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Boulder oceanic institute helps students chart course to a healthier environmental future

OceanFirst Institute
Students work with OceanFirst Institute

Dr. Mikki McComb-Kobza is convinced that by connecting landlocked Colorado students to the ocean, salvation for our ailing planet is possible.

She might be right.

Consider for a moment the work she does. As the Executive Director of the Boulder-based OceanFirst Institute, McComb-Kobza prioritizes hands on research for students from across the Denver Metro area. This work includes research studies of the micro plastics showing up in rivers or research trips to significant global spots where students participate directly in discovery intended to save oceanic species, often sharks.

“We are focused on drawing the connection between the fate of the oceans and our own fate,” said McComb-Kobza. “We want to put the power back in the students’ hands to understand the connections and take action.”

Alejandro Coronado and Marco Guerrero probably didn’t know four years ago that their senior year project would still be traveling the world and helping to save inhabitants of our oceans. With support from OceanFirst Institute, the pair developed a device that still helps McComb-Kobza use lasers to measure sharks around the world. Her research quantifies where this critical species is thriving and where it is not. Coronado and Guerrero developed this device as part of a partnership between the Institute and St. Vrain Valley School District’s aquatic robotics team at the school district’s Innovation Center. Soon, the device will travel with McComb-Kobza to Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, where she will use it to catalog the size of sharks in that area.

The six-year-old scientific nonprofit already boasts 140,000 students reached across the world through virtual programming. More than 8,000 Colorado kids have had the chance to learn more about the connection between water and the health of our planet.

“The students are fascinated. They are quick to understand what they are seeing in our local rivers impacts all of us around the globe,” said McComb-Kobza. “We’re looking at real life issues like plastics in our rain and ocean acidification. The scientific answers are simple. But the questions we ask are more complicated, like, how do we change our behaviors individually and globally?”

Beyond virtual programming, necessitated by the current national health emergency, the Institute takes teams of students into oceans around the world to conduct research and gain real-world experience. With the help of a newly hired development director, the organization is fundraising and expects to soon be able to offer scholarships to ensure that any student with an interest in ocean health and research has an opportunity to explore that interest first hand.

In the current moment Institute projects leave McComb-Kobza wondering what will become of the thousands of Northern Redbelly dace currently living in an expanding number of aquariums in her basement. Before the pandemic hit, the plan was for a group of students to partner with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Boulder County Open Space to see what could be done about the decline of this Colorado state endangered fish species, largely seen as an indicator species in Colorado’s ecosystem. The loss of the Northern Redbelly dace is a challenge not only for survival of that fish but also for all the species that rely on it. The planned release of the fish and the students’ research on it has been delayed. At this point, seven spawnings have occurred in McComb-Kobza’s house.

As she contemplates the fate of her ever-growing Northern Redbelly dace population, she is focused on ensuring there are no barriers to kids moving into the Marine biology field, even in landlocked state Colorado.

“Their success is literally our future,” McComb-Kobza said.

Visit OceanFirst Institute



See the shark-measuring device in action!