Campus & Community

Harvard professor explores marine biology with teens

4 min read

Describes range of careers to CRLS students

The ocean holds 97 percent of the Earth’s water and covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. Twenty percent of the protein that the human race consumes comes from the ocean. Yet more than 95 percent of the ocean remains unexplored. In fact, we have seen more of the surface of the moon — which is approximately 240,000 miles away — than we have of the ocean floor, which is seven miles at its deepest.

According to Peter Girguis, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology (OEB) at Harvard University, the ocean’s various challenges, unexplored terrain, sheer enormity, and vast importance in issues such as transportation, commerce, food, and even climate change make the the study of marine science more relevant today than ever before. 

Girguis hosted nearly two dozen high school students from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (CRLS) on Harvard’s campus recently for a discussion about the various career paths available in marine science.

He urged the students to think outside the box, telling them that marine science is about more than studying fish. It’s interdisciplinary; it involves chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, and even computer science.

For example, the ocean, he said, plays an enormous role in climate change. Its ability to absorb heat means it has some potential to dampen temperature swings. “It will help to some degree, but the problem is that we just don’t know how quickly it will work. A hundred years? A thousand years? It’s hard to say, and we also don’t know how badly — and how quickly — [climate change] will affect all the marine life.”

In addition to careers involving marine science and climate change, students, he suggested, might consider building robots that would sit on the ocean floor and send critical data to shore. Still others might explore ways in which the ocean could be used more efficiently for commerce and global business, such as developing ships that could more quickly transport products from one location to the next, or outsmarting competition by discovering and utilizing new sea routes.

“There are a lot of job opportunities regarding the ocean, you need only to keep an open mind,” Girguis said.

The high school students talked to Girguis’ graduate students and toured the OEB Biolabs, learning more about some of the ongoing projects being conducted by Girguis’ team.

Earlier in the day they toured the Harvard Museum of Natural History, where they explored various specimens and examined swimming underwater robots.

The collaboration between Girguis, CRLS marine biology teacher Paul McGuinness, M.Ed. ’06, and the high school students is not new. Last spring, three CRLS marine biology students spent the semester with Girguis and his graduate students conducting research in Harvard’s labs. The internship program will continue this upcoming spring, and there is a desire on both sides to extend and expand the program.

“It’s a huge addition to the curriculum for CRLS marine biology students to be able to visit a world-class research lab at Harvard and talk directly to researchers like Dr. Girguis and his staff,” said McGuinness, noting the high marks students gave to Girguis’ lecture and his willingness to engage them directly. “They were also impressed by the high-level range of projects that the graduate students were working on,” McGuinness said.

“I had a great time! I loved seeing how passionate Professor Girguis is about his research and really enjoyed hearing him explain how and why he decided to enter into the field of marine biology,” said 17-year-old Eleanor Lieberman, a senior at CRLS.

Girguis, one of the world’s most respected marine biologists, explained his rather unconventional entry into the field.

“I grew up in southeastern Los Angeles,” he said. “I wasn’t hanging out with the movie stars or sailing around on my yacht. We didn’t have a lot of money. Most people in my town worked at a local factory that made the Apollo moon rockets. As a kid, I’d go there, and they’d let you sit in a simulator for free — and pretend you were manning the rocket. It’s the first time that I realized that anybody — no matter who you were, or where you were from — could be part of great things if you worked hard enough and wanted it bad enough.”