GEST event

Cori Lopazanski, left, with the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, assists Kara Daniels, center, of New Bern, and Ella Caviness, right, of Newport, as they pop open an oyster for examination and dissection Saturday during the Girls Exploring Science and Technology event at the Duke University Marine Lab on Pivers Island. (Dylan Ray photo)

BEAUFORT — Female students from around eastern North Carolina came to the Duke University Marine Lab Saturday for the fourth annual Girls Exploring Science and Technology event.

The event’s purpose is to expose middle school girls in grades 6-8 to science, technology, engineering and mathematics resources and role models. As the event started, students packed the DUML auditorium, leaving standing room only as DUML Ph.D. student and GEST organizer Hillary Smith addressed the crowd.

“I think we’ve got over 240 girls,” Ms. Smith said. “This is the biggest GEST yet.”

Students from different counties around eastern North Carolina came to this year’s GEST. Among the counties the students came from were Carteret, Craven, Hyde and Onslow.

One of the local students who came was homeschooled seventh-grader Abigail Erway of Newport. Abigail said she heard about the event from the Aquarium Teen Ambassador program at the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, which she participates in.

“They recommended coming,” she said. “It’s very interesting; I’ve learned a lot so far. I’m definitely coming back next year. I love animals, the water and the ocean.”

H.J. McDonald Middle School eighth-grader Kara Daniels of New Bern said she heard about GEST from one of her teachers.

“My teacher gave me a flyer and invited the girls in her class to come,” Kara said. “I like it. It’s fun to explore new paths and different types of science.”

Ms. Smith said GEST was created because there are a lot of people who believe, even today, that girls aren’t as good at fields of work in science and technology as boys.

“We learn this message not as young girls, but later over time,” Ms. Smith said. “The truth is, there’s no innate differences between boys and girls that makes boys better in math and science. We need to encourage ourselves and each other.”

DUML marine biologist Dr. Erendira Aceves-Bueno was this year’s GEST keynote speaker. Dr. Aceves-Bueno told the students about her journey to becoming a marine biologist at the Duke Lab.

“I’m your classic marine biologist,” she said. “I go out into the field, tag sharks and record them. Sharks are important to the ecosystem; they keep things in balance. I also work with commercial fishermen. I talk with them to find ways to protect the ocean and provide for people’s livelihood. I’ve met some amazing people.”

Dr. Aceves-Bueno said when she was in middle school, she never thought she’d become a marine biologist, but discovered her interest in it when she turned 13.

“Luckily, in my hometown there was a good marine biology program,” she said. “By the end of college, I decided I wanted to try to help fix some of the damage (to the ocean environment) caused by humans.”

Dr. Aceves-Bueno lived in Mexico at the time, and wanted to join the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which would require her to move to the U.S. To do this, she sought government financial aid, as well as individual sponsors.

“Now I’m a part of this amazing lab, the Duke University Marine Lab,” she said. “Now I’m doing the stuff I want to do. It’s not a smooth path, but there were lessons along the way – find your passions, take risks, be persistent, find mentors and support each other.”

After Dr. Aceves-Bueno shared her story, the students broke into groups, with volunteers guiding them to various presentations on different types of marine science research. Among those giving presentations were N.C. Aquarium Veterinarian Dr. Emily Christiansen and N.C. Aquarium vetertinary technician Heather Broadhurst.

“We’re doing a diagnostic lab for fish,” Dr. Christiansen said. “We work at the N.C. Aquarium, so we’re sharing what we do on a regular basis.”

Ms. Broadhurst said she volunteered with GEST because it was a “neat opportunity to show these girls what career paths are open to them.”

“Even if they’re not initially sure what they’ll do,” she said, “you never know what may catch your interest once you get immersed.”

Meanwhile, N.C. Coastal Federation coastal specialist Sarah Bodin was giving a presentation on living shorelines.

“The girls are learning about how a bulkhead can affect the habitat around it and how living shorelines are better at providing habitat and preventing erosion,” she said. “The reception has been excellent; the students have been attentive and are asking questions.”

Duke University chemistry Ph.D. student Abbey Jackson was among the volunteers guiding the students from one presentation to the next. She said she heard about it through a group she belongs to on the main Duke campus, Women in Science and Engineering.

“We help fund this event,” Ms. Jackson said. “I heard about this event from several others, and it sounded like a really fun event, helping young girls learn about scientific careers.”

Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.

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