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By Jeanne O’Brien Coffey

Jutting into the Atlantic at the northern edge of Boston Harbor, Nahant has long been a natural spot for marine research. More than 150 years ago, the science of American marine biology was founded at East Point by Louis Agassiz, a Harvard professor who maintained his summer cottage and laboratory in the seaside village. More recently, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the Obama administration’s undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, as well as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, did groundbreaking  research in experimental marine ecology in Nahant in the 1970s.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Nahant, which marine scientists lovingly refer to as “The Rock,” is once again becoming a home for cutting-edge oceanic research. This time, it’s Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center taking the helm; by 2017, Northeastern expects the MSC to be a global leader in the field of urban coastal sustainability.

Ph.D. student Steve Smith conducts research in a lab

From the outside, the science center is certainly unique. The facility is housed partly in a bunker built during World War II for defense of Boston Harbor and partly in barracks that are remnants of the Cold War Nike missile squadron. Inside, MSC is assembling a team of professors and researchers with diverse backgrounds and expertise in everything from climate change to sustainable fisheries. In the next three to five years, the center expects to hire 12 new faculty members, investing some $20 million in salaries and more than doubling the department, while spending $2.6 million on upgraded infrastructure.

“We’re trying to position the Marine Science Center to address the most pressing environmental challenges facing coastal ecosystems,” says Geoffrey C. Trussell, director of the?MSC. “There’s a lot happening politically, environmentally, socially, and legislatively that all involves the coast,” he adds. Northeastern’s large investment suggests the importance of the subject: Over 70 percent of the world’s population lives along the coast, and a third of the world’s megacities-places like New York, Tokyo, and Shanghai-are located near the sea.

“We all know that these coastal environments are essential to human health and human economies; fisheries and tourism are highly dependent on these areas,” Trussell says, adding that a fisheries expert was one of his first new hires. “This will put Northeastern on the map in terms of addressing critical fisheries issues,” he says. “Fisheries are so vital to our economy, but they are clearly a very contentious resource.”

Balancing Science and Policy Trussell notes that policymakers and stakeholders take a very different view than scientists when it comes to the issue of fishery management. “One of the fundamental problems is that none of those people are talking to one another effectively. So one of the big, overarching goals of our enterprise is to make it so the scientists and policymakers work together-so the science can actually inform the policy.”

In fact, much of the big-picture hiring that the center is doing is focused on that space between science and the realities of what is happening in the environment. “We’re not interested in creating a bunch of scientists who just work in their ivory towers on arcane issues that don’t really have any relevance to most people,” Trussell says. “In fact, we are doing just the opposite; we’re really trying to get at that interface between basic research and applied research that has immediate, tangible benefits to society.”

That’s not to say the center doesn’t encompass more fantastical elements. Chief among them: a squadron of robotic lobsters. Scientists at MSC studying neurology of lobsters and lamprey eels are working with robotics experts to invent mechanical creatures that may one day be used in homeland security, or to deliver information on subtle changes in underwater ecosystems. Rather than a remote-controlled apparatus, these lobsters will first be programmed to perform specific tasks, then be able to react to obstacles that may get in the way of performing those tasks-in essence, to think like lobsters.

A Decade of Planning Trussell has been laying the groundwork since he took over as director in 2002, but with the new founding dean of the College of Science, J. Murray Gibson, who shares his vision, things are moving fast-perhaps faster than even Trussell was expecting. “We have a dean, a provost, and a president now who all ‘get it,'” Trussell says. “We’re moving at light speed, which presents its own set of challenges.”

Among these challenges is to conduct negotiations simultaneously with three candidates for three different positions while also ensuring the facility has the resources to fund its big vision. “The bottom line is we’re going to grow,” Trussell says, “and that is going to take some new resources. The university is doing its part, but we really need to work hard on the philanthropic side as well as the grant-making side to make this vision a reality.”

Thus, in the meantime, Trussell’s own research, using sophisticated technology to study the effects of predators and rising sea temperatures on the genetic structure of sea snails, has taken a back seat to managing a program that is experiencing explosive growth. In addition to the new hires and a recent merger with Department of Earth and Environmental Science, a new marine biology major was launched last fall. The center projected that just four students would sign up for the major the first year, but it got 20 instead, testifying to the engagement of the next generation in these issues.

