SOUTH LOOP — Chicago students Diego Serrano and Dejah Powell each spent a week in the Bahamas on their summer break — but don't call it a "vacation."
They're two of 20 teens in this year's High School Marine Biology program at the Shedd Aquarium, which scouts Chicago-area students with an interest in aquatic science and trains them for weeklong research trips with conservation scientists.
The one-week trip, which two groups of 10 students spend aboard a research vessel with two Shedd educators and a zoologist, is preceded by a week of training where students learn the basics of marine research, choose partners and develop a thesis for their individual projects.
Once they return to Chicago, the students take analysis classes at the aquarium, ultimately presenting their findings to a panel of Shedd scientists.
"It was my little taste of what it's actually like to be a marine biologist," said Powell, a Whitney Young Magnet High School student who says she's always wanted to study aquatic science. "Now I want to do it even more."
In the program's 40-year run, it has produced dozens of marine biologists, including a few who landed on the Shedd Aquarium staff, like Chuck Knapp, vice president of conservation and research and an alumnus of the 1987 trip.
"Back then, obviously before the age of Internet and email, I had learned about the program through my high school guidance counselor, because everyone in high school knew that I was very much into fish, and that's what I wanted to do. My dream job was to work at the Shedd Aquarium," he said.
"Just to be a part of this research vessel, and see how the aquarium collects some of its fish, and to see the animals that I would care for in my fish tanks out in the wild was just a life-changing moment for me," he said. "I knew I wanted to do something involving research and wildlife preservation because of that experience."
Powell's study this summer examined differences in biodiversity by taking fish samples and charting data from different areas along the coastline. Serrano tested water quality and disproved his theory that samples closer to heavily-trafficked beaches would be more contaminated.
The pair are perfect examples of the ideal candidate, according to Maggie Hassler, a Shedd spokeswoman.
"I'm really interested in the connection that the sea life, and the ocean in general, has to do with us, and vice versa," said Serrano, 16, a sophomore at Jones College Prep.
The program costs $1,600, plus airfare, and scholarships are awarded based on need to cover some or all expenses. About half of this year's participants received financial assistance, Hassler said.
Program alumni often find themselves back at the Shedd once they begin working professionally as scientists, Knapp said. But even if a graduate of the program chooses a different career path, he doesn't consider the exposure to biology a waste.
"What's wonderful about having experiences like this is that students might think they want something until they're actually there, and they do it," Knapp said. "Every story is a success story: Even if the student finds out they don't want to do this, they wouldn't have known it for sure unless they had an experience like this.
"They might be selling books when they're 25 years old, but this experience might strike a chord with them and hopefully resonate into a lifelong appreciation of aquatic life and conservation."
But for energetic recent graduates returning to high school this month, their minds are already made up.
"I've learned that becoming a marine biologist is really broad when you think of the whole ecosystem that is the ocean," Serrano said. "A lot of people go in thinking they're gonna be marine biologists, but they end up being an aquarist, or a zoologist. I'm gonna keep pursuing marine biology, but if I detour to another subject, maybe I'll find my path."