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Feb 18, 2009 11:17 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton science program highlighted

Feb 18, 2009 11:17 AM

Southampton Intermediate School students were given a peek into the workings of the Brookhaven National Laboratory earlier this month from the comfort of their own school library.

Through internet video conferencing, students came face to face with Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source lab scientists, who, with the aid of Southampton High School senior Brittany Tusa, were checking oysters from Southampton waters for toxic metals.

The conference was set up to increase students’ awareness of the local scientific community and to promote the high school’s Science Research Program.

Program instructor Kim Milton, who was at the laboratory with Brittany, said the analysis showed slight levels of some heavy metals in the oysters. Because oysters and other bivalves are filter feeders, they can indicate the amount of pollution in a water body.

At the school, Science Research Program students Peter Miller, Julia Pucci and Dan Rieger facilitated the conference as seventh and eighth graders were given the chance to sit in front of a webcam and ask Brittany questions about the oyster analysis and her personal interest in science.

“My younger brother is actually in eighth grade, and it was interesting to see a lot of his friends come up and ask questions,” Brittany said. Later, her brother Wesley’s friends contacted her over the internet to ask even more questions and look into joining the Science Research Program, she added. “We really want new students to come in next year. Otherwise the Science Research Program is probably going to be dismantled.”

“It’s a very valuable program,” Brittany went on to say. “Beyond getting your feet wet in the scientific community, you also make a lot of connections with local researchers.”

Brittany was matched with a mentor, Stony Brook Southampton marine biologist and researcher Dr. Bradley Peterson. Under his tutelage, she is studying levels of nitrogen in water bodies around Long Island, including Peconic Bay, by testing the shells of scallops. The scallop shells were harvested and dated years ago, so tests will show how nitrogen levels have changed over the years, Brittany said.

The highest levels of nitrogen are found downstream from factories, where human waste had entered the water and where there was agricultural run-off, she said. An abundance of nitrogen in a water body leads to algae growth, which doesn’t let light reach the sea grass at the bottom of the water. “It’s basically the staple of all marine ecosystems,” Brittany said. “If the sea grass dies, everything dies.”

The grass provides shelter for small organisms and is also a source of food.

Brittany is the only student in the Science Research Program who entered as a freshman. The program was originally exclusive to sophomores and older students, but an exception was made for her at the behest of her then science teacher, Allen Seltzer. Starting in September, the program is being expanded to include all interested freshmen, who will be able to earn college credit through the class during their junior and senior years.

“If you want to do anything in a field of science, in college or later on in life, this class is almost necessary,” student Peter Miller said.

Peter studied the water and soil quality of Southampton Village’s Old Town Pond, which suffers from algal blooms, and presented his findings to the Village Board last year. Algal blooms are devastating to a pond, Peter explained, because they deprive its inhabitants of oxygen, causing fish kills.

“The pond is very resilient,” Peter said of Old Town. “It tends to go back to these healthy levels fairly quickly.”

Peter is taking a look at the total hardness, or level of calcium, in the pond, and trying to find the calcium’s source, because the metal inhibits the fish’s ability to take in oxygen, he said.

Though Brittany and Peter are both studying water bodies, the Science Research Program is not limited in its scope. Dan Rieger is studying magnets and levitation and Julia Pucci is studying performance anxiety among string instrumentalists.

Each May, at the end of the school year, Southampton’s Science Research students present their findings at a symposium held at the high school, and students from other schools are invited to attend. They also bring their research to the Long Island Science Congress, which showcases projects by Nassau and Suffolk counties’ middle and high school students. The Science Congress is sponsored by the Long Island Sections of the Science Teachers Association of New York State.

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