SALEM — High school students learned last week that the Bay State's proximity to the ocean can provide a living beyond the fishing industry.
They learned about how they could farm mussels, create bioplastics or extract DNA from fish tissue. They also learned that marine science spans various careers, from being scientists, academics and educators, to becoming artists, working in policy management or in communications.
Last Wednesday, the North Shore High School Marine Science Symposium gave students from 10 high schools a glimpse of career possibilities in marine science. The symposium was hosted at Salem State University by the Northeastern University Marine Science Center and the Massachusetts Marine Educators.
Dozens of students took part, including those from Rockport High, Hamilton-Wenham Regional High, and St. John's Prep.
"We're here to kind of give students the hands-on view of what it's like to be in marine science and studying underwater," said Andrea Jerabek, program manager for Northeastern University's Marine and Environmental Sciences Three Seas Program, for undergrads interested in marine biology. Northeastern operates a Marine Science Center in Nahant.
Jerabek brought along scuba gear to show students how it works.
"We just wanted to talk to these high school students about their options, that this can be your job. You can go scuba diving every week and look at the fish, and corrals and invertebrates, and this can be your career path."
There are a lot of career opportunities in the region, Jerabek said, adding that people don't need to go to Florida, the Caribbean or Australia to do marine science.
Locally grown mussels
For instance, researcher Ted Maney, a biology lab instructor at Salem State University, pointed to the Cat Cove Marine Laboratory's mussel farm.
Cat Cove is a shellfish hatchery where students work during the school year and in the summer, doing routine maintenance and feeding the mussels and clams, Maney said. They hatch softshell clams and mussels.
"It's the first mussel farm on the Atlantic Coast in federal waters," said Maney, who said 95 percent of the mussels produced on the East Coast come from Canada. "So there's definitely a market to produce more locally grown mussels in addition to other shellfish."
However, there is not enough space along the coast north of Boston to set up a mussel farm, so Maney said they have moved offshore into federal waters, eight miles off Rockport. They have been growing mussels on a giant submerged clotheslines 50 to 75 feet underwater for 2 1/2 years. They plan to expand this year with an eye on going commercial.
At the symposium, Maney was part of a workshop that looked at what mussels feed.
"The sad reality is we don't do enough studying of our coastal oceans," he said. "We know more about outer space and NASA gets a humongously large budget compared to what marine science gets, but the reality is something like this mussel farm project, especially shellfish, aquaculture, is the way to feed our populations and even the world's populations."
Aquaculture production is growing, while so-called wild capture fisheries have "flatlined' since the 1970s, Maney said.
Salem native and Salem State junior Victoria Kako, a marine biology major, said the study of marine life is critical right now. She also works with mussels at Cat Cove.
"I love sharing what I know and I love teaching and learning," said Kako, who helped teach a workshop to students on how to measure the number of cells mussels eat per minute. "It sounds like something that is difficult to do, but it's not."
A replacement for plastic
Robin Chernow works as the science education manager for the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership off the coast of Rockland, Maine.
Her workshop was all about making bioplastics using a substance called agar-agar, which is made from red seaweeds and algae, she said. The substance holds promise as a replacement for plastic, a major source of pollution in the world's oceans.
The challenge now is to make bioplastic strong enough to be waterproof.
"So, we are thinking about business opportunities with seaweed and bioplastics could be one of them," Chernow said.
"I think gaining career exposure is a big opportunity here. And then, also, bioplastic is a current, relevant environmental and ocean-related problem and these students could innovate and develop products and figure out applications," Chernow said.
Megan Peterson, 18, and Isabella Jodoin, 18, of Hamilton-Wenham Regional High, were interested in bioplastics. Peterson is looking at a career in marine science while Jodoin plans to major in engineering in college.
"I just find it fascinating that we've only explored 3 percent of our oceans ... So I really want to contribute to new findings and just exploring more of the ocean," Peterson said.
Peterson is doing a research project about microplastics and how microscope organisms like plankton are consuming them, leading plastic to get into the food chain from fish to people.
"It will also become a climate change problem," Jodoin said, due to emission from plastics.
Katherine Dench, the education and laboratory coordinator for the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy, said she wants to get kids excited about marine science and the application of biotechnology to marine science.
Her workshop involved teaching kids how to extract DNA from fish tissue using household products.
The new academy's parent is the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute on Gloucester Harbor. The academy offers a program called SummerSTEM, weeklong lab immersion programs for middle and high-school students in the summer.
"That's a lab immersion experience where they get to play the role of scientific investigator and use modern forensic science methods to identify different fish species," Dench said. The academy also offers a vocational training program for lab technicians from September to May.
"We train them very much the way you would train a mechanic or an electrician or a plumber. It's all hands-on, immersive at the lab bench experience. They spend six months in our laboratory and then they have three months with a local biotechnology company that's agreed to take our students as interns."
Dench said she hopes the symposium got students interested in the field.
"I'm hoping just a lot of excitement. Some inspiration, and knowledge of the different organizations that are doing all this amazing work in the area," Dench said.