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Science students ID new species through partnership of  Mashomack and Shelter Island School

When Shelter Island School science teacher Daniel Williams and Mashomack Preserve’s Education and Outreach Coordinator Cindy Belt took a course together on barcoding, they didn’t imagine it would lead to discovering six novel sequences in plants and insects not previously identified.

“This is actually a pretty big deal,” Mr. Williams said, noting that it developed into a program where students have been credited with the identifications.

In his many years of teaching at the high school level, serving as a teaching fellow at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and his involvement with the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Mr. Williams had never found a single novel sequence. But students in a summer program have six credited to their names.

Everyone is familiar with barcoding when it comes to products for pricing and inventory control. But in the world of science, barcoding refers to identifying specimens through DNA. Every species has a unique barcode.

The Summer Ecology and DNA Lab Experience (SEDLE) program, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve in conjunction with Shelter Island School District, will launch for the third successive Summer on July 15 and run through July 26.

The school provides the lab space and its equipment, while The Nature Conservancy supports the program financially. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has provided materials and agents needed for testing.

When Mr. Williams — whose career has included opening significant opportunities for students that many universities can’t duplicate — thought about a summer program for students, he reached out to Ms. Belt to add her knowledge and abilities to launch this citizen science program.

The program they designed, for students in 9th through 12th grade, taught students how to do field work and then to take samples of plants and insects they collected back to the laboratory to extract DNA to determine if they are native or invasive species. But taken a step further, they were able to document some previously undiscovered species.

Thinking they were putting together a special program, they didn’t want to limit it to just Shelter Island students and those who spend summers on the Island.

“This is too good for just us,” Mr. Williams said about not limiting the program to only local students.

Besides offering it to other school districts, he and Ms. Belt wanted to encourage Latino students who might need services of an interpreter to participate. Teacher Julia Labrozzi Cantley agreed to work with them to assist those students so they wouldn’t be blocked from the program just because of language difficulties.

“Your language shouldn’t stop you from your dreams,” Mr. Williams said.

Nor should money be a barrier, he said.

In the first two years, there was no tuition. This year there is a cost, but scholarships are available to ensure no one is denied participation because of finances.

Arrangements were also worked out for students from off-Island to walk onto ferries and be picked up at North or South ferry terminals to save their families the expense of paying higher vehicle fees.

Given the space in the school lab, the program can accommodate 20 to 28 students at most.

Parents must fill out applications that include informing the organizers of any allergies, illnesses or disabilities that might need to be accommodated.

Because the COVID pandemic was still flaring that first year, they also had to indemnify the school and The Nature Conservancy of responsibility should anyone become ill.

Students spend most of the first week at Mashomack Preserve collecting samples in areas of forests, meadows and marshes. Leading the sample collecting effort at Mashomack Preserve, Ms. Belt pointed out the importance of keeping the group small enough to be personal and manageable.

As they prepare for their third summer, they see the program as ongoing for many more summers to come.