By Camila Ryder
Walk past the Science Classroom on the first floor of the Bachmann Collaboration Building and you might see something different, curious, and slightly soothing. Those are the moon jellies, blissfully floating along in their tanks in Prep’s first-ever Jelly Lab.
Officially launched in 2020, the lab is the brainchild of Science Department Chair Laura Kaufman and science teacher Dr. David Herman, who were searching for a project that would allow high school students to design and run their own lab.
“Many students start researching in labs once they reach college. We wanted to provide them with that experience much earlier on in their career, where they learn to ask questions about the world around them and discover what it’s like collaborating with each other,” says Kaufman.
The lab originated as a collaboration between Prep and the Goentoro Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where researchers are currently studying various phenomena in moon jellyfish. “We have been working closely with Aki Ohdera, a post-doc at Caltech, who helped set up the lab and has mentored Flintridge Prep students as part of Caltech’s Summer Research Connection program,” Herman explains.
Prep’s Jelly Lab currently has 15 student researchers and lab assistants. Three times a week, the lab assistants come to campus early in the morning or stay after school to feed the jellies their brine shrimp meal, clean the tanks, and monitor research projects.
Kaufman, Herman, and Dr. Kristen Corning advise and oversee the lab. “Getting the lab up and running involved a lot of trial and error, but also a lot of fun,” Herman says. In the early days of the lab, the teachers were raising moon jellies on their own and discovering some obstacles along the way, as many jellyfish were being sucked up by the filter. This past year, a few students took on the challenge of fixing that issue, using their physics and engineering acumen to come up with a simple, cost-effective solution.
The jellies have also made their way into the 9th grade biology curriculum. During their Ecology unit, students were observing the pulse rates in “teenage” jellyfish. “It prompted students to ask questions and design controlled experiments to understand how living and nonliving factors might affect pulse rates,” Corning says, noting that her biology classes like to observe the jellyfish, as the tanks live in the Bachmann Collaboration Building’s science classroom. “The lab sparks spontaneous student-driven conversations in the classroom about the process of science and about what scientists do.”
This past fall, Jelly Lab members started devising their own research projects and quickly discovered how to hone their questions and the trial-and-error that defines the research process. Seeking answers to questions like, “Do moon jellies prefer frozen or live brine shrimp” or “Do jellyfish secrete hormones to communicate with each other and sense objects around them,” students are also intrigued by jellyfish regeneration, as marine biologists have found a handful of medusas are capable of regenerating arms after amputation.
Matt Wang ’23 is currently looking into the effects of thiamine biosynthesis on the medusa regeneration process. Wang joined the lab in its early stages and created the Jelly Lab’s first research project. When Prep closed for online learning in March 2020, Herman and Wang worked together to continue the experiments by creating a lab on Wang’s desk at home, with Herman delivering sodium chloride (salt) every other week for the tank water.
Herman, Kaufman, and Corning plan for seasoned researchers like Wang to mentor younger students working in the lab, allowing for cross-grade mentorship where new Jelly Lab students learn and hone important lab skills and the experimental design process. Eventually, those students could become mentors themselves in their junior or senior year.
“We are thrilled that our students are already enjoying their time in the Jelly Lab and experiencing the joys of collaborative learning and scientific discovery and we look forward to working with our students to continue to grow the program,” Kaufman says.
Students will present their research findings at the STEAM & Service Fair on March 9. We’ll be following the Jelly Lab on social media and our online news, so stay tuned for more updates from the lab!
Photos by Jenna Schoenefeld and Camila Ryder