Connecting to the Local Community It’s not just college kids who are interested in MSC’s message. The center conducts monthly guest lecture and film series that are open to the public, focusing on topics as diverse as the geology of Boston Harbor and the health and fate of the world’s coral reefs. Carole McCauley, MSC’s outreach program coordinator, says the programs draw anywhere from 30 to more than a hundred people out to the center each month. MSC also works with homeschoolers, visits local schools with a touch tank of sea creatures, and hosts a number of programs onsite, all geared toward awakening an early interest in marine science close to home.

“The MSC’s outreach program is critical to the identity and mission of the lab,” McCauley says. “It aims not only to communicate the research that goes on here, but also to interpret the significant values of the site’s pristine rocky shore, marine life, unique geography, and varied cultural history.”

Filling a need for science exploration for preschoolers, the center launched the wildly popular Sea Tots in 2010. This program for three- to five-year-olds is offered in the spring and fall, focusing each week on a particular animal or topic, with opportunities for kids to get up close and personal with live critters, listen to stories, play games, or make crafts based on the day’s topic.

“We piloted the Sea Tots program without being sure if there would be a robust audience,” McCauley says. “Within three weeks, we were full to capacity.”

Another success story is the center’s two-week summer Coastal Ocean Science Academy program, involving about 24 high school students who have a strong interest in science and the marine environment. The Academy, in its sixth year, offers two sessions: an introductory program for first-time attendees and a more advanced, student-directed research curricula for returning students. Tuition for the program is $900, but the center sets aside some money for scholarships. It’s money well spent, too; one of the COSA scholarship students was so inspired by the program that she applied for-and was granted-a $17,000 scholarship to study at a residential marine science program in Maine for a semester.

While the windswept East Point may seem a world away, MSC faculty and administration are very much aware of the underserved communities at their doorstep; just across the water lies Lynn, where local beaches are often closed due to pollution. Engaging that population is an important part of their outreach mission, McCauley says, adding that despite the proximity of these communities to the shore, a surprising number of kids have never touched salt water. She recalls one group in particular who, after spending some time on the beach, were restless and asking to go back inside. McCauley was surprised-she thought things were going well. But their teacher explained that many of the kids were just not used to being outside. “This Â… made me really appreciate what we are able to offer to particular audiences, especially those who may never get to experience the shore, despite living within a few miles of it,” McCauley says.

Engaging Young Girls To that end, the MSC launched an ambitious partnership with Girls, Inc. of Lynn last year, including nearly 200 girls from elementary school through high school in its Beach Sisters program.

Beach Sisters runs 10-week after-school sessions for elementary school girls, studying things like local habitats and sea creatures. “It’s about generally stimulating interest and teaching them cool topics, so they don’t see science as daunting or scary,” McCauley says. The middle school program is offered during the summer and includes hands-on research and community involvement. For example, last summer, participants interviewed Lynn’s chief of police about beach pollution and researched causes of Lynn’s frequent beach closures.

Beach Sisters is an important program, explains McCauley, as the middle school years are when a lot of young people lose interest in science. “We’re trying to connect them to their local resources, as well as to connect with community and public officials,” she says. “There’s something to be said for this kind of hands-on thing that will hopefully encourage them to choose science study and perhaps four-year universities over two-year schools.” The Beach Sisters high school program is just getting off the ground; right now, it involves four girls spending five or six hours a week on a variety of topics with the goal of eventually participating in educating the younger kids.

As McCauley explains, “Place-based education, which is what we offer at the MSC, is not just about teaching kids about the marine environment. It’s also about making connections between individuals and their communities by helping them to understand the natural boundaries and resources within their area and to inspire them to become more active stewards of the local environment.”

Making connections is the overarching goal when it comes to everything going on at MSC, Trussell adds. Everything in the coastal environment is interconnected, and humans are having a large impact. By bringing together scientists from a wide variety of disciplines, Trussell hopes the MSC will be well positioned to tackle climate change-what he sees as the most pressing problem facing our coastal ecosystems.

“There was a time when this lab’s future was uncertain,” Trussell says. “My one goal is to make sure that when I’m done being director and I’ve moved on to something else,  I leave this place in a position that is unassailable. It is definitely personal.”  ?n