Teens are making a difference for our ocean

The Monterey Bay Aquarium strives to have a life-changing impact on the young people who take part in our teen programs—part of our commitment to shape new generations of ocean conservation leaders. It’s the vision behind our new Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership, where we’ll be able to double the participation of teens in these and other programs.

Even before the Center opens in 2019, we’re having an impact on young women and men. They’re already making a difference in the world: as conservation leaders, educators and ocean advocates. Here are some of their stories.

Freda Lababidi: shy no more

There’s a lot of power in a clear, acrylic tube. Just ask Freda Lababidi. As with many volunteers, part of her job was showing a small “jelly tube” to visitors as they entered the aquarium, a preview of the live animals they’ll encounter at the Aquarium.

Her experiences with Aquarium visitors helped Freda Lababidi grow, both personally and professionally.

It’s a tiny “ocean in a tube”—but it’s so much more. A self-described shy person, Freda discovered that these simple interactions with children and adults would be literally life changing.

“As a volunteer in my senior year of high school, I would hold the jelly tube at the entry and talk to visitors and children,” says Freda, 19. “That same year I got involved in the guide program and worked a lot of different stations throughout the day. Eventually I became a guide shift captain and took on more responsibility. It really helped me grow professionally.”

Freda was a Teen Conservation Leader at the Aquarium in 2016 and 2017, serving as a co-shift captain on the floor during her second season. She also acts as an interpreter and speaks fluent Arabic. The Marina High School valedictorian is now studying chemical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, but was hired on at the Aquarium this summer to help with our education programs. She says after graduation she “hopes to find a career related to the Aquarium,” even though she doesn’t yet know what that might look like.

“I’ve had such a supportive network of people (here),” she says. “That’s what really inspires me. I’ve loved spreading the conservation message to guests on the floor. I feel like I have public speaking and leadership skills I didn’t have before.”

Adriana Reyes: inspired to teach

Many volunteers have a career epiphany at the Aquarium, launching them on a path that will last their entire professional lives. But it’s not always science, marine biology or research that provide the way forward.

Her experiences convinces Adriana Reyes she wanted to give back not as a practicing veterinarian, but as a teacher.

For Adriana Reyes, 23, the inspiration came from her interactions with adolescents. After graduating from Alisal High School, she was admitted to UC Davis—one of the premier veterinary colleges in the country. She initially assumed that veterinary science would be her future. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that the essence of her time at the Aquarium was the myriad interactions she had with young people in the most formative stage of their lives. And she realized she could help them.

Last year, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human development. Now she hopes to get a teaching credential and teach high school biology.

“In the summer of 2014—after my freshman year of college—I was hired as a mentor in the Young Women in Science program,” she says. “And I realized what I wanted to do is teach. That experience pushed me toward a major that involved teaching adolescents.

“I’ve always enjoyed marine science, but I’m more interested in getting information to people—making it accessible but also interesting.”

For Adriana, who’s also served as a Spanish interpreter at the Aquarium, it’s also about giving back.

“Eventually, I’d love to be able to teach at my old high school,” she says. “I love Monterey County and Salinas. Whatever I do, I always tell people I wouldn’t be at this point in my career if it weren’t for the programs at the Aquarium.”

Yaamini Venkataraman: a life in science

Yaamini Venkataraman, 23, made the choice to go deep into marine science after her volunteer experiences at the Aquarium. As in, very deep. She’s currently working toward a PhD in the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences at the University of Washington, studying how oysters respond to climate change.

Yaamini Venkataraman helps people understand the connection between humans and healthy ocean ecosystems.

Yaamini grew up in Cupertino and attended Monta Vista High School. She participated in Teen Conservation Leaders at the Aquarium, starting in her junior year. That’s when she experienced a spark of inspiration.

“Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I was out on floor talking about marine ecosystems and how they were connected to what people were seeing behind the glass,” she recalls.

As time went on, she got more involved in volunteer opportunities.

“After my senior year, and before I started attending UC San Diego as an undergraduate, I got a chance to work with the Aquarium’s sea otter program, as an otter spotter along the coast,” Yaamini says.

Fueled by her Aquarium experiences, she double-majored in biology and environmental policy as an undergraduate. After graduating, she returned to the Aquarium, working with teens to develop ocean-related social media accounts.

In her PhD program, Yaamini is a deeply committed scientist. But when she thinks back, it’s the softer, interpersonal side of her Aquarium experiences that lingers.

“When most people think about the marine sciences, they think of oceanography or studying animals,” she says. “But so much of marine science is about how we as people affect ecosystems and whether we have a responsibility to do something about it. The way the Aquarium teaches students and volunteers is with a lot of empathy and grace. No matter where a guest is from, you learn to make a connection to them, and then to what they’re seeing on exhibit.

