Students in Arctic Research (STAR) | Elisa Maldonado
Project: Study of Oil Spill Effects on River Otters in Prince William Sound
Principal Investigator: Dr. Merav Ben-David, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska
TEA Teacher: Myrtle Brijbasi, Temple Hills, Maryland
Elisa's passionate interest in marine biology began in the 5th grade while on a trip to Sea World, where she was first introduced to the beauty and complexity of marine animals. She soon developed objections to the practice of keeping wild animals in captivity for entertainment, while realizing the necessity of marine research and public education about conservation issues central to marine ecosystems. For the last four years, Elisa has been a mentor for children at the San Pedro Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. She was one of twenty high school students selected for the Museum Research Apprenticeship Program at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Elisa will be a co-author on the publication of research she conducted with scientists at the L. A. County Natural History Museum. They studied an unusual species of brittle star that broods juvenilebrittle stars of a different genus within its body cavity, but does not brood its own offspring. Elisa grew up in Wilmington, California on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She graduated from Bishop Montgomery High School in 1998 where earned a place on the Principal's Honor Role during each of her four years of high school. In addition to her interest in the biological sciences, Elisa is the president of the Teens for Life Club, and is a member of the Associate Student Body Commission of Religious Affairs, the Newtonian Society, and Key Club. Beach combing, listening to music, reading, and speaking Spanish are some of Elisa's other hobbies. After returning from her summer research experience in Alaska, Elisa was busy volunteering as a naturalist and day-camp instructor at the Roundhouse Aquarium in nearby Manhattan Beach. Elisa began studying marine biology at the University of California at Los Angeles in the fall of 1998.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS) sponsor Teachers Experiencing the Arctic (TEA). TEA sends teachers and students to conduct research alongside scientists throughout Alaska. From July 10 through July 28, 1998, I was a member of a three-partied group sent to conduct research on river otters at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska. Our research focused on the effects of oil contamination on the physiology and behavior of a group of fifteen male river otters held in captivity at the SeaLife Center. The research is funded by the Exxon-Valdez Trustees Council, which also funds the Alaska SeaLife Center in order to better educate visitors to Alaska of the effects of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound. The two other members in my group were Myrtle Brijbasi, a high school teacher from Maryland, and Noa Levanon, a recent high school graduate from Indiana. We were put under the guidance of Dr. Merav Ben-David, an otter biologist from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. This experience has broadened my horizons and has actually changed many of the beliefs I held before the summer. It may have altered the course of my life.
Words cannot express how grateful I am for the opportunity I have had to participate in Teachers Experiencing the Arctic. The TEA program, sponsored by NSF and ARCUS, is designed to immerse both students and teachers in ongoing Arctic research. I was part of the team conducting research at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska. My fellow T.E.A.ers were Myrtle Brijbasi, a teacher from Maryland, and Noa Levanon, a student from Indiana (who will soon be walking down the ivy halls of Princeton University). We had the remarkable fortune to work with Dr. Merav Ben-David, an amazing otter biologist who has been conducting research on fifteen male river otters ever since she captured them in April 1998. Our research focused on the behaviors of these river otters, in captivity at the SeaLife Center. The principal investigator, Dr. Ben-David, will compare the data we collected to behavioral data that will be collected after the otters are fed fish contaminated with oil.
The benefits I have received from this awesome program reach far beyond just the academic aspect of my life. I am Hispanic and have lived in the impoverished community of Wilmington, California, all my life. I might have accomplished nothing by now, using double minority status as an excuse to do nothing with my life, but I am very stubborn, so no one will ever tell me that I cannot be a marine biologist or that I will never be good in my field! No one could tell me that I could never participate in the Museum Research Apprenticeship Program (M.R.A.P.) at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. They could not tell me I would never work in the museum's Echinoderms lab for over a year alongside Dr. Gordon Hendler, a well-published invertebrate zoologist. No one could tell me I could not co-author a scientific paper by age eighteen or do research in Alaska as part of an NSF-funded project, because I have done all of these things. The eighteen days I spent in Alaska (from July 10 through July 28) brought me to a new level of awareness. It finally occurred to me how much I am doing with my life.
