UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Fall 2009
[invigorating]
Just Like Paradise
Marine Science program in Mexico connects with teens
by Ryan T. Blystone
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PHOTO BY Stephen Simpson
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boat drops anchor near a patch of sandy shoreline. It’s a little windy, but there’s not a cloud in the sky.

Visitors to this mangrove wetland on the island of Coronado, in Mexico’s desert oasis of Bahia de Los Angeles, are sporting appropriate gear: floppy hats and sunglasses. A group gathers around Dylan Edwards, a director of research for the Ocean Discovery Institute’s Bahia program, eager to learn what participants have been up to for the last several weeks.

“We’re here to better understand the ecosystem,” Edwards explains. “It’s very important for us to do our research because Bahia de Los Angeles is not yet damaged.”

Edwards hands the reins of the discussion over to six Hoover High School students. They discuss the effects of biodiversity in the wetlands area; their short presentations display infectious enthusiasm for what they still hope to find in their research efforts. Two other student groups, dubbed “Pesca” and “Islands,” echo that attitude.

Pesca’s mission is to determine if sea turtles and fisheries can coexist. The Islands group, directed by USD marine science and environmental studies assistant professor Drew Talley, examines the marine ecosystem and its influence on island dynamics. Each project delivers its own unique educational angle, but the staff at the Mission Bay-based Ocean Discovery Institute (formerly Aquatic Adventures), keeps a collective eye on the big picture.

“It’s about transforming our students’ lives through science,” ODI executive director Shara Fisler says.

Fisler, an adjunct marine science and evolutionary biology professor at USD for nine years, started ODI in 1999. Staffed by several USD alumni, as well as Talley, ODI’s programs expose children living in low-income neighborhoods in San Diego’s City Heights to marine science education.

“We actually start engaging youth at preschool age to come to our habitat restoration projects,” Fisler says.

Part of ODI’s Ocean Leaders program, Bahia is geared toward high school students; 15 students from Hoover High attended this year. Students participated in activities and swim lessons in San Diego before heading to Mexico for five weeks of research work. They then spent three weeks finalizing their research before presenting it at The Neurosciences Institute.

The experience is so powerful that former Bahia students return for short visits. Marlem Rivera, a senior at Hoover, came to see her younger brother, Jorge, go through this year’s program. “Every year there’s something different,” Rivera says. “Without this program, I know I’d have been lost.”

Beyond the undeniably life-changing nature of the program, as a marine research destination, Bahia de Los Angeles is ideal. It has diverse terrain, rare sea birds, glow-in-the-dark scorpions and lush ocean life.

It’s a place where University of California, Davis, professor Gary Polis enjoyed spending time. An expert on Baja California scorpions, spiders and food webs, he worked extensively in the area, compiling nearly 20 years of research before a tragic accident claimed his life nearly a decade ago. Polis and eight others were returning from an island research trip when rough waves in the Sea of Cortez capsized their boat. Polis and four other scientists died. The accident was devastating, but it spurred others into action.

Talley, then a UC Davis associate ecologist, along with some of Polis’ postdoctoral researchers, including Gary Huxel, a survivor from the accident, stepped in to keep the project going.

“The process of discovery is a great joy,” Talley says. “I think scientists sometimes shy away from outreach and education because they view it as important but tangential to their academic endeavors. For me, nothing could be farther from the truth.”

“I never met Gary, but we all feel a connection to him because of the work he did,” Fisler says. “We talk about it every year here with our students. Being here means our students have the chance to follow in the footsteps of some great scientists.”