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Siena Farkas

Sussex Academy, 12th grade

I stood on a tall, wooden platform, peering down into a water-filled tank. A salty aroma filled the room and electrical equipment quietly hummed in the background. The water in the tank was frothy and the bubbles partially obscured its contents. Shades of white and maroon shifted along the sandy bottom. As I continued to study the contents of the tank, the colors organized themselves into a striped pattern and I became aware of long, spiny fins. Lionfish! close enough to touch!

When I was eight years old, a family friend invited my family to go kayaking. Our host was a visiting scientist working at the University of Delaware School of Marine Science & Policy located on the Delaware Bay. The kayak launch was near her lab and she invited us on a tour before we headed out onto the water. The building that housed her lab was maze-like with long, white hallways broken up by the doors and windows of the individual labs. A faint but distinct chemical smell permeated the air. As we walked, I was able to glance inside these rooms. I was fascinated by what I saw – microscopes, beakers, clear jars of preserved specimens.  

We walked into another room that looked different than the rest. Platforms with thick, white plastic tanks filled the space. Each tank held a different species of fish, but it was the lionfish that captivated me. I was warned that lionfish can be dangerous, that their long spines harbor a potent venom, and that their sting is excruciatingly painful. Questions tumbled about in my head: where does the venom come from? Does the fish need to think about releasing the venom or is it subconscious? How do the scientists handle the fish without getting hurt?  

It was a thrilling experience. I thought about it often, and as a young child, I wondered if I could become a scientist. At the time it seemed nearly impossible. As I grew older, my interest in science persisted. Nature has always been fascinating to me. I wanted to learn about what makes up the ecosystem and what creates different environmental conditions. In high school, it became clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career in environmental science.

   When I was 16 years old, I was accepted for an internship at the same lab I visited when I was eight. Although the lab was different from what I remembered (and the research involving the lionfish had, of course, ended), I experienced the same sense of awe and excitement as I had then. I was fortunate to be able to assist with several research projects – helping not only in the lab but also in the field collecting samples and specimens. The people that I worked with were enthusiastic and supportive and the work itself was fascinating. My favorite thing about the internship was being able to actively develop ways to monitor animal populations and reduce population decline. One of the research projects that I worked on used color tags to track Mummichog movement in a stream in a marsh, seeing how far the fish move from their area of originality. Intreastly, the fish tended to stay approximately close to their point of origin, following the other fish from the area. It occurred to me that the fish nature hindered their ability to survive if the stream was to be extremely damaged by pollutants or construction. Thousands of these fish could potentially die from human actions, creating a domino effect of ecological damage. Genetic diversity would be lost, making the new generation of offspring more susceptible to diseases. Animals higher up in the food chain would lose a major food source, decreasing the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. Organisms that are on a lower trophic level would lose a predator, allowing for a boom in their population, and using resources at an unchecked pace. 

During the summer when I started my internship, I found three toads trapped in the crawl space vent well of our house. The toads had an odd look to them. Their eyes were big and bulgy with a diamond-shaped pupil and their bodies were brown with a yellow patterning down their backs. A quick internet search enabled me to identify them as Eastern Spadefoot Toads.

Eastern Spadefoot Toads are neither true toads nor true frogs. They are named after the spade-shaped spur on their back feet that allows them to easily dig and tunnel. They spend most of their lives buried in the ground, in a hibernation-like state known as bromation. They only venture above ground, to breed and eat, during periods of excessive rain. Due to their lifestyle, they are considered a “rare sight” in Delaware. In some states, they are endangered.

Without finding these animals, I would not have known about this species or that their population is declining. Sadly, due to human activity, this is happening to hundreds of species around the planet. Often, the public is not even aware of the plight of these animals. This experience made me reflect on the years living at my house. It struck me that over the years the American Toad population has slowly dwindled to the point that you couldn’t find a toad when once the yard was full of them and how winters seemed to bring less snow year after year, bringing an earlier spring. Being wrapped up in our lives, most people don’t notice these subtle shifts in our environment unless brought to the mainstream media. 

Society can’t fix a problem that most people are unaware of nor understand the importance of an animal that little is known about. It is vital that humans are aware of more than just what is on the mainstream media; that we know what exists and is at risk outside of our very doors. As labs continue to research the environment, I hope that the newfound knowledge is shared widely with the public, helping to bring awareness to human-caused environmental loss. Knowledge can create a rippling effect in our communities; perhaps neighborhoods collectively build native plant gardens to help bring back diversity or ensure chemicals don’t run off into waterways during storms. If every person makes a small change, we can make great strides in restoring the environment around us. 


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