Friday, May 20, 2011

Cora Webber, mentor to Adrienne McColl, calls Adriennes' story a true fairy tale.

An Unsuspecting San Pedro High Student Rakes in a First Place Award at an International Science Competition That Brought Her Accolades along With $8,000; She Did So Despite Facing Tragic Times and Without Having Done Any Research Until the Last Two Years of Her Young Life

By Diana L. Chapman

 Having lost both her mother and grandmother to cancer within a year and then learning she had a severe back injury that permanently killed her athletic prowess, Adrienne McColl’s attitude toward life became hostile.

The surfer, dancer, volley ball player, cross country runner and all around athlete kept “thinking how things should have been and how they were really not turning out” at the age of 16.

“Who cares what will happen three years down the road when you don’t know what will even happen in three months,” reflected Adrienne, now 18, revealing her angry attitude toward life before she started research two years ago and then this month scored big time in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair in May. “I was pretty angry.”

But when attending the American Cancer Relay at San Pedro High two years ago – and listening to cancer survivors – Adrienne had an epiphany that this giving-up attitude was not what her mother, who died of brain cancer at age 49, would want of her. So she tossed herself into research at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium – and shocked even herself when she came in first place in her study of spiny lobster hatchlings and keeping them alive 179 days,  breaking the record of keeping them alive longer in captivity than even professional scientists.

Adrienne became one of 17 students who competed from around the world who received “best of category” and out of 1,500 students, received first place in animal biology along with $8,000.

“Speechless is the word that comes to mind,” said Cora Webber, who mentored Adrienne’s research at the aquarium. “I don’t think you can express it in words.  The past history she’s been through, the hardships, the disappointments. It’s just incredible. It’s one of those fairy tale stories that comes true.”

It is the first time ever a student at San Pedro High School has won such a prominent award leading school officials to be thrilled that they had such a researcher in their mists.

“Adrienne’s award is phenomenal,” said Sandra Martin-Alvarenga, San Pedro High’s Marine Magnet coordinator which Adrienne attended. “It is the first time anybody at SP High has won and it is a very big deal. This is like  the Academy Awards of Science Fairs. Last year, she won second at LA County and 2nd at the state for her work with Red Rock shrimp.

“I am so proud of Adrienne! She is an amazing young woman with an wonderful spirit and personality.”

Principal Jeanette Stevens was enthralled.

“I am extremely proud of Adrienne’s accomplishments,” Stevens said. “Her fervor and dedication are commendable, especially in her chosen field of science! I am confident that with her talent, her new college program at the University of Washington and her gifted ability of research that we will be enjoyed farm raised lobster soon!”

Having sat with Adrienne for more than two hours in an interview – where she was getting excited about a visit to University of Washington where she plans to study fisheries – I couldn’t agree more.

Here was a student who lost first her mother, Denise to brain cancer in 2008, and then directly after lost her grandmother who “didn’t tell anybody” at first because of what was already happening with the family of four girls, Adrienne being the youngest. Her grandmother died from colon and liver cancer six months later.

 By 2009, Adrienne’s back began to twinge when she was first sailing. She ignored it, but felt the pain again when she was running.

When she went to the doctor, she learned – possibly because her hips were already misaligned – that she had severely fractured her lower back and nearly all athletics now were out of her reach – another tragic setback.

Her frustrated direction turned, however, when her biology teacher, Alisa Schulman-Janiger, recommended she apply for a paid research internship at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, where she’d already been a docent for five years.

During the interviews for the program, Adrienne confessed she’d only done one “stupid” research project in her life. The word stupid disappointed aquarium officials who then ranked her as fifth in line when there were only four spots available. Having lost that opportunity, Adrienne later attended a Catalina trip where aquarium employees spotted her keen enthusiasm to study and collect ocean creatures – and her hard dedication.

Webber said she was so encouraged with Adrienne’s intensity that aquarium officials prepared to open another spot just for her before another student dropped out.

Half-Scottish and a quarter-Cherokee, Adrienne, a senior, who now free dives, paddle surfs and occasionally snow boards,  said she never did much research until her sophomore year where she first studied the density of red rock shrimp at the aquarium, replicating the same experiment six times until she became bored.

Later, she shifted her focus to spiny lobsters. She talks enthusiastically about how each lobster has 200,000 to two million babies. Her research, she decided in the world of aquaculture, would be to keep the hatchlings alive as long as possible by providing them the right foods, in this case larval fish

“I used five different diets,” she explained, “and that was the best mix of protein, calcium and DHA, fish fat. It’s like what’s in breast milk. It’s an understudied species because it’s hard to study and they are hard to raise. It’s like if you have a kid and you want to study it, but you don’t even know what to feed it.”

They are born as plankton and are “like tiny spiders,” she said, and because of overfishing of so many species, humans need to determine ways to salvage them before they become threatened and “overfished like everything is.”

While Adrienne hadn’t settled on becoming a researcher, she knew from the time she was a small girl that the outdoors and nature were a natural curiosity to her when she grew up at the Naval base in Bremerton, Washington.

“I always loved science,” she said. “I grew up in the a forest that was my backyard. I was always asking about plants. We’d take the ferries. We’d see killer whales. I fell in love with the ocean.

Her father, Angus, a submarine commander, also took her on ships and subs which reinforced her passion for the sea.

Despite her losses, Adrienne says she believes she hasn’t suffered more than anyone else has.

“I definitely grew up fast and independent, but now I think everybody has things to overcome,” she said, adding she connected with another student at the fair -- a disabled researcher named Dianna Hu.
Adrienne and her new friend,
Dianna Hu, also a major researcher in the area of spinal muscular dystrophy.

Dianna, who is in a wheelchair and flew in for the fair from New York, studied the cause for her condition --  spinal muscular atrophy.

Adrienne went out of her way to meet Dianna because she was mesmerized by the girl’s difficulties and her ability to still do phenomenal research. The two agreed that they should link up and possibly do research together. Dianna will attend Harvard in the fall.

“I just told her it’s so inspiring to study something so close to you and to try to make a difference in the condition,” Adrienne said.

Eventually, the young researcher said, she plans to open a fish market, or a lobster farm or work in the aquaculture industry.

For Adrienne, the ocean is the limit.