When Saturdays Became Learning Days

After collecting samples from the beach, Bermuda College student Maya Leighton sorted pulverized plastic pieces from organic materials (immersing the sample in seawater allowed the plastics to float, making it easier to pick out each piece). The program helped students, and scientists, learn about the extent of microplastics, which marine animals may confuse for food, at area beaches. Leighton and two other students participated in a weekly science program at BIOS this fall to continue learning that was disrupted by the pandemic. Photo by Kyla Smith.

When the ongoing pandemic scuttled Maya Leighton’s plans this fall to attend a university overseas, she instead enrolled for a year at Bermuda College. There, a professor noted Leighton’s commitment to marine sciences and suggested a unique opportunity. How about spending Saturdays at BIOS, learning about coral reefs, marine microplastics, plankton, and mangrove restoration on island?

In October and November, Leighton and fellow Bermudian students Jihad Muhammed and Iziah Tucker joined BIOS marine science educator Kyla Smith (now the Institute’s dive safety officer) for paid internships that allowed them to learn while contributing to four ongoing research projects conducted by BIOS faculty, staff, and fellow university students.

Jihad Muhammad (in black shirt) and Osei Agyapong (an intern with BIOS’s Ocean Academy program) collected samples then sifted them to sort plastics from sand, plants, rocks, and other organic materials. Once most of the sand had been removed, the team brought the material left in the sifter back to the lab at BIOS for sorting.

Some Saturdays they sifted coastal sand for microplastics, then identified the sizes and classes of the plastic fragments. Other days they catalogued and repotted mangrove saplings, or collected mangrove propagules from Walsingham Nature Reserve. They also deployed and recovered plankton nets, and learned about the island’s native corals while working on an ongoing project to catalogue reef species. This project benefited not only the Institute but also ongoing research at the Living Reefs Foundation.

Students spent their final Saturday touring the Institute’s laboratory spaces and learning about research projects completed by U.S. undergraduate students participating in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at BIOS this fall.

Leighton, 18, who graduated valedictorian from Mount Saint Agnes Academy in 2020, called the two-month experience “extremely valuable, because I believe no time should be wasted. Personally, I feel it beneficial to fill as much time as possible with experiences, like internships, in order to help with future endeavors, such as applying to a university, getting a job or working with scientists,” she said. The internship affirmed her marine science study plans, which she said she hopes to continue at a university in the U.K. in the fall of 2021.

Back in the lab, the team dried the plastics and sorted them into different size classes of microplastics. During the program on Saturdays, students were mentored by former Bermuda Program intern Shane Antonition (standing, in black shirt). “His story of coming full circle from intern to mentor provided them all with very real, reachable goals for a future in science at BIOS,” said program coordinator Kyla Smith. “That alone was immeasurable for their confidence.” Photo by Kyla Smith.

The program, informally known as the Ocean Academy Saturday Intern Program, was the brainchild of Smith and Kaitlin Noyes, BIOS’s director of education and community engagement. They reached out to administrators at the island’s two public high schools and Bermuda College to identify students keen on studying marine biology, but stymied by the pandemic.

“This year has been a circus for students, upending their higher education plans, so we put our heads together to figure out how we could provide a program that could give them some meaningful laboratory and field experience,” Smith said. The program was funded as a component of the BIOS Curriculum Enrichment Program, which includes a consortium of financial supporters (including the Centennial Bermuda Foundation, a supporter of BIOS’s work in public schools).

ocean academy interns

This fall, Iziah Tucker, a Bermuda College student and Ocean Academy Saturday Intern Program student, helped with an island-wide cleanup effort. Photo by Kyla Smith.