Bay Journal

World is her oyster: Science Fair project earns teen international recognition

Student's research about oysters in the Bay discovers that C. ariakensis doesn't fare as well as native species when bloom-forming algae are present

  • By Lara Lutz on October 01, 2006
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Emily Brownlee stands in front of her project’s display at the international Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition in Sweden.  (Stella Sellner) Emily Brownlee conducted her oyster research at the Morgan State University Estuarine Research lab. (Stella Sellner)

When Emily Brownlee set up her science fair project about oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, ball gowns and Swedish royalty were far from her mind.

But when all was all over, her project, “A Tale of Two Oysters,” had earned a prestigious national award and the chance to compete in Sweden for the international Stockholm Junior Water Prize.

Brownlee conducted her award-winning project while a senior at Calvert High School in Prince Frederick, MD. She compared the effects of two types of algae on the early growth of young native oysters (Crassostrea virginica) and young Asian oysters (C. ariakensis), which have been proposed for introduction to Bay waters.

The project debuted at the school science fair, and progressed to county and regional competitions. In June, she won the U.S. Stockholm Junior Water Prize, a specialized competition for water-related science projects.

“I was really excited,” Brownlee said.

As part of the award, Brownlee represented the United States at the international Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition in Sweden. She made the trip in August with her parents and environmental science teacher Chuck Gustin.

“At first I was really nervous,” Brownlee said. “But it was wonderful, and lots of fun, to meet the kids from other countries.”

Students from 27 countries competed for the prize. A team from China received the top award.

“I got to wear a ball gown one evening, when they awarded the Stockholm Water Prize for the professional scientists. It’s like the Nobel Prize for water. The princess of Sweden presented the awards,” Brownlee said.

Brownlee’s success grew from eight consecutive years of water-related science fair projects. The last three focused on Chesapeake oysters.

Her comfort with the subject came naturally. Her father, David Brownlee, is an environmental planner for Calvert County. Her mother, Stella Sellner, is an estuarine researcher at the Morgan State University Estuarine Research Center. Stepfather Kevin Sellner directs the Chesapeake Research Consortium.

Gustin inspired Brownlee with his enthusiasm and commitment to environmental stewardship. Her mother’s colleagues provided advice, lab space, and equipment, while ensuring that the topic—and the work—were her own.

Brownlee is now a freshman at Hood College in Frederick, studying environmental science and policy.

While Brownlee’s support system may seem unique, most students don’t realize that similar resources are available to them as well. Many professional scientists are happy to serve as mentors, whether working through an established mentor program or responding to an individual call for help.

“I’ve known everyone at the Morgan State lab since birth,” Brownlee said, “but they are very open to having students come in and work with them. They love to help anybody.”

Calvert County has a mentor system that pairs students with scientists in the field, but it is often underused. Gustin said one reason is that students sometimes hesitate to tackle more rigorous research that would benefit from a professional mentor.

“We have access to great mentors, but the kids have to show the interest and reach out,” Gustin said.

Thomas Miller of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has served as a mentor several times and helped to judge Calvert County science fairs for nearly a decade.

“I recently helped an Anne Arundel County high school student with crab research. He’d gone on the web and identified me as a potential source,” Miller explained.

But others hesitate to speak up.

“It’s no small thing for a student to have the courage to pick up the phone and contact a university professor,” Miller said. “Sometimes, the teachers need to mediate. But they’ll find innumerable resources—academic labs, state and federal institutions—that would be really happy to help.”

Some students build relationships with professional scientists by participating in environmental educational programs, like those offered by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and some public school systems. These programs also incorporate field experiences that motivate students to celebrate and explore the Chesapeake ecosystem that, for many, is virtually in their own backyard.

“There’s lots of potential for Bay-related studies,” Miller said. “It’s pertinent to the local environment, and there are tremendous resources available, especially in counties that border the Bay.”

Gustin would also like to see more water-related projects.

“Lots of people believe that water-based issues are the future,” Gustin said. “And it’s local, it’s right here. We live it daily.”

Student research can also yield meaningful results. Students competing for the international Stockholm Junior Water Prize tackled processes for cleansing contaminated water, controlling stormwater runoff, containing oil spills at sea, and reducing water-borne diseases.

Brownlee’s research adds to the ongoing debate about introducing non-native oysters to the Bay.

For two weeks, Brownlee raised, fed, and measured thousands of young oysters to learn whether common Bay algae affect their growth. She studied the oysters during an early and vulnerable stage of their lives: as they emerge from the larval stage, attach to a substrate and continue to grow their shells. Those that grow larger more quickly are less likely to be eaten by predators.

Brownlee determined that certain bloom-forming algae stunted the growth of both oysters, especially that of C. ariakensis.

Ariakensis didn’t grow as well as our native oysters, and they didn’t assimilate the food as well. They spit it back out,” Brownlee said.

The project convinced Brownlee that conservation efforts should focus on saving native oysters, especially because algae blooms remain common.

“If we don’t clear up our algal blooms, it would really make things tough for ariakensis,” Brownlee said.

Despite long hours spent tending oysters and analyzing data, Brownlee describes the experience as one of the best in her life. She advises other students to develop science fair projects that truly appeal to them.

“Find a topic that interests you and look for help anywhere,” Brownlee said. “Talk to other people who have done well in science fairs and ask for contacts. No idea is too big.”

Award Opportunities for Students

The Stockholm Junior Water Prize is designed to encourage interest in issues concerning water and the environment. The U.S. competition is open to any high school student, or small team of students, who have conducted water-related projects on local, regional, national or global topics of environmental, scientific, social or technological importance, and entered those projects in a qualifying science fair.

Students must first register for the state competition and submit their research on-line. Deadlines are in early April, but vary by state. Winners make an expenses-paid trip with their advisors to the national competition in June. The national winner receives $3,000 and an expense paid trip, along with his or her adviser, to compete in the international Stockholm Junior Water Prize in Sweden.

The Water Environment Federation organizes the U.S. competition, with support from ITT Industries and The Coca-Cola Company. For application and deadline information, call 800-666-0206 or visit www.wef. org/LearnAboutWater/ForStudents/SJWP.

The ITT Award for Excellence in Student Water Journalism recognizes a high school student for outstanding reporting on a water-related environmental issue in print or broadcast media. The winner receives $1,000 and an expense-paid trip, along with his or her adviser, to Stockholm, Sweden, to report on activities taking place during World Water Week in August. This national award is sponsored by ITT Industries and administered by the Quill and Scroll Society. For information or an application form, visit http://http://itt.com/waterjournalism/default.asp or www.uiowa.edu/~quill-sc/

 For updates on the prize or to receive a submission form, e-mail ITT@peppercom.com

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About Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors enjoyment of the Chesapeake region. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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