Student Sleuths Raise Funds, Awareness about Toxic Algae


Thirteen-year-old Jonathan Kielbasinski saw the local news reports last year about sea lions attacking surfers near his home in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and couldn’t understand what was happening. The normally passive animals seemed to be going crazy. In one case a sea lion apparently knocked a surfer off his board and then attacked him. The surfer managed to get away but was left with several wounds.

As a lover of science, Kielbasinski sought answers. He did some research and identified toxic algae as one possible cause for the behavioral change. Ingestion of such algae can result in neurological damage in animals such as sea lions and cause the erratic behaviors Kielbasinski had read about in the news. He dug further and came across tiny algae called Pseudo-nitzschia that produce a neurotoxin called domoic acid. With that, a science project was born.


Kielbasinski and pals Michael Mashevsky and Mitchell Jacobson set out to find out more about toxic algae, but took it a step further. Their project bloomed into a campaign to raise awareness and funds to help support research programs related to toxic algae and marine mammals. Kielbasinski then connected with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and its research on domoic acid and algae.


They also set up shop in front of a Sam’s Club store in Torrance, Calif., and conducted a person-by-person informational tutorial—to those willing to listen—on toxic algae and marine mammals.

In the end the young partnership raised more than $325 for Scripps research. They also raised $150 and approximately $2,500 worth of goods for the Marine Mammal Care Center, a San Pedro-based organization that cares for sick and injured sea lions.


 “After finishing the project I found it interesting that there is much more to science than I thought before. It was fun to collect data and educate people,” said Kielbasinski.

Kielbasinski visited Scripps in December and, under staff research associate Melissa Carter’s guidance, collected samples at the end of the Scripps Pier, filtered algae, and studied the organisms under a microscope.

“This was a great opportunity to get young students involved in Scripps research,” said Carter, who conducts harmful algal bloom research through the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System. “It’s great for them to see that science is not ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but often much more difficult without many straightforward answers. These kids were very good at educating others in the public and that’s highly beneficial because they could explain the science in their own language.”

The partners entered their project in the “QuikSCience Challenge,” an annual student science education competition focused on the oceans sponsored by USC, the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, Quiksilver, and the Quiksilver Foundation. They didn’t take first place but they did earn a trip to Catalina for a visit to the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center.

“I think the most important lesson Jonathan and his friends learned was that you can’t embellish or exaggerate your work to get the results you want,” said Kielbasinski’s mother Suzanne. “That goes for every project. You can’t sensationalize the finished product.”

—Mario C. Aguilera

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