Students Find a Science-Filled Summer at BIOS

In mid-July, BIOS held its fourth Ocean Science Camp (OSC), a week-long summer course for students between the ages of 12 and 15. The camp is designed specifically for students who have an interest in the ocean, but have yet to participate in rigorous studies or field experiences. This year, 12 students took part in OSC, which combines classroom instruction, laboratory investigations, and research-based field excursions with information about Bermuda’s marine environments and ongoing research at BIOS

While some students begin high school with solid career goals in mind, others are trying to identify their interests and align them with potential academic majors or occupations. The BIOS Ocean Science Camp (OSC) was created in 2018 to help engage and support this latter group of students. OSC is a snorkel-based summer camp geared toward students between the ages of 12 and 15 who are interested in the ocean, but may not have had previous opportunities to study marine science.

“We had a phenomenal group of students this summer who enthusiastically embraced all aspects of the program,” said BIOS science education officer Claire Fox. “It was exciting to see each of them gain confidence in scientific techniques, both in the lab and in-water. However, the most rewarding part of the program, for me, was how this diverse group of students came together as a team to take on new challenges and learn from each other.”

The 2022 OSC took place from July 18 through 22, with 12 participants immersed in full days of classroom and field-based learning from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The camp was led by Fox with support from Isabella “Isa” Checa, 19, a second-year geosciences student at Princeton University in New Jersey (U.S.). Checa spent ten weeks from late June through the end of August working as an intern in BIOS’s education department through the Princeton Internships in Civic Service (PICS) program.

“In addition to gaining experience with education practices and how to work with older students in middle and high school, I learned a lot about ocean science and biology-based science,” said Checa, who was born and raised in Ecuador. “One of the biggest lessons I will take away from my internship is that showing kids what scientists do, having them be out in the field taking measurements and learning about research methods, gets them really excited about learning.”

For many students, a highlight of the Ocean Science Camp comes on the final day, when they work with Kyla Smith, BIOS dive safety officer. The morning is spent learning basic SCUBA theory, while the afternoon is reserved for a boat excursion to a sheltered, shallow location where they work with Smith to don SCUBA gear and take their first breaths underwater.

OSC’s core curriculum features an overview of Bermuda’s marine ecosystems, coral and fish identification, fundamentals in conducting scientific investigations, and underwater data collection methods. In addition, OSC includes a “Discover SCUBA Diving Experience” on the last day, which pairs a morning of SCUBA theory from BIOS dive safety officer Kyla Smith with an afternoon boat trip that allows students to take their first breaths underwater.

A Unique Learning Partnership

This year’s camp also featured a unique learning partnership between OSC students and interns in BIOS’s Bermuda Program, which pairs university-level Bermudian students with BIOS faculty for paid summer research fellowships. Throughout the week, three 2022 Bermuda Program interns engaged OSC participants in activities based on their summer research projects. While the younger students gained insight into potential career pathways and ongoing local research from relatable mentors, the partnership was also valuable for the interns. Teaching in OSC offered valuable experience in science communication ahead of their final talks, where they would be presenting their research to BIOS faculty, staff, and other students in a traditional academic seminar.

“It gave us an opportunity to step back and think about how we could most effectively communicate what we were working on, which is an extremely useful skill to have at any point in a science career,” said Saxon Davis, 20, a third-year biology student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (Canada).

BIOS science education officer Claire Fox (bottom) leads Ocean Science Camp (OSC) students in an investigation into the genetics of purple sea urchins. This year’s camp gave OSC participants the opportunity to hear from BIOS Bermuda Program interns and learn about their research projects, conducted under the mentorship of the Institute’s faculty and research staff. Purple sea urchins are used as model organisms in the lab of molecular biologist Julius Barsi.

Davis and fellow Bermuda Program intern Tomasina Pearman, 17, a high school senior at Westminster School in Connecticut (U.S.), both conducted research on gene expression in purple sea urchins under the mentorship of molecular biologist Julius Barsi. During OSC, they led students through an urchin spawning lab and used the interactive “Virtual Urchin” website to teach concepts in genetics research. 

Bermuda Program intern Robin Stempel, 21, a third-year biochemistry student at High Point University in North Carolina (U.S.), spent the summer investigating the biodiversity of Bermuda’s recovering seagrass meadows. In addition to traditional visual survey methods, she also used a technique involving environmental DNA, or eDNA, the trace genetic material transferred from an organism to its environment. Sources of eDNA in the ocean include scales from fish, decaying seagrass blades, and waste material, among others. Stempel was jointly mentored by BIOS research specialist Tim Noyes and research intern Andreas Ratteray, 27, both involved in projects that use eDNA to study Bermuda’s fish populations.

Together, Ratteray and Stempel guided OSC students in the collection of seagrass abundance and diversity data during a snorkel excursion to Paradise Lakes, located in the Great Sound on the western part of the island. Later in the week, OSC participants had the opportunity to attend Stempel’s final talk, which ended up being a highlight for students and instructors alike.

“Robin talked about her research and the students got to see their work and how it helped her,” Checa said. “She had maps of where she surveyed and acknowledged the OSC students and their survey points in Paradise Lakes. They were all very excited to see how they contributed.”

Stempel was equally excited, saying: “I thoroughly enjoyed being able to share my research with the students to show that we, as Bermudians, can help and learn so much from our environment. It was fun to be able to show them the importance of what I do with my research on seagrass beds, and the hands-on skills that I learned from it.”

Isa Checa (second from left), a Princeton Internships in Civic Service Intern from Princeton University, assists Ocean Science Camp students as they learn gel electrophoresis, a laboratory technique widely used in molecular biology and biochemistry labs.

Following on this, Fox taught OSC students a laboratory analysis technique called “gel electrophoresis,” which allows larger molecules, such as DNA, to be separated and visualized. For researchers like Ratteray and Stempel, this technique allows them to use eDNA from water samples to identify which species of fish are (or were recently) present in the area, without having to collect or see the organisms themselves. This method is particularly useful for biodiversity studies, as it helps account for species that are camouflaged, challenging to collect, or difficult to tell apart in the field. It can also identify organisms not present during the visual survey, such as fishes that migrate to seagrass meadows to forage at night.

Ocean Science Inspirations and Aspirations

In addition to talking about their research, the Bermuda Program interns shared their academic backgrounds and career aspirations. “We got to talk about past experiences, both at BIOS and elsewhere, that helped get us to where we are today,” Davis said. “I hope we inspired some of the students to continue pursuing science and to apply to future programs at BIOS.”

It’s safe to say the interns inspired at least one student: OSC participant Paige Rodday, 13, a rising year 9 student at Bermuda High School, who not only wants to obtain her SCUBA certification, but is also thinking about a future career in ocean science. “I want to be a marine biologist and start that by doing an internship at BIOS,” she said. “I told my little brother [Rocco, age 7] all about Ocean Science Camp and he can’t wait to sign up.”

Spending time with the interns and university-level summer course students at BIOS had a positive impact on Checa, as well, who is now considering an independent major that is more focused on education and public policy in climate change.

“This internship has been filled with so many enriching personal experiences, from being able to connect with other interns and hear about their research and where they want to go in life, to seeing what being an academic means, to getting a glimpse of what science in the field looks like,” she said. “It has definitely influenced my personal goals as well, because I now know that if I go into climate science, it will be through the ocean.”