Students of Mrs. Katye Adams Couch ’92 have been studying oceanography in their seventh-grade science class for the past 2.5 weeks and today shared with their peers, GPS faculty, and guests the results of their research.
As a special treat before the expo, the girls visited with GPS alumna Michele Donihe Legernes ’09 via FaceTime and learned about her studies, research, and work as a marine ecologist and ocean conservationist. Legernes founded Zing Ocean Conservancy
in 2017 in the Virgin Islands along with her husband, Jonas. After a hurricane destroyed their home in St. Thomas, they sailed to Norway and established a second location of Zing there.
Legernes shared her career path, which included amassing degrees in biology and psychology along with a chemistry minor at King’s College (Bristol, Tennessee; now King’s University). “I had planned to become a doctor, but I had this desire to be outdoors and I’d always loved sharks and the ocean,” she said. That passion led her to apply for an internship studying the great white shark population in South Africa and then later earning a master’s degree from the University of the Virgin Islands, where she completed a thesis on how an invasive seagrass impacted the stingray population there.
That dive into oceanography created a huge ripple effect when, while living in St. Thomas, she witnessed a massive oceanfront trash problem compounded by hurricane debris that seemed to pile up with no plan for disposal. In fact, wherever their travels have taken them, the Legerneses have encountered the same problem: marine pollution. “We spent our trip across the Atlantic accessing the trash situation and saw marine debris everywhere we went,” Legernes said.
Now thanks to a government-funded grant, they are spearheading The Arctic cleanup organization along with a dedicated team that enlists volunteers to help with ocean debris removal. In their spare time, they enjoy swimming with orcas and humpback whales and watching the northern lights.
After her presentation to the girls, she fielded questions and visited with her former French teacher, Dr. Sean Caulfield.
Once Legernes signed off, the girls quickly set up their Oceanography Experiment Expo to share their topics related to oceanography. “As a starting point, they were given basic experiments they could modify or change,” said Couch.
They previously formulated a hypothesis, designed a controlled experiment, wrote a procedure, made a data table, collected data, and wrote a basic conclusion. In this project, the students gained new experience communicating their results with graphs via displays and interviews. The expo also gave them a chance to write an abstract.
“They could choose any topic related to oceanography,” Couch said. “Most chose to investigate ocean pressure, filter feeders, or coral reef bleaching.”
Couch said the girls were excited to share their work with others and were eager to compare their results with other groups in their grade. Maybe one day some of these students will join Legernes in her work or start their own organizations to help our marine life live in oceans free from trash and toxins.