Women Researchers at Shannon Point Inspire Students
Not far down the road from the Anacortes ferry landing is an important marine research center that has studied everything from seaweed to ocean waves to ocean acidification since the 1970s. Once primarily a field station for Western Washington University, it now has community outreach programs along with research and study programs for students and scientists.
In April, Gov. Jay Inslee visited the marine labs at Shannon Point Marine Center on Fidalgo Island, highlighting the state’s recent $1.3 million allocation for a new undergraduate degree program in Marine, Coastal and Watershed Sciences to be based there.
The new program hopes to include about 25 undergraduate students yearly to conduct research at the center, said Shannon Point’s interim director, Dr. Brian Bingham. “We appreciate Governor Inslee’s interest in what we do and the opportunity we have to develop an undergraduate program.”
This is a place where serious, groundbreaking research collides with instilling a passion for the marine sciences in future generations, from preschoolers all the way to graduate students. It’s also a place where women researchers are providing role models—of the center’s 17-member staff, 11 are women.
It’s a state-of-the-art facility equipped with everything a marine science researcher needs. Two tall tanks pump nearby seawater into the research lab. The water is the life blood of most of the center’s in-house experiments.
On a recent visit, I saw ecologist Shawn Arellano, who studies the larvae of marine invertebrates, fill aquarium-sized tanks of the seawater and pump various levels of carbon dioxide for her research focused on the effects of ocean acidification on larvae
Kathy Van Alstyne, a seaweed researcher, keeps her plants hydrated in giant tubs of the seawater. Shannon Point’s critters, among them sea anemones, hermit crabs, and a big purple starfish, live in tubs filled with ocean water. Yes, the facility is located on the water’s edge, but having a system continuously pump seawater into the laboratory makes the staff’s work easier.
Shannon Point is also equipped with its own mini-library, plenty of microscopes, and lab after lab. Students can find a peaceful spot to work or gather as a team to tackle a project. Studying at Shannon Point is an opportunity awarded to dedicated graduate and undergraduate students. Housing on the premises cuts down on commuting for Bellinghambased students working on long-term research or completing extended summer programs.
The recently approved state funding opens the doors for more Western undergraduate students to gain exposure to a researching career. For non-Western students, a National Science Foundation funded program allows eight students the opportunity to live at Shannon Point for nine weeks. They conduct research alongside a faculty advisor.
Graduate student Mira Lutz is finishing her master’s thesis on blue carbon, carbon captured and stored in oceans and coastal ecosystems that has spawned new research. “The faculty is really supportive and the atmosphere is quiet and beautiful, making it a great place to sit and think,” says Lutz. During her course of study, Lutz has had access to the center’s boats and was certified as a scientific diver.
Shannon Point’s mission doesn’t stop at the college level. Through Western’s Extended Education Department, Shannon Point facilitates youth programs in Anacortes and throughout Skagit County.
On one spring day, Allison Paul, Shannon Point’s Youth Program Organizer, had just finished cutting out oversized cardboard crab legs for an upcoming Super Saturday at Anacortes Library. She explained how excited the kids are to learn about sea creatures. The free program occurs on the first Saturday of the month from March to June. Preschoolers to second-graders learn lessons pertaining to the local waters and marine science. Western students lead the classes, giving them an opportunity to fill teaching and mentoring roles.
Their reach extends beyond the Anacortes school district, throughout Skagit County to include Burlington’s Lucille Umbarger Elementary School and Evergreen Elementary School in Sedro-Woolley. There are different programs to cover myriad interests and geared towards appropriate age groups. Take, for example, the robotics-based class for fifth through eighth-graders, where Western engineering students teach the middle-schoolers how to build a remote-controlled vehicle that operates underwater. They’ll learn about topics like buoyancy and the necessary electrical components. The class culminates with a trip to the Fidalgo pool to test out the vehicles.
The classes, outreach, and the research center itself play a major role in exposing students of all ages to careers in STEM professions (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The center hopes that, in addition to learning basic STEM principles, students—especially young girls—will see many women working as researchers and gain confidence that they, too, can pursue careers in science and technology