High Schoolers Delve Into Piermont Marsh at Lamont-Doherty

August 23, 2012

While some of her friends spent the summer working in retail, Sylvia Pericles, a Staten Island high school student, was ankle-deep in a marsh in Piermont, N.Y. Some days were filled with the hard manual labor of chopping down an invasive reed that was overtaking the wetland. Other days were spent kneeling in the mud, collecting samples or counting marsh plants. And every day, she tread carefully: One misstep often landed her waist-deep in mud that caked her skin and clothes until she could return to the lab to change, hose off her shoes and record her data.

As a research intern at the Secondary School Field Research Program at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Pericles was one of 31 students from a handful of New York City public high schools who spent the summer in the Piermont Marsh.

“You get to know a lot about the ecology around you,” said Pericles, who had never seen a marsh before but now rattles off the scientific names of wetland flora the way another teen might recite the names of celebrities. “It opens your mind to new things.”

For six weeks, the interns collected and analyzed data on the plants, soil, water and fish population, research that will help answer questions about human impact on wetlands.

“This is not science camp, but real research,” said Robert Newton, the program director and a research scientist at Lamont-Doherty, who created the internship in 2005 with Susan Vincent, a now-retired science teacher and the program facilitator.

Each summer they bring students—largely black, Latino and more than half of them female—from a handful of high schools to do fieldwork and data analysis. The interns work alongside scientists, teachers, and graduate and undergraduate students. They are held—and hold themselves—to the highest technical standards since their data contributes to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation/NOAA research. Interns have participated at meetings, including the INTECOL International Society of Wetland Scientists conference, where they are often the only high school students in attendance.

The project’s success continues long after the summer is over. All of its alumni have gone to college, with half studying science or engineering. In each of the past four years, the internship has produced a Gates Millennium Scholar, who receives financial support and leadership training through graduation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many alumni have gone on to Ivy League colleges, including Columbia.

There’s no complex secret for this success, Newton and Vincent say. The simple act of working alongside scientists helps students lay out their future paths.

“You see all the things you have to do… to be a graduate student in science,” said Newton. “There’s no mystery anymore. You’ve met people who are at all those various stages along the way.”

While cultivating potential scientists is gratifying, Vincent also enjoys just watching the students develop confidence.

“When they start off they’re very unsure of themselves,” she said. “As they talk to people about their research, they become quite eloquent and it becomes almost second nature to them... This is just the most thrilling thing to see these kids blossom and grow.”

For Pericles, who hopes to become a doctor and possibly study at Columbia, the real benefits are in the hands-on experience. She likes learning, spending time outdoors and even getting dirty in the mud.

“When you’re done at the end of the day, you’re like ‘Oh, I did this,’” she said. “You feel like you accomplished something.”

—Story by Anna Spinner
—Video by Columbia News Video Team