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By Kristina Pritchett

The rainy weather didn’t stop a group of female middle-school students as they tracked and surveyed plants behind the Ocean Institute this past weekend. Out in the Harbor, another group of girls stood in the rain as they looked at mud samples and plankton drawn from the water.

These scientific forays—and more—were part of the annual Girls in Ocean Science Conference held by the Institute.

The conference was created to inspire middle and high school girls to pursue degrees and careers in science.

“This is the 11th year of this event,” said Karen Jhawar, director of environmental programs at the Ocean Institute. “Six years ago, we split the middle school and high school groups because of such a high demand.”

On Saturday, Feb. 18, more than 100 middle school girls from Southern California filled different labs to learn lessons taught by 16 female scientists from around the country. The students gained hands-on experience and learned about what these career scientists do every day.

Most of the scientists in attendance had an ocean science background; Jhawar said they historically tend to focus more on that branch of study because it aligns with Ocean Institute’s scope, but have broadened the conference this year.

“We branched out on science careers,” Jhawar said. “This year Microsoft is coming in and will show the girls about coding.”

Not only are girls getting experience and knowledge about how to build a career in science, but they’re getting to see that girls can be leaders at any age.

“I work with a group of high school and middle school girls, and they work with me to invite the scientists. They choose who they want to see, and I’m there more as a mentor,” Jhawar said. “They do the speeches, the introduction, setting up and getting the girls around the conference.”

Emily Rhodes, a sophomore at Dana Hills High School, has been participating in the conference for the last few years. She said she started out in middle school attending the conference and now she’s one of the committee members who help organize and run the event.

“This is my fifth year [as a committee member] and it never gets old,” Emily said. “It’s different every time; there are different speakers and experiments. I came in [as a middle school student] and loved all the science aspects and learning about all the different fields.”

Emily said she believes the conference is an event with which more girls should get involved.

“I think growing up, girls think, ‘I can’t do much in the science field,’ and that it’s almost a stereotypical boy field,” Emily said. “It’s really good to give them the exposure and get their minds thinking that there are more fields out there for them.”

Lexi Fraiser, 14, a Dana Point resident and first time committee member, agreed.

“Girls are able to break through barriers and see they can discover things,” Lexi said.

Jhawar said the conference originally started because people noticed the lack of females in careers in science.

“We want girls to feel inspired,” Jhawar said.

One of the presenters at the conference was Jayme Timberlake, a habitat restoration specialist with Dudek Environmental. Timberlake told the group that she is responsible for the creation of restoration plans for coastal, upland, wetland and riparian restoration projects.

She started her presentation with areas she’s worked in, which included areas in South Orange County, and shared goals that young scientists should keep in mind while working out in the field.

Although the rain continuously fell Saturday morning, the girls put up their jacket hoods and began to work with the plants behind the Institute.

In the lab next door, Dr. Nyssa Silbiger, a marine ecologist at UC Irvine, and Piper Wallingford, a post-doctoral researcher, talked to girls about how they spent the summer exploring the Pacific Coast’s tide pools.

“How did you eat?” one of the girls asked.

The two laughed and showed a video of the van in which they traveled and how they had their own kitchen.

They led the group through an intertidal survey, where they had to identify what they saw in specific quadrants of tide pools. After, they were able to explore the Institute’s touch tanks and learn about the creatures inside, including slugs and starfish.

In the afternoon, students got a lesson about the creatures and items that lay at the bottom of the seas with Dr. Laura White from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. White explores and records marine shipwrecks and the cargo that’s found in the areas.

Mia Jhawar, Karen’s niece, said this was her first time at the event.

“I’d give it a five-star rating,” Mia said with a grin.

She recalled going out on the R/V Sea Explorer and really enjoyed the trip despite the large waves.

“It was fun,” Mia said. “We looked at plankton, we got mud samples.”

Although she’s 11, she said she wants to be a marine biologist when she gets older and would definitely attend the conference again.

By the end of the day, the girls were packing to go home and Jhawar stood at the back of the room watching.

“I feel the event went well, and the feedback we received agreed,” Jhawar said. “I wish the weather at the beginning of the day could have been better, but everyone seemed to have a great time regardless.”

She said considering the overwhelming demand to participate, she hopes to see the conference expand.

“We have now begun preparation for the high school conference and are excited about the speakers the participants are going to get to hear and interact with,” Jhawar said.

For the high school conference, Jhawar said there will be a new group of presenters, which includes Dr. Shawn Noren, associate research scientist; Melissa Miner, research biologist; Maureen Wise, graduate student; Sarah Heim, programmer analyst; Carol Kravetz, CRP climate leader; Captain Rebecca Hartman, peace officer; and more.

The conference for high school girls is scheduled for Saturday, March 18. Students interested can still register online at

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