Students Help Discover a New Deep-Sea Anemone Species

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In the past 10 months, Elena and Sebastian have put in hundreds of hours in the Museum’s invertebrate zoology collections, searching for species that haven’t yet been described by science.

And that’s on top of weekend jobs, school dances, and SAT prep. You know, regular high school stuff.

 

Two students sit at at table and look into microscopes.

Sebastian and Elena examine anemone anatomy beneath a microscope. 

© AMNH/M. Shanley


Elena and Sebastian are part of the latest class of the Museum’s Science Research Mentoring Program (SRMP), which each year offers approximately 60 high school students throughout the city the opportunity to get a taste of life in the laboratory and beyond. Each team of two or three students works closely with a Museum researcher to carry out a scientific study on topics that might include the genetics of starlings, the feeding habits of jaguars, human evolution, fossilized termites, or cosmic rays.

“SRMP focuses on the whole person and the breadth of the research experience,” says SRMP manager and conservation biologist Mark Weckel. “Our students develop cutting-edge research skills, but they also practice public speaking, communicate their results through scientific posters, attend conferences, and network with peers and professional scientists as they explore whether a STEM career is right for them.”

Started in 2009, SRMP has proven to be such a successful model for getting students involved in scientific research that in 2013 the Museum helped launch an expansion at five New York State science institutions. Today, the consortium includes 20 programs at 14 institutions around New York and serves more than 350 students every year. 

During their year in SRMP, Elena and Sebastian have focused on deep-sea-dwelling anemones that were collected off the coast of Brazil—a project you can learn more about in the video below.

 


Working alongside their advisor, marine biologist Luciana Gusmão, the students began examining anemone specimens early last fall. These invertebrates, which look more like plants than animals, may appear simple, but they’re ruthlessly efficient carnivores that hunt their prey using devastating biological weapons known as nematocysts.

These specialized cells serve as tiny harpoons, sometimes filled with poisonous compounds, that an anemone uses to disable unwary animals that wander into its grasp. But these microscopic munitions aren’t just offensive tools. They also serve as defensive countermeasures, ensuring that predators who try to munch on an anemone get a mouthful of painful pokes instead.

 

Stained cells visible on a microscope slide.

Stained slides help SRMP students identify anemone species.

©AMNH/M. Shanley


By comparing these and other physical attributes against known specimens, Sebastian and Elena began helping to determine what species of anemone are present in this set—and trying to figure out if any species they can’t identify turn out to be new to science. A few months in, the students and Dr. Gusmão realized that one of the specimens they had been working with didn’t match any described anemones—and that they had a new species on their hands.

“What I like about science is that it helps the world become a more complete place,” says Elena, a junior at Manhattan’s NYC iSchool. “The world is a puzzle, and science is just helping connect the pieces.”

For all the research SRMP students like Elena and Sebastian help produce—some of which even gets published, with the students as co-authors—the program isn’t just about the thrill of discovery. It’s about jumpstarting science careers. A yearlong stint in a laboratory offers teens exposure to tools and techniques they may not encounter in high school but will need to succeed in college science courses. 

 

Elena is seated at a table with various pieces of lab equipment and specimen jars.

Elena gets hands on in the lab, cutting thin slices of anemone specimens to examine under the microscope.

©AMNH/M. Shanley


“I didn’t really know how to use a microscope before, because my school doesn’t have real high-tech microscopes, so I’ve learned how to find things using a microscope,” says Elena. 

By pairing students directly with working researchers, the program also demystifies careers in the sciences—not to mention lab work, which can be by turns exciting and excruciating, and fieldwork, often a muddy, sweaty, uncomfortable business. The guidance mentors provide doesn’t end when the experiments do. For many students, their SRMP mentors offer invaluable advice on life outside of the lab, too.

“Luciana read my college essay, and she gave me some feedback, and it made it completely better,” said Sebastian, who was accepted at eight colleges and will be attending CUNY City College this fall.

 

Two students are seated at their computers and Luciana Gusmão stands behind them to provide instruction.

Marine biologist Luciana Gusmão offers students guidance in the lab and outside of it. 

©AMNH/M. Shanley


And it’s not just the students who benefit from the program.

“Watching Elena and Sebastian become more comfortable and confident in the lab is inspiring,” says Gusmão. “The experience has pushed me to look for different ways to understand and interpret our findings.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.