Earth Day Awards 2016: Sophia Maggio is passionate about studying the ocean

Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Globe Study Abroad

Sophia Maggio, Everett, Washington
Everett High School, 2016

Sophia is an undergraduate researcher at the Ocean Research College Academy. She has studied phytoplankton and eelgrass in Possession Sounds. Sophia has attended several research cruises, and she has concluded that plankton and eelgrass may be used in bioremediation as methods to remove toxic heavy metal ions from water. Sophia will soon present her findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Canada and the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative in Tennessee. She is the 2014 Student of the Year and a four-year scholar athlete—participating in soccer and cross country. Sophia is a member of the Interact Club and the National Honor Society. She is also an artist.

Q) Tell us about how you became interested in ocean research?

A) I became interested in ocean research as soon as I began ORCA, and discovered the highly relevant, prescient, and wide-ranging field of marine biology. I have always been interested in environmental contaminants, specifically heavy metals, so I readily made the connection between oceans, heavy metals, and anything in the oceans – both living and non-living – that might be exposed to these metals.

Q) If there were one thing you could predict about the future of science, what would it be?

A) I foresee depressing events in the oceans unless we are able to collectively commit to a rigid plan of action that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and thus, ocean acidification. That being said, I also have an incredible amount of optimism for the future of the oceans. I have faith in the collective strength and influence of the growing number of citizen advocates, students, and scholars, all of whom contribute equally – just in different ways – to the health of the oceans. I would highly recommend reading The Extreme Life of the Sea for a glimpse at some of the craziest sea animals, and also to see an honest and simultaneously hopeful perspective of our oceanic fate. Really, I would recommend reading anything remotely related to the topic, as the depth of our current interest and knowledge will ultimately shape the future of the oceans, and the capacity of science to resolve the issues that afflict them.

Q) If there were one thing you could have in the classroom that you don’t currently, what would it be?

A) A resident eelgrass biologist! My teachers and science facilities at ORCA are incredible, so I can’t really ask for much else, but it would be nice to have daily access to a bona fide expert in the topic that I am researching.

Q) Tell us about your favorite teacher, how have they supported or inspired you?

A) As a student at the Ocean Research College Academy (ORCA), I have had the incredible opportunity to work with Josh Searle in English and natural sciences over a two-year period. In both English essays and oral presentations of my science research, Josh has challenged me to extrapolate, discuss, and attempt to understand the viewpoints and experiences of others, and has ultimately challenged me to believe in the value of my own perspectives. “Challenge” is a word that epitomizes my learning experience with Josh: it is a challenge to learn to see the intellectual value in everyday experiences, a challenge to openly discuss and defend one’s beliefs as a mere seventeen year-old, and a challenge to attempt to convey the ideas gleaned from class discussions, readings, and Josh’s random puns and little snippets of brilliance that I scribble down in my notebook for safekeeping. Given Josh’s remarkable energy and excitement about literature, however, it would be a challenge not to engage in this rigorous, enlightening, and at times, exhausting process of intellectual growth: having read and dissected Thoreau and Emerson, Dillard and Carson, Evelyn White and Ralph Ellison and Louise Erdrich, among numerous others, I can no longer reflect on an everyday experience, conversation, or individual without imploring further, storing each detail and memory in my mind for future use. I attribute my desire to question and willingness to listen to Josh: in the opening letter of his syllabus in Spring Quarter of last year, he described how one’s capacity for empathy is enhanced through reading and writing about the stories of others. I was drawn toward his description of a “quest about empathy”; it resonates with me as a developing writer, an artist, a sister, a daughter, and as a young person attempting to navigate the world truthfully, brazenly, yet cognizant of the feelings and virtues of all the other people hitchhiking across the haphazard terrain that is life.  Josh’s kindness, sincerity, great awareness of himself and others, and humble work ethic inspire me to acknowledge, rather than ignore, the bumps and scars that mark this terrain and those who cross it, ultimately increasing my capacity for empathy – and by continuing to write about others, I want to truly understand others, regardless of how their experiences, definitions, and values differ from my own.

Q) How has NSHSS played a role in your academic career?

A) Beyond the monetary award, which will help me purchase textbooks and contribute to costs for room-and-board, this award has given me the confidence and inspiration to continue advocating for the marine environment, whether I do so professionally or simply as a citizen. Two years ago, at the beginning of my career as a student at the Ocean Research College Academy, I did not foresee myself becoming as committed to the research that I am conducting currently, as I had not yet established a strong sense of place in my local marine environment. Now, as an eighteen year-old, I have been equipped with the tools to think, write, and verbally communicate the cultural and ecological significance of the local Possession Sound estuary, and the need for similar youth advocates only escalates as one shifts from the local to regional and national levels. NSHSS has certainly reaffirmed the importance of my role as a student and citizen advocate for the marine environment, and also compels me to share this responsibility with others: my parents, my siblings, my peers, and the future ORCA and high school students who possess the ability to create lasting change in our local estuary and surrounding community, but have not yet discovered the question or connection that will encourage them to do so. Through this award, I hope to provide the spark for similar individuals who have deep concerns and strong passions for the environment, but have not yet had the confidence or support to act upon their interests.

Q) What is your fondest or memory related to your work with the Ocean Research College Academy?

