18 students showcased their science research projects as part of a new partnership between Brentwood High School, Stony Brook University and the BIOBUS, a traveling mobile laboratory that provides science research opportunities to students from communities traditionally underrepresented in the STEM field. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Before an audience of legislators, scientists and parents at the Sunken Meadow State Park last week, 17-year-old Nicole Olekanma presented her science research project to develop a heart-rate sensor for mussels, an inexpensive device she is developing with a team of seven other Brentwood High School student researchers that will help scientists preserve the health of Long Island salt marshes and others like it nationwide.

"Mussels contribute a lot to the salt marshes," she told Newsday. "By determining the health of the mussels, it’s a great way to determine the health of the salt marshes in general."

Olekanma was one of 18 students who showcased their science research projects as part of a new partnership between Brentwood High School, Stony Brook University and the BIOBUS, a traveling mobile laboratory that provides science research opportunities to students from communities traditionally underrepresented in the STEM — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — field. The collaboration, which focuses on marsh restoration research, is the first of its kind.

"The mission of the BIOBUS is similar to the mission that I have always had, which is to engage underrepresented minority communities in STEM," said Rebecca Grella, who began teaching science at Brentwood High School in 2002 and stayed because she fell in love with its diversity. "It is through STEM that you can narrow achievement gaps, you can get students ready for real-world jobs."

According to U.S. News & World Report, 96% of Brentwood high schoolers are minorities, and 76% are economically disadvantaged.

Through the research program, Olekanma and other students have the opportunity to conduct hands-on research and meet professional scientists like Kamazima Lwiza, a Stony Brook University marine physicist who told Newsday he was "floored" by the quality of students’ research at the July 14 showcase.

"They were so confident and they are addressing really difficult problems," Lwiza said.

A Brentwood High School student researcher found a fiddler crab...

A Brentwood High School student researcher found a fiddler crab in the marsh at Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Another student researcher, Joshua Castellanos, 16, is investigating the impact of nitrogen loading on the Long Island ecosystem. Through careful photographic documentation of 100 spartina alterniflora plants, he has shown that increased nitrogen concentration in wetlands causes the plants’ roots to decay, which could lead to marsh collapse.

Castellanos’ mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, told him she is proud of his scientific achievements, and through this project he has become proud of his accomplishments too, he said.

"Sometimes I can be a very insecure person and feel I can’t do anything," Castellanos said. "But seeing how far I’ve gotten with the science and research, I truthfully feel it shows you can go into a field and do it well if you put enough heart in and you put enough time in."

After Brentwood senior Juan Carlos Delgado lost his uncle, an Ecuadorian scientist, to COVID-19 last year, it dawned on him that he missed a chance to connect with a family member who shared his interest in scientific research.

The BIOBUS is a traveling mobile laboratory.  

The BIOBUS is a traveling mobile laboratory.   Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

"I have to do it for him," Delgado told Newsday. Like the other Brentwood researchers, he hopes to enter his project in the prestigious nationwide Regeneron Science Talent Search.

Delgado, 16, is a business-minded teenager who said his research was inspired by a desire to "make the marsh profitable." He realized that elected officials often prioritize economic growth above all else, especially preservation of nature.

"I thought if I could combine the [two], I could possibly save the marsh," he said.

Delgado has spent almost every weekday this year in his high school laboratory attempting to manufacture paper from a common marsh plant, cordgrass. He hopes to develop a material durable enough to be used as biodegradable packaging or even in rubber manufacturing.

"All-natural shoes, protecting the marsh," he said. "I just created jobs, $350 million. That’s my industry!"

Kevin Leal, 16, a Brentwood High School student researcher, peers...

Kevin Leal, 16, a Brentwood High School student researcher, peers into a microscope in the BIOBUS, an airstream trailer packed with biological investigation tools. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Through their research, Delgado, Castellanos and Olekanma said they hope to show people the good that can come out of their community.

"Brentwood has a lot more to offer than the stories people show off of it being negative," Castellanos said. "Brentwood has a lot more to offer than its crime."

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