their purpose in their communities, and the sooner we provide students with the opportunity to do so, the sooner we begin to motivate the next generation of engaged citizens.
Caroline Link is a senior at Newburyport High School. In her sophomore year, she attended the Coastal Studies for Girls semester school, where she presented the results of an original research experiment to the public at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Her involvement with GOMI has included helping to facilitate two Climate Cafes. This past summer Caroline also became involved in the green crab research and eelgrass restoration efforts run by Dr. Alyssa Novak, Dr. Peter Phippen and Roger Warner and interned at Gloucester Maritime’s Sea Pocket Aquarium. Caroline is very interested in both the public outreach and research aspects of marine science and plans to pursue them in college.
Environmental Science Internship
The first thing I heard was the annoying, blaring sound of “marimba” my phone plays at 4 a.m. I sighed and rolled out of bed. I plodded my way over to the bathroom where I accidentally put shaving cream on my toothbrush and began to brush. Within seconds I realized my mistake and spit out the blue Gillette formula. I proceeded to brush my teeth with proper toothpaste and attempted to take a shower, where I slipped and fell. Laying there, at 4:10 a.m. on my shower floor, scalding hot water pouring down on me with the gross taste of toothpaste and shaving cream in my mouth, all that comes across my mind is “do I really want to do this internship?” I was close to getting up and going back to bed. But something inside me that day prevented me from going back to my warm, cozy bed and made me drive out to Essex to plant eelgrass in freezing cold water. And all I can do is thank that little part of me that kept me motivated to go help because that internship was one of the best experiences of my life.
Since childhood I have been intrigued by the ocean and how it works. I grew up in Rockport and later Manchester, so being on the ocean was never a problem for me. Also, as a kid, I did a summer camp called “Gloucester Museum School” where kids learn about the Greater Essex Marsh and the ecosystem. But to a kid, I never really learned in depth about what was going on. All I remember being told is that the marsh was collapsing. I didn’t know why until last year when I decided to take AP Biology and a class called “Authentic Scientific Research.”
AP Bio and Authentic Scientific Research (or “ASR” for short) was a very influential duo for me. I loved biology, and the entire goal of the ASR class was to get a summer internship. The duo made me focus my attention on getting a biology related internship for the summer. It was brutal. I had to email over 95 different people. I had two potential internships that fell through. Literally every student in my class had an internship before me. But then I found my calling. When my aunt mentioned to me her friend at BU studies environmental sciences, I was excited. But then I read the BU website page on her studies. The amount of excitement I had was uncontrollable. Help save the marsh that I literally grew up on and played in as a kid, which later served as my first real experience as a job? The place that brings me so much solace and comfort? Where so many fond memories were forged that I reminisce in almost every day? What could possibly be more perfect? I remember emailing my teacher that day in all caps, “I FOUND THE ONE!” The next school day I was already on the phone with Alyssa Novak, the main researcher behind the projects. I remember her telling me about all the projects that she was working on, and when she asked me “Which project would you like to do?” all I could muster was “Uhh… all of them.” So that’s what I did.
Over the course of the summer I worked all three projects Alyssa let me. I worked the Eelgrass Restoration Project, Green Crab Research, and in Marsh Edge Erosion. All three were incredibly important to me. The first thing I worked in was the Eelgrass Restoration project. I remember I met up with Ellen Link, a main researcher working alongside Alyssa, in a Friendly’s parking lot. She and a few volunteers were in a tattered minivan that resembled one my family owned when I was a kid. That afternoon we went to a nearby beach where eelgrass is flourishing in order to root some up and later plant them in places where the eelgrass is needed. This was necessary to do because eelgrass is an incredibly stabilizing element to the Greater Essex Marsh, and there were lots of places where it is needed due to green crabs destroying it’s population. Anyway, that day we got about two coolers worth of eelgrass. It was an incredible experience, and I was super stoked to be part of the team. But then I asked a question that I thought I would regret. “So when are we gonna plant these?” Ellen turned to me and said, “Well 5 a.m. tomorrow is the next tide, so then. Would you like to come?” Without hesitation I replied “Of course!” Then immediately after I realized the implications of my actions. I would have to wake up early that very next morning. But, I knew it was for the best. I felt like it was necessary for me to do it. So that next morning, I woke up at 4 a.m. to get ready.
The second project I worked on was Green Crab Research. This really opened my eyes to what research is. I met up with Peter Phippen, another main researcher specializing in green crabs and marsh edge erosion. We went out on his small boat and pulled thirteen traps. It didn’t sound like much at first, but as soon as I pulled the first trap I realized how wrong I was. The trap contained over one hundred crabs. After somehow managing to fit thirteen traps on the boat, we headed towards the dock. I thought all that was going to happen was I was going to carry the traps to a truck or something and they were going to be counted elsewhere and I could go home. I was wrong. Peter and I met up with Alyssa, Ellen’s daughter Caroline, and a few other volunteers from a school in Boston to count and classify each crab from each trap. So there I was, out in blazing hot weather with no sunscreen saying “Male. 4.5 centimeters. Female. 4 centimeters. Gravid” for hours on end. By the time, I got home I was scalded and drained of all energy. That day we counted upwards of 800 crabs. Despite all this, it was an incredible time. I learned so much about how green crabs came over here in the ballast of ships from Europe in the 1800s, how they are one of the biggest factors in the eelgrass decline, how they are an invasive species with exponential growth and that’s why they were undetectable beforehand, and so much more. It was a phenomenal experience.
The third project I worked on was Marsh Edge Erosion, and although short lived, I did learn a lot from my experience. Walking out two miles on the marsh and being absolutely devoured by greenheads and horseflies, to take a few measurements seemed trivial to me at first, but yet again I was wrong. I was with Alyssa and Peter that day and we took way more measurements than I expected. We used a tape measure and wooden stakes to measure how much the marsh had eroded since the last measurements were taken. We always had record a bearing perpendicular to the edge of the marsh. On the edges we used a “quadrat,” which is a meter by a meter in area, to measure things such as holes in the marsh and algae, indicative of excess nutrients. As my mentors explained to me, the holes are generally caused by green crab burrowing (which could be part of the cause for marsh erosion). Also, excess nutrients could cause less of a “cement” for the marsh, again weakening it’s structure. We used cameras to verify if crabs are burrowing into the marsh and have a visual statement of the measured area. On the way out, I was also shown a type of weed that infests the marsh and is detrimental toward the marsh’s structure. I was also shown a potential idea to help save the marsh, which was putting sand on the marsh and seeing if the marsh grew through the sand. This was one way to help restore the marsh.
All in all, my experience was incredibly valuable and important to me. I learned more about the North Eastern ecosystem than most people will ever get a chance to learn. Sure, getting up at 5 a.m. to plant Eelgrass in freezing water, or getting sunburned so bad it hurts to sit due to counting and classifying crabs all day, or getting absolutely mauled by greenheads wasn’t pleasant. But it was so worth it. I actually felt like I contributed something while also getting a fantastic education on our ecosystem and marine biology. Not only that, but I was introduced to what it is like to be a researcher and how much fun it can be and how much I have to learn. Overall, it was an experience that really helped shape what I want to do with my life and it will never be forgotten.
Tucker Hase is completing his senior year of high school in Manchester, Massachusetts. His academic interests are science based with love physics and chemistry and a keen interest in biology. Tucker became interested in environmental science as a result of his early childhood experience at a salt marsh camp. There, in his words, “ The seed was planted in my mind that grew over time; what else caused salt marsh deterioration? How does the ecosystem work?” So his seed, nourished over time field experiences flourished into a passion for biology that is leading him to major in environmental science.