By Sophia Chirico ’22
Children are the future. A few years ago, I would have said that meant me. Sometimes I still think of myself as a little kid, with so much I have to learn and still so much I still don’t know. As a junior in college, I feel like my life has barely begun. I don’t know what kind of job I want when I leave school, or where I want to live, I don’t even know what I’m doing after graduation. What I do know, though, is that I am passionate about conservation and sustainability, and there is a whole generation of kids younger than me who are equally as passionate and interested in bettering our world.
Diving off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico with an eagle ray.
From a young age, I have been drawn to the ocean. Ever since I was six years old, my parents used to joke that they knew I would grow up to be a marine biologist. Back in those days, I wished I was a mermaid and loved all things “Under the Sea.” I found the myriad of ocean life and the complexities of ecosystems exciting and captivating. Soon, I needed more than beach days and fishing trips to satisfy my oceanic curiosity. At 12, I became certified as a junior open water scuba diver in Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
Getting scuba certified was truly a life-changing experience. Not only did I see dozens of diverse underwater creatures, from sea turtles to stingrays to nudibranchs, but I also got my first exposure to local conservation and sustainability efforts. For a long time, climate change has been harming the health of the coral reefs off the coast of Mexico. This has detracted from the beauty of the reefs in addition to harming the fishing and ecotourism industries, both of which are vital to local communities.
A sunken statue at an artificial reef off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico
On my first dive, the divemaster explained the implications of these problems and the steps that are being taken to help the reef recover. One solution is the construction of artificial reefs. Artificial reefs are a valuable solution that are simple to implement and have completely changed the way I think about sustainability. Artificial reefs are man-made coral reefs. At the base of the reef are statues, boats, and cars that are intentionally sunk. Over time, algae collects, corals are recruited, fish gather, and soon, a whole reef forms. Seeing the statues underwater for the first time left me speechless. Witnessing the various stages of maturity of the reef on different statues highlighted the complexity of reef systems and organisms. I also saw how the natural reefs were damaged. Since that first dive, my passion for conservation and sustainability has only grown.
Now, I am less obsessed with being a mermaid and more interested in protecting real aquatic life. At William & Mary, I am double majoring in Biology and Environmental Science. I have taken many courses that focus on marine biology and ecosystem ecology. In the fall of 2020, I became an EcoAmbassador under the Office of Sustainability. EcoAmbassadors collaborate with external partners as well as other William & Mary departments. I began working with Virginia Institute for Marine Science (VIMS) faculty members, Sarah Nuss and Tara Rudo, and another William & Mary student, Maggie Sheridan, on the VIMS Discovery Labs. We covered a series of topics: Skates and Rays, Poop in the Ocean, Oysters, and Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). The goal of the VIMS Discovery Labs is to teach a broad audience about complex topics related to aquatic biology, specifically relevant to the Chesapeake Bay. Each Discovery Lab event consists of a guest speaker, a demonstration relevant to the topic, and an interactive game, this year virtually. After the Lab, audience members are sent supplementary activities and information if they want to learn more and to continue to engage with the material.
The majority of this past fall semester was spent planning and creating activities for participants in the Lab. For the first Lab, Skates and Rays, we made an infographic about how climate change is leading to a reduction of seagrass. Paired with this infographic, we designed an iSpy game. Three pages showed three different levels of seagrass cover. The smaller patches of seagrass put Cownose rays at higher risk of predation, as there is less area for camouflage. We made an additional infographic detailing global warming’s impact on changing migration patterns. To complement this infographic, we made the Skates and Rays Habitat Game. This game involved participants cutting out paper rays, oysters, crabs, and seagrass and laying them where they belong on a map of the East coast of the United States. As global warming continues, some species will not be able to survive in the changing environment. The game explored how these changes will affect rays’ habitat and prey. Finally, we made a color by numbers activity of a cownose ray.
Image from an Enviroscape Demonstration from the HABs Discovery Lab
As we made subsequent infographics and activities for the following labs, I learned more about the best ways to engage audiences virtually, how to break down complex topics into more digestible segments, and how to create activities that can appeal to and engage participants of all ages. By the time the last lab of the spring came around, Maggie and I felt prepared to run the lab ourselves. We had a guest speaker present a lecture on HABs and tell us about her research on algae blooms in the Chesapeake Bay. We paired this with a demonstration video using an Enviroscape, a model that simulates a watershed, and a Kahoot to check for understanding. We also made the take-home infographics and games for participants to check out after the lab.
As an EcoAmbassador working as a VIMS Discovery Lab Assistant, I learned a lot about several marine science topics, science communication, and the importance of engaging broad audiences. I learned how to approach educational presentations, and gained confidence in my ability to teach and engage others. Being an EcoAmbassador was a valuable introduction to science communication and I hope to continue to inspire others to learn about protecting our world and encourage them to work towards change for the better, as I seek to do the same.