“My parents, when we talked about my future, always put an emphasis on helping others. So if I’m studying shellfish, for instance, I’m thinking: ‘How is that connected to the climate, and to the people and tribes that rely on the resource? How can they count on it for the years and decades to come?’ ”

Her eventual goal is to be “a professor and train the next generation of scientists and storytellers. But no matter where I end up, or what I do, the Aquarium—that little gem in Monterey Bay—will mean something to me for the rest of my life.”

Yazmin Ochoa: a global focus

Sometimes, a single interaction can inspire an entire course of study. Take Yazmin Ochoa, 19. One of her first experiences as a volunteer was engaging with a visitor from Denmark.

Yazmin Ochoa developed a truly global understanding of the impact of the ocean on our lives.

“It made me realize what a big deal it was to reach so many people, from so many places,” she says. “I’ve volunteered at the Aquarium since my sophomore year in high school, and I still do. And every time I come back, it makes me so much more excited for what I’m doing.”

She now attends Dartmouth College, and is contemplating a double major in environmental science and geography.

“I wasn’t really considering that path, but working at the Aquarium made me realize it was what I really wanted to do. I like the global aspect of things, and want to focus on the environment and geography as it affects environmental health.”

Yazmin, who attended Alvarez High School in Salinas, first volunteered at the Aquarium in her sophomore year. She participated as a Teen Conservation Leader, and was part of Young Women in Science and other programs. In 2017, she was selected as a Teen Conservation Leader Coach—the highest leadership position possible in the program. And in 2018, she returned as an employee, supporting our teen programs.

Felicia Davidson: ‘The Aquarium keeps pulling me back’

When it came time to write her application essay for Brown University in Rhode Island, Felicia Davidson knew immediately what she had to write about: her time as a volunteer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“The assignment was to describe a place where you were perfectly content and felt at home,” says Felicia, 21. “I was reflecting on being a volunteer at an Aquarium sleepover. After everyone had gone to bed, I was so content. I went out on the deck, and there was a girl who I knew was scared of the giant Mola mola. I brought over a plush mola. We talked. When she left the next morning, I noticed she had her own plush mola, and she was so excited about everything that she’d seen.”

For Felicia Davidson, it’s all about helping young people deepen their understanding and have a greater impact in the world.

Small moments like can provide inspiration for a lifetime. Felicia is now a junior at Brown studying education and human development – “a mix of sociology, psychology, history and anthropology,” she says.

Felicia attended Pajaro Valley High School in Watsonville and started volunteering at the Aquarium in seventh grade, with her sister and mother. (Felicia is one of triplets, raised by a single mom.) She eventually participated in the Aquarium’s Teen Conservation Leaders, Young Women in Science and Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitats (WATCH) programs. After completing high school, she became a valued summer employee because of her experience with all three of our teen programs. She remains on staff at the Aquarium today.

“All the teen programs at the Aquarium balance youth development with scientific goals,” she says. “Most people focus on the scientific aspect, but for me, it was the other way—I was always focused on youth development. How do we continue to guide the students’ paths? How do we enable them to see the impact of what they’re doing?”

It’s a field she hopes to explore in the future.

“Whenever I think about what I’m going to do next, I think about my work at the Aquarium. I like being able to teach people about something that matters, with others who are passionate—teaching people of all different ages, from different places, in a cool and exciting setting.

“I’m very extroverted and very people-oriented. For me it’s about making a connection with people, even for five minutes. That’s what I remember most about my work at the Aquarium. And that’s what keeps pulling me back.”

A world of talent

The stories are almost endless—teen program participants have gone on to become educators at other institutions, veterinary professionals, biologists, advocates for social and environmental justice, scientists and more.

The Aquarium’s teen programs are as varied as its participants. And the programs continue to grow in scope, thanks in part to a contribution of $200,000 over a four-year period from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation. Funds support paid summer employment for young adults who completed at least one of our teen programs, including  recent graduates of area high schools who work full time in the Guest Experience and Education departments.

Teen programs include:

Student Oceanography Club: This is for middle school students who are interested in learning about local ecosystems, marine science, and ocean conservation. During the school year they explore the kelp forest, get outdoors, interact with local researchers, and visit scientific institutions.

Teen Conservation Leaders: Students learn basic marine biology and ocean conservation, then provide exhibit interpretation for guests, and support summer camp programs.

Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitats (WATCH): Students explore the Pajaro River Watershed and meet local scientists to learn about environmental issues and participate in restoration efforts. After the summer, they develop their own field research project.

Young Women in Science: This week-long summer day camp gets young women involved with science and ocean conservation. Girls explore ocean habitats from kayaks and boogie boards, and through surface scuba diving.

— Geoff Drake

Learn more about the new Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership, and what it means for future education opportunities for school groups, teachers and emerging teen leaders.

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