I had never been far away from home before I went to Alaska. All I had ever known of the world was good old Wilmington and Las Cruces, New Mexico (where I have spent many summers visiting family). This was the first time I was to leave my "bubble". It was my first taste of independence and I loved it! In the three weeks I spent away from home, I gained a valuable experience that will help me adjust to living on campus. This experience has also affected my parents in a positive way. They have learned that I can take care of myself when left on my own. It was made evident to them as I stepped off the airplane and they saw that I had not been starving the past three weeks!
My trip to Alaska has also defined my career preference. I have known for a long time that I want to study marine animals. Which marine animal to study has been a more difficult question for me to answer. Marine invertebrates (particularly brittle stars and sea stars) are particularly fascinating to me. Yet, after working with the river otters, I find that mammals are much more complex and show strikingly similar behavior to humans. The way the otters groom each other, wrestle, communicate ("Lucky" the otter always seemed to get his point across by screaming until you backed off), and hold their dinner of fish between their front paws like any human would, particularly intrigued me.
My experience with the river otters also changed my perception of animals in captivity. I dislike Sea World with a passion. I find that keeping animals in captivity merely for entertainment is ludicrous. What sea lion balances a ball on their nose in the wild; and what Orca allows a human being to ride its back while in the open ocean? I will not let my dislike for marine amusement parks take up too much space, and I am not trying to coax anyone into following my own beliefs. I do want to support keeping animals temporarily in captivity if they will be used as subjects for a practical research project. My opinions have changed, thanks to the river otters, considering that before the summer I did not condone any reason for keeping an animal in captivity.
I have come to know the most diverse group of people imaginable during my three week trip. Our research group in Seward resembled a mini United Nations. We were under the guidance of Merav Ben-David, an Israeli woman who is one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met. I learned so much about Alaska from her, information all unique and interesting, during our rides along the Alaskan highway and hiking trips into the local coastal rainforest. I also had the privilege to work with Susanne Trillhose, a German intern who has been in America for only four years and is a student at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. There was also Olav Ormseth (whom I sometimes mistakenly called Hans, confusing his name with that of the very bold river otter), a Norwegian-American who moved to Alaska from Minnesota and has been working with Merav ever since he helped her capture the otters. Myrtle Brijbasi is the teacher from Maryland selected to participate in T.E.A. She was born and raised in Guyana, South America and has lived all over North America. Finally we have Noa Levanon, a recently graduated high school student who is Jewish and who practices many of the traditional beliefs of her religion. She taught me a lot about Judaism, a religion I never completely understood even though I follow the beliefs of its offspring, Catholicism. To say the least, I have made lifelong connections with a variety of people I had never encountered before. Each of these individuals has helped me learn more about myself and the world around me; valuable assets to take with me as I enter college and begin my career.
Anyone who has ever been to Alaska can understand the life-altering effect it can have upon a person. It is thousands of miles of virgin terrain, waiting to be explored; yet, unaccustomed to human civilization. Its mountains seem to be painted a hue so green, Crayola has yet to match nature's crayon. I had never seen a glacier before, and I was astounded by their abundance throughout the state. Their massiveness only reminded me of my seemingly microscopic presence in this world. Observing water so blue, animals so abundant, and trees so green made me feel blessed to be alive. In my hometown of Wilmington, I do not get to experience much nature save the trees surrounded by cement, and seagulls who fly inland in search of food.
I am now very aware of all the opportunities that await me in this world. California only has so much that can be studied with its beach front property and polluted waters. Yet, the possibilities in Alaska are endless. I am considering furthering my education at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks after I finish my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles ( UCLA), where I will be a freshman this fall. I will find some way to get back to Alaska!
I owe many thanks to all the people who have made my dreams a reality. I want to thank my parents for always supporting all of my academic interests, especially when they seemed a bit unconventional. I also want to thank Dr. Gordon Hendler for giving me so many opportunities in his lab at the Natural History Museum. His concern for giving me real research experience has played a huge role in making my trip to Alaska possible. Thanks especially to EVERYONE at ARCUS. I am especially grateful to Dr. Wayne Sukow at NSF and Wendy Warnick at ARCUS for selecting me and providing me with such an awesome experience. I couldn't have asked for anything better! Renee Crain at ARCUS, you are a fairy godmother! Thank you for showing us all the wonders of Alaska and for having the patience to deal with all of our "twenty-one question" sessions. I will never forget you! Words cannot do justice to what is in my heart!