High School Students Work with College Professors to Minimize Jellyfish Population

By Lauren Wanko

These young scientists are trying to minimize the jellyfish population in the Barnegat Bay.

“I just think they are a nuisance,” said Abigail Cohen.

The high schools students who are part of the Weston Science Scholars Program are working with Montclair State University’s Dr. Paul Bologna to infuse standard paint with cayenne pepper, then they apply it to pieces of plastic and wood.

“The experiment that we’re trying right now is that can we find a substance that might be low cost, non-toxic that will minimize the ability of animals to colonize hard substrates. Somehow the cayenne pepper, the chemicals within will sort of leach out and minimize organisms from landing on the surface. We’ve heard from several different commercial fisherman that add this to their bottom-fouling paint and it keeps their bottoms clear of barnacles and other organisms for a much longer period of time,” he said.

Dr. Bologna says jellyfish larvae like hard surfaces like docks. Eventually they change into polyps there that produces the next generation of jellyfish. One polyp can turn into about 100 new adults and that’s because they clone themselves.

“So if you want to control the adult medusa, which is what we see and think of as a typical jellyfish, what we really have to do is ask ourselves how do we control the polyps that are in the Bay?” he asked.

After painting strings of settling plates, the students tie them to docks along the Bay. A portion of this plate is coated with anti-fouling paint. Another section hasn’t been touched. The other strip is covered with standard paint mixed with cayenne pepper. The young scientists started their experiment in June. They’re collecting the samples to take back to the lab. Most of the organisms on the plates are microscopic.

“The best part is doing the hands-on research,” said Nidrea Futrell. What is it like working with professors? “It’s a little nerve wracking because he knows so much. I’m like a sponge taking in all these things,” she said.

“I actually didn’t know how interested in science I was, but Weston has been great to learn about science,” said Cohen.

Josh and Judy Weston started the program more than 15 years ago. Josh is the chairman of the NJTV Board of Trustees. Over the years, more than 800 students from Montclair High School have partnered with professors at Montclair State University for hands-on experience in scientific research. This year they expanded to include students from a high school in Newark as well. About 35 to 40 students are accepted into the competitive program each year.

“We want to excite, we want to ignite and we want to keep the interest going and the opportunity,” said Director Lynn English.

Conrad Sarbak wants to be a veterinarian.

“It helps a lot so I can be more of a range of animals like fish, sea animals too,” Sarbak said.

“I think this is really cool. I can help the environment and helping people,” said Alex Fouks.

“This is really exciting for me because science is something I want to major in when I go to school. I get to learn all these things before I even get to college,” said Amber Charles.

The students will study their findings until the end of July. The professor and his team will continue to collect samples throughout the fall.