By Jeff Mays
HARLEM—There are no Okaloosa darters in East Harlem.
The small, bottom-dwelling fish is only found in a few Florida counties. But thanks to research efforts that Marjana Chowdhury and Maryama Diaw, students at the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem, participated in, the fish has been removed from the endangered species list.
The two teens took first place for their research efforts at the New York City Science and Engineering Fair. It was the first time students from the school entered the event. Now, they are only two of 19 students from New York City competing at the 1,500-student Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles.
"These girls have come a long way from East Harlem and we are so proud of them," said their science teacher, Susan Vincent. "They are good students who have the good qualities of curiosity and perseverance. They have followed this project for more than a year. They spent many hours after school learning statistical analysis, studying the results and following it up."
The two girls traveled to Elgin Air Force Base in Florida for spring break a year ago. They collected egg samples from different bayous to discover why the darter was found more frequently in some streams than others.
Working with Frank Jordan, a biology professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and their advisor Kat Allen, a graduate student and geochemist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who teaches at the Leadership School once a week, the girls collected samples from a closely related species because of the darter's protected status.
The girls weighed and counted eggs from 300 fish of a similiar species and tested the maturity of the eggs. They then used statistical analysis to determine the darter's breeding levels at Loyola last summer.
"I don't know how to put numbers on how much work they did. We would be e-mailing back and forth at midnight," Allen said.
The result was an impressively-titled research study: “Contrasting reproductive success of female Eastern Mosquitofish in two drainages in northwestern Florida: A Life History Study on the Gambusia holbrooki.”
"I am thrilled to say the Okaloosa darter is no longer in danger of extinction," said Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a statement.
The species is now classified as threatened.
“This is a conservation milestone because only a handful of endangered species have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered species list," Jordan said in a statement.
But the girls' work began long before they won the New York City science fair and were invited to Los Angeles. Two years earlier, they started out as interns in Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory School Field Research Program. They spent time doing hands-on research at Piermont Marsh on the Hudson River about 10 miles outside of the city.
"They love the work. All they need is the opportunity," said Robert Newton, a research scientist at the observatory and director of the program.
Even more impressive is that the girls were competing against students from the city's top public and private schools. The Young Women's Leadership school draws most of their students from East Harlem, and the student body has vastly different challenges and resources compared to the city's elite schools.
"It is a good school but they don't have the same resources as other schools in the competition," said Allen. "The girls knew what they were up against and the fact that they rose to the occasion is a testament to them."
All of the kids in the Intel program have gone on to college and 50 percent have pursued careers in the sciences.
Chowdhury was born in Bangladesh and Diaw's parents are from Senegal. Vincent said the work has broadened the girls' horizons.
"This gave them such confidence and an underscored that hard work pays off. They are meeting so many people from all over the world and it broadens their view of the world," said Vincent.
"To come out and face the judges is daunting but it builds good communication skills. It gives them a taste of what college and masters and Ph.D programs will be like. This is such a good training ground," she added.
Chowdury, a senior, was recently accepted into Columbia University and is slated to receive a Gates Millenium Scholarship. Diaw is a junior. Both are anticipating a career in the sciences, possibly environmental science.
"Coming out of East Harlem, they have a whole new world open to them," said Vincent.