A Malibu summer studying fish eggs

August 29, 1994|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Sun Staff Writer

When Meredith Fisher told friends she planned to study developmental biology on the beaches of Malibu, Calif., this summer, they teasingly questioned the seriousness of her intentions.

But during her two months at Pepperdine University, Ms. Fisher completed an independent research project on an undeniably serious subject -- the metabolic development of fish eggs. She also wrote a research paper on the topic.

The program at Pepperdine, designed to introduce undergraduate college students to independent research, was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

For Ms. Fisher, it was a perfect way to spend a summer vacation. The 20-year-old, a 1992 graduate of Westminster High School who is a junior at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., hopes to return to Malibu next summer to finish her work.

At the moment, she is preparing to return to Mount Holyoke, which recently awarded her a Clare Boothe Luce scholarship. The scholarship, which covers tuition, room and board for a student's junior and senior years, is worth about $50,000 at Mount Holyoke.

Since 1990, the women's college has given the scholarship to two promising science or math students who plan graduate studies.

An author, politician and diplomat, Mrs. Luce, who died in 1987, had a strong interest in the advancement of women in nontraditional fields, said Marilyn Pryor, dean of studies at Mount Holyoke.

"The emphasis is to encourage women to study in fields where they haven't previously had much incentive to do so," Ms. Pryor said.

These include physics, chemistry, biology, computer science and math.

"It's a very prestigious and highly competitive award," she said.

Ms. Fisher, a biology major with a minor in environmental sciences, attributes her lifelong interest in biology to "pure fascination with the marine world and the entire natural world."

"Since I was very, very young I've been interested in biology and marine biology specifically," she said.

"I spent a lot of time on the [Chesapeake] Bay and when I went to college I couldn't think of anything else I wanted to major in," she said.

Her knowledge of the Chesapeake proved useful during her interview with the Clare Boothe Luce scholarship committee.

"They asked me question after question about it," she said.

Ms. Fisher said she's particularly interested in salt marsh ecology. Salt marshes are flooded or partially flooded areas of grassland that play an important role in the bay's ecosystem.

Grass shrimp and other small invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain live in the marshes.

"Their existence is very important to the bay," Ms. Fisher said of the salt marshes. "They're a safe haven for molting crabs and many bay fish spawn there."

At Pepperdine, Ms. Fisher selected as her research topic the metabolic development of grunion eggs.

The grunion is a fish native to Southern California.

Ms. Fisher collected fish eggs between midnight and 1 a.m. after the grunion had spawned on the beach. The eggs have a very rapid development rate of two weeks. They usually hatch during high tides, and the young fish swim out to sea.

Ms. Fisher took the fish eggs to the laboratory to determine what would happen to the metabolic rate when the eggs weren't permitted to hatch. She found that the rate didn't decrease, but remained high even if hatching was delayed.

The topic may sound obscure, but Ms. Fisher said her research provided some clues about the grunions' survival in such great numbers in the highly developed Malibu area.

"There's a lot of indications about the effect man has on the marine life in the area and how resilient the marine life is," Ms. Fisher said. "This is an example of a fish that has thrived in such a terrible environment."

Ms. Fisher plans to attend graduate school and study developmental and marine biology. She hopes to teach college biology and do research.

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