Solid research at ‘nerd camp’

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Mady Rawson and Ella Phillips are self-professed “nerds”.

The Waitaki Girls’ High School year 10 pupils recently completed a science extension and enrichment programme at the University of Otago.

It was held over three weekends at the university’s Marine Studies Centre and the girls joined 18 other pupils in marine biology research projects.

“I was expecting most of the people that went to be geeks, but they were really fun and social,” Mady (15) said.

“We all called it ‘nerd camp’, but I like being a nerd – I love science.”

The pupils stayed together on Quarantine Island and travelled to Portobello each day.

They were split into groups – Mady’s group focused on the behaviour of crabs and Ella’s looked at whether microplastics ingested by shellfish such as cockles and mussels could make their way through the food chain.

On the basis that crabs were more likely to fight if they were of equal size, Mady’s group discovered that crabs were more likely to be found by themselves, and if they were with another crab, it was likely to be a different size to them.

“Watching the crabs fight was kind of terrible, but kind of awesome,” she said.

“The most aggressive were the vigorous female crabs – much like humans.”

Ella’s group’s research concluded it was possible microplastics made their way through the food chain to humans.

Microplastics, increasingly found in the ocean as larger plastics broke down or in products that contained microbeads, were similar to the micro-algae that filter feeders ingested.

“Once we had fed the microplastics to the shellfish, we smashed them up and put them through a filter to count how much of the microplastics they had ingested,” Ella (14) said.

“Microplastics can break through your cells and even get into your brain – they really aren’t good for us.”

The girls said they enjoyed the trip and would put their names forward to attend again next year.

The school’s head of science, Vicky Lilley, said the project was a great way to extend and enrich the pupils’ learning.

“Some of what they were doing down there was first-year university work, and they are only year 10. It is great for them to get that exposure to the higher-level education.”