A) I embarked on my first “research cruise” as a sophomore. I was shadowing my friend who was a junior at ORCA, and was not yet sold on the program (and inevitably, the hefty homework load and research commitment that was involved). I was assigned to the “sediments” group and had to assist a group of students with a “Ponar grab”: a cumbersome metal device that is deployed over the side of the boat and lowered into the water until it hits the bottom of the estuary, where it scoops up a pocket of sediment that is heaved back to the surface for analysis. I have absolutely no upper body strength, so I was having a difficult time with the grab, and was beginning to think that ORCA would not be in my future. At that moment, the captain of the vessel told us to retrieve all of the gear that had been deployed and grab the binoculars. He had seen three gray whales breach in the distance, and I was fortunate enough to witness them as soon as I turned to face the water: they were spouting water and rolling on their sides in the shallow water, attempting to upturn small shrimp and other edible creatures from the sediment. Their sheer size and intelligent behavior was absolutely incredible to witness, and we proceeded to watch three more whales swim by in the same location. That singular experience sold me on ORCA, and also made me realize how fortunate I was to even have this opportunity: to be on a boat in the middle of a beautiful estuary, collecting data while watching seals and harbor porpoises swim nearby. Funnily enough, I haven’t seen any gray whales since (although most of my peers have), but I have a renewed appreciation for the marine animals I do see regularly, as well as for the data we collect that reveal small yet valuable bits of information about their environment.

Q) Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A) Hopefully, I will have completed graduate school. Right now, I’m looking at a training program for facial prosthetics, and also a few scientific illustration programs. It depends on which programs I pursue and how many, but I would like to be finished with schooling at this point and hopefully be traveling, likely on behalf of my future profession – whatever that ends up being – but also for the cultural experience. Regardless of where I am – geographically, as well as educationally – I see myself making art and doing something biology-related.

Q) What do you plan to study in college?

A) I plan to double-major in Biology and Visual Arts at Gonzaga University. I will be a student in the Honors program, so I will have more flexibility in which classes I take and where I study abroad, which I am super excited about.

Q) What do you hope for this year’s incoming High School Freshman class?

A) Pursue hobbies, clubs, sports, etc. that you are truly excited and passionate about; don’t just choose to do activities to bolster your resume. As a senior, you want to be able to reflect on your high school experience and feel that regardless of the final outcome (in terms of college admissions, interviews, friendships gained and lost, etc.), you remained faithful to yourself, your values, and your interests. If you enjoy what you are doing, you will present yourself more authentically in college applications, essays, and interviews – and if any of these do not turn out as planned, you will be less inclined toward disappointment because you have remained “true to yourself”, as cliché as it sounds, throughout the process.

Q) Outside of your environmental advocacy involvement, what has been your favorite / most enjoyable aspect of high school?

A) I think high school sports have brought me the most joy and fulfillment in the past few years. Cross country, tennis, and club soccer have been the best: my coaches are incredibly supportive and hilarious, and my teammates are the same: so supportive and fun to be around, regardless of the final score. I have gained confidence and many lasting relationships through athletics, and am very grateful for the balance that sports have provided in my life.

Q) What do you do to stay organized / focused?

A) I admit to not being the most conventionally organized person. I have a million notes in a million different places, and on a million different surfaces (my hands, my homework, my calculus notes, napkins, and the classic sticky notes). This might be an effective organization method if I consolidated all of the notes into a central place (which I have attempted to do in the past, and would advise for any other note-takers), but I tend to be a more free-flowing person and like to be able to scribble out an idea or a “to-do” list regardless of where I am and what materials I have available.

In terms of staying focused: I am driven by clear goals that I establish for myself at the beginning of any project or school quarter. I visualize the end goal and I go for it. I don’t necessarily map out the steps that I need to take to get there, as I like to be able to adapt if any obstacles arise. As we all experience at some point, it can be very difficult to remain motivated during a long and/or tedious project, but I always remind myself of what initially compelled me to pursue a particular goal, and that typically steers me in the right direction. I think it is also very important to take breaks and allow yourself free time to either think about something entirely different or reflect on your progress thus far, as frustration and negative thinking can easily sabotage your focus.

Q) How do you relax? What’s your favorite hobby?

A) I love to draw, read (I love mysteries, ghost stories, and historical fiction), and write poetry and short stories. I have played soccer for most of my life and also enjoy running and hiking throughout Washington with my friends and younger siblings. I also like to knit, but I am fairly terrible at it.

Q) Do you have a motto? If so, what is it?

A) I don’t know if I really have a motto. I have certain phrases that I say often, but they don’t have a particularly deep meaning. I guess “Cool beans”? I say that way too often. It’s kind of silly, but I think it sums up my character in a way. I am very flexible and content with changing plans and toying with new ideas. So I will respond with “Cool beans” to mostly any suggestion or idea, and I’ll run with it. I think that can be a good mindset to model: a willingness to try new things and a general openness toward new people, ideas, and experiences.

About the Earth Day Awards

The NSHSS Foundation has partnered with the Captain Planet Foundation (CPF) to encourage environmental stewardship among high school students globally through the Earth Day Award competition.  Prizes of $500 are awarded to high school students in recognition of environmental stewardship, leadership and volunteerism expressed through the Earth Day projects submitted for the competition. The project was launched in 2013 and is open to all high school students annually.


With NSHSS, students can take advantage of scholarship opportunities to help reach their academic potential and pay for college, study abroad opportunities, summer programs, and even graduate school. NSHSS and its partners offer more than $2,500,000 in scholarships each year. The spectrum of high school and college-level scholarships available with NSHSS are designed for students in the areas of academic excellence, entrepreneurship, leadership, literature, medicine, music, STEM, sustainability, visual arts, and more. Learn more about NSHSS or view scholarships open for application. Or connect with NSHSS on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and Pinterest.