Ocean Discovery Institute: Young Lives Transformed Through Science

Shara Fisler helps a young student.
Shara Fisler, Ocean Discovery Institute's executive director, dissects a kelp holdfast with a student participating in the Ocean Science Explorers school program. (Image credit: Lowell Tindell, Lowell Tindell Photography )

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Shara Fisler has dedicated herself to inspiring future scientists. What began as a small study in San Diego Bay with high school interns ultimately shifted Shara's career goals from pure research to providing education and opportunities for young people to participate in authentic research.

She began teaching on an adjunct basis at the University of San Diego and, in 1999, founded Ocean Discovery Institute, a nonprofit organization that uses ocean science to empower young people from urban and diverse backgrounds to become the science and conservation leaders of tomorrow.

The organization now engages more than 5,000 underserved youth each year. As they restore watershed habitats, probe plant and animal adaptations and work alongside practicing scientists in the lab and field, the students make real contributions to science while developing the knowledge, skills and passion that will enable them to pursue careers in science and conservation.

Name:Shara Fisler Age: 40 Institution: Ocean Discovery Institute Field of Study: Ocean science education

Fisler holds a halibut caught during fisheries research to reduce sea turtle bycatch in Baja California, Mexico (Image credit: Ocean Discovery Institute)

What inspired you to choose this field of study? Throughout school I was driven to find solutions that will protect our people and planet. I envisioned doing that as a researcher, but, just after completing my master's degree, I was provided an opportunity that shifted my interests. An Upward Bound group asked me to host two of their high school students as summer interns and involve them in my research.

I readily said yes — primarily because this role came with money to support the research! However, by the end of the summer, I was more interested in the students and their abilities to make meaningful contributions to research. This inspired me to begin Ocean Discovery Institute as a vehicle for engaging young people from urban and diverse backgrounds in authentic science experiences.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? My entire childhood, my mother ingrained in me the phrase: "Push through the resistance." She instilled in me a belief that many things in life will be hard, but not giving up and working your way through problems will be worth it.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? The first experiment that I can remember doing was chromatography with paper and colored pens. I was in grade four and I won the grand prize at the school's science fair. How could I forget that?

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?

Ocean Discovery students Brenda Vazquez and Carlos Rodriguez with researcher Thersea Talley, conducting wetland research in Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California. (Image credit: Steve Simpson, Stephen Simpson Photography)

My favorite aspect of my work is watching our students transition to college, graduate school and careers. They are incredibly passionate about learning, science and making contributions to improve our world. They each have overcome great challenges and have become young scientists and conservationists who are articulate, critical thinkers. Watching them on their pathway makes you feel incredibly optimistic about the future and what is possible.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? Being an effective researcher requires incredibly diverse skills. Researchers need a strong understanding of math, but also the ability to write and communicate effectively. They need to be able to question and think critically while being creative and innovative. They need to pay attention to detail while having a clear vision of the big picture.

What are the societal benefits of your project? Ocean Discovery Institute uses science to engage young people from urban and diverse backgrounds, and empowers them to transform their lives, their communities, and ultimately our world, as scientific and environmental leaders. Over 5,000 students participate each year.

These young people are from the most underrepresented groups in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. We've seen results such as elementary and middle school students increasing their science test scores, 8 out of 10 students enrolling in four-year universities (compared to less than 3 out of 10 of their peers) and 7 out of 10 students declaring majors in science and environmental fields.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

Ocean Discovery student Suong Ho and NOAA scientist Yonat Swimmer tag sea turtles caught during fisheries research in Punta Abreojos, Baja Californa Sur. (Image credit: Steve Simpson, Stephen Simpson Photography)

This is a difficult question, because so many people have influenced my thinking!

The scientists we work with, like Drew Talley of the University of San Diego, and Yonat Swimmer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have shown me the breadth of opportunities that exist for our students to pursue science in diverse careers. They've also showed me how important collaboration is in conducting research and communicating the results, so that others can build from knowledge gained.

Our students have demonstrated that belief is perhaps the most important quality a person needs to pursue his or her goals. Our scientists and staff believe in these students, they in turn believe in themselves, and through that confidence are able to realize high aspirations, even through great challenges.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? People always imagine that I am outside on the water doing field work and leading the students. As we have grown, that has changed a lot, and now, even when we are at our field station, I am working in the office with other team members.

Ocean Discovery student Khanh Chi Dam during her summer internship at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. (Image credit: Ocean Discovery Institute)

People might think this isn't as exciting, but working with others and empowering them to best prepare young people to become scientists is the most rewarding work I can imagine. And now, our staff is increasingly comprised of our student graduates. When others come back from the field after seeing a fin whale or huge pod of dolphins, my coworker and I look at the staff and the college students and say "these are our whales."

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? Luckily our server (with 12 years of work) is backed up remotely, so I am free to be more sentimental! If we had animals in the tanks, definitely them first, and if not, some of the great books I have received from scientists and donors.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? Each year our staff picks a song that represents our strategic focus. That song is played to call staff to meetings. We've chosen everything from 80's "Flashdance" (Paramount Pictures, 1983) songs that feature great lines like "take your passion and make it happen," to, this year, "it's a beautiful day, don't let it get away," from the song "Beautiful Day" by the band U2.

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in ScienceLives articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.

Ocean Discovery Institute Executive Director