Yamina Sfiat woke up on her 18th birthday in a Maine cabin without electricity or showers, with nowhere to plug in her cellphone, and facing a day full of wading in tide pools for school research. Afterwards, she would be washing dishes in the camping community’s dining hall.
For many teens, this type of schedule would kill any semblance of a festive mood. For Sfiat, it proved the best birthday she can remember.
“It was the most peaceful time I ever had in my life, being on a secluded island and having my own time to enjoy the nature,” Sfiat said after returning home from her weeklong excursion.
“I took a hike up to a granite quarry, and sat there and watched the horizon in the morning. It was a low-key, mellow, all-around fantastic day, and probably the happiest birthday I’ve had in a long time.”
Sfiat was one of 12 Cambridge School of Weston students taking part in a sleep-away trip to Maine’s Hurricane Island last month for a week’s worth of intensive field research in marine biology. The students’ analysis not only satisfies coursework for their upper-class marine biology class at the private school, but will also help the Hurricane Island Foundation track wildlife populations, marine life trends, and the steady progression of climate change — all factors that help local fishermen and their businesses, said Marilyn DelDonno, the teacher who oversees the program.
“The foundation is hoping to learn from them, from the data they take,” DelDonno said. “They care about educating young people, and also helping local fisheries.”
The school’s inaugural year at Hurricane Island had students setting the baseline for experiments and data collection in the years to come. They collected marine life cultures and climate data, providing a control year for future young researchers to compare their findings.
“I love the fact that we could do some long-term work,” DelDonno said. “If you’re situated in an area and go year after year, you can build on each others’ studies, and then see long-term patterns.”
DelDonno used to take her class to the Sea Education Association in Falmouth on Cape Cod annually to conduct experiments, using data from years past to build on findings and analysis. But the organization began to employ more and more college researchers, edging out the high school students, which led DelDonno to make the change to Hurricane Island.
“It’s an incredibly diverse, rocky environment,” she said. “It was such a good move. It’s such an incredible program.”
Alice Anderson, science educator at the foundation, said the agency began actively organizing on the island since 2011, introducing more and more educational programs each year. Their offerings have risen in popularity among New Englanders: Almost all of the foundation’s student excursion programs are booked through this summer, Anderson said.
“We’re pretty filled up at this point,” she said. “We are trying to emphasize the importance of looking closely at the environment, making observations, and getting students excited about translating observations into questions, and questions into experiments.”
Meanwhile, Anderson said the work conducted by the Cambridge School students will not only help future classes from the school, but also gives the foundation experimental ideas and initial data for other groups to emulate.
“We benefit from the discoveries they make out here,” she said. “They’re setting the tone for different types of experiments you can do on Hurricane Island. The research they do helps design other programs for student researchers, and groups later this summer can do repeat experiments or build on those.”
For the Cambridge School students, one of the best parts of the trip was visiting the nearby island of Vinalhaven, known for its beautiful vacation homes and strong fishing and lobster economy, DelDonno said
“Right now, there are plenty of lobsters there, but the fishermen are afraid that could turn,” she said. “If the lobster population dropped, there is concern for the economics of that area.”
Anderson said that with such a thriving lobster economy, Hurricane Islanders often eat the delicacy in the camp’s dining hall, “since they’re actually pretty cost-effective here.”
Hurricane Island’s remote location, appetizing seafood, and eco-friendly triumphs, however, often come as a rude awakening for students and first-time visitors. The island is “off the grid,” Anderson said, and proprietors fuel its electricity and power needs with solar panels. Students are expected to pitch in with daily chores, from washing dishes to collecting data to caring for the solar panels.
“We have them make sure our solar panels are bringing in enough electricity,” Anderson said.
“It helps us be aware of when we need to be more conservative with our power, like if we have five rainy days in a row,” she said.
The main cabin where students sleep features no power, no showers, and no electricity, DelDonno said.
“There was limited water, so we only showered twice while we were there, which was a shock for the kids,” she said with a laugh. “They had to live without their toys. Phones didn’t work, and there were no TVs. Some of them struggled a bit, but some of them loved not being constantly connected.”
Micah Rickles-Young, a senior who will study at Washington University in St. Louis next fall, said he found disconnecting from technology to be quite relaxing, allowing him to immerse himself in the beautiful rocky hills of the island.
“It’s not like I was bored; there was always something to do,” he said.
Rickles-Young, a self-proclaimed macro-biology savant, said he was surprised at the amount of tough work that went into the micro side of the science, as well as collecting data and making observations in the field.
“I had no experience with field biology, and I found that it is really different from lab science,” he said. “It’s a lot of collection in-field and research.” He paused, recalling one instance where he had to climb up a mountain of seaweed. “And constantly being wet,” he laughed.
Rickles-Young said he and another student studied algae growth on the island’s rocks and its snail population, setting up half-meter PVC pipes on randomly selected areas and then “looking for something interesting to find in the mountain of data we collected,” he said.
“We’d be looking at something like 400 snails,” he said. “I saw snails whenever I closed my eyes.”
And though Sfiat describes herself as “not really a science person,” noting that she intends to study law and criminal justice at Lake Forest College next fall, she said the immersion in marine biology will encourage her to seek out summer internships in the field.
“These small things, like snails and barnacles, are a big part of our ecosystem,” she said.
“We as mankind don’t know as much about marine bio compared to other sciences,’’ she said. “I think people are really missing out.”