Interview: CIMI Employee discusses the Catalina Trip

By Maddie Dewhirst

News Editor

Pictured: Cal Higgens
Photo courtesy Maddie Dewhirst

On Nov. 1, 142 Los Gatos High School students in AP Biology and AP Environmental Science traveled to Catalina Island. They stayed at the Catalina Island Marine Science Institute (CIMI) and over the weekend spent their time hiking snorkeling, and doing various labs related to marine science. 

The following is an interview with Cal Higgins, who is a marine science instructor at CIMI. 

How did you get into marine biology?

So I am a geology major, and I chose to do a lot of oceanography based classes. And then I worked at a geochemistry lab at St. Louis University in Missouri. And geochemistry actually has a very large role in a lot of marine ecosystems, so I began looking into those ecosystems while I was looking at different stream systems in Missouri. And like a perfect example of that is coral reef. But ever since I was little, I wanted to be a marine biologist, I could just never… I couldn’t afford to go to college in a place where I could study marine biology. So I chose geology in the Middle West, which is a cool place.

What’s your favorite part of teaching at CIMI?

So with different age groups it’s different, but I do enjoy it like spanning all age groups. I enjoy student questions and seeing the thought process behind their questions. I also like telling them about something that I love, which is the ocean, and I really like surfing so I try to mix in different aspects of surfing like the spiritual aspect of surfing and like wave structure and stuff into some of my labs. I just like giving kids a different classroom experience than they’re used to and seeing how they respond to that classroom environment. And here by the ocean is like a great place to do it because, like, for example, after snorkeling I can get out, and I could talk to students about colors and with smaller age groups of kids, I’ll have them lay down, ‘cause it’s starting to get cold in the water, so I’ll have them lay down and look up at the Sun and be like, “Hey, Sun!” and they’ll repeat after me, and they’ll be like “Hey, Sun!” then I’m like “I know I’m not a plant,” [echo] “I know I’m not a plant,” “But I’m trying to photosynthesize!” and then they all laugh and we just lay there and you could never do that in a normal classroom. So I like seeing kids responses to an outdoor learning environment and the questions they asked from it.

Why do you think it’s important to teach people, and specifically young people, about all these different ecosystems and about the environment?

So yesterday when Mr. Hammack was giving us that story about the methane gas and the chicken coop he said a quote that says, “whatever position you find yourself in, you should leverage that position for the environment.” So I think it’s very important to raise environmental awareness in the youth because not everyone’s going to be an environmental scientist or be passionate about some science that can in broader terms change how our world is working, but they can have [an] awareness of environmental issues, so that when they go into like, a business… they can leverage that role to be more sustainable or more environmentally oriented. And so my job is not to get people interested solely in science, it’s just to make them aware of what’s happening in their world and become passionate about something that they might not choose to pick as a career path, so that they can help the cause in whatever they choose to do. 

Is there one particular thing that you want people who come here to take away? Students, teachers, whoever.

… We get a lot of kids that come from Phoenix, Arizona, and when I was little coming here was like that trajectory in my life where I decided like, I love the ocean. I always had loved the ocean. We went all the time when I was little, and I have friends that lived in San Diego, so I was very fortunate enough to stay with them for a lot of summers. But that was like the defining point in my life where I was like, this is really cool… it was kind of like a SeaWorld. SeaWorld was not always bad, by the way, like when I was little, SeaWorld was like what got people into marine science. So this was like that SeaWorld experience where I was like this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. This is what I want to be passionate about, I want to be good at everything involving the ocean. And it took a little while to get to this position… And so I want [people] to kind of like, take away is that there is something that maybe they’re close to, because a lot of kids that we get from California some of them don’t even know how to swim, so I just want them to take away that there is this huge life source near them… And it not only can be used for studying of science, but it can be used for meditation, it can be used for exercise… it’s one of the main reasons our world is inhabitable. And so I just want people to know how important and how powerful the ocean is. Even if they choose not to partake, I want to give them that knowledge that they now know, hey, I can exercise in the ocean, I can use the ocean for meditation, I could sit on the beach and observe things on the ocean, I could choose to study it, I can go in and snorkel in it, and all that different stuff. So I want them to just know that they have this crazy life source relatively near them. I just want to open up their eyes to like that fact. 

For people who do want to go into biology, be it marine biology or maybe something like geology, do you have any advice for them?

I think it’s really important to be very diverse in your studies… and a lot of colleges now force people to be diverse. [People will] take a lot of different types of classes in [the] arts and sciences and then in the science realm they take a lot of different types of sciences. They’ll take life sciences all the way up to like more environmental sciences and physical sciences. But my advice is to kind of pre meditate before you pick a major in college, to study what you want to do and maybe not have a solid idea. If you want to do science and you don’t know what kind, just take all your prerequisites science courses that first year because I really wanted to do biology but I didn’t find that out until later because I didn’t take a biology course until later. And at that point, it was too late for me. And so that’s one piece of advice is that [you] should like, pre meditate what [you] want to do. And if [you] can’t truly decide, [you] don’t have to, go in undecided. Stanford actually doesn’t let people decide until their sophomore year what they want to do. And I think that’s a good course of action. Or choose a major that can take you in many different directions. So my minor was GIS, and with GIS you can work in any field.

What’s [GIS]?

GIS is Geographic Information Systems. It’s basically online mapping and it’s one of the most hirable jobs right now, actually. People get hired and it’s very, very good pay right away. And every county across America needs it, every science lab does it. And… GIS allows you to work in many different realms. I worked over the summer with ASU [Arizona State University] and we did heat studies. And we basically took a GPS unit and a temperature reading unit and we spread them out around Phoenix and were able to make heat maps. But then I worked with the Botanical Garden, just mapping boulders using the same thing. And then a lot of people that I talked to they go work with coral reef systems, mapping reef systems. And then like their next job will be going inland and just like taking a demographic reading on a certain neighborhood, like a small census. So if you can’t decide what you want to do, and you’re passionate about about a lot of things, choose something that lets you be incorporated in all of those. And there’s a lot of different studies that allow that, like GIS. But if you know that you’re passionate about a certain science, maybe your split between three things, take a little time in your first couple years of college to get your prerequisites out of the way and really decide what that is.

What’s your favorite activity to do here? 

Ah, so, my favorite activity to do here, I’m going to say with younger students I think it’s the astronomy night hike. We have an astronomy night hike and we have a really beautiful night sky, and when it’s a beautiful clear sky, you can see everything. And I’m not really good at pointing out the constellations yet, but I’ve gone up there with a couple of my peers and they are just phenomenal at pointing out [constellations]. We have a laser pointer and we point it up [at the stars]. And that’s a lab that is still, the book is wide open, because there’s a lot we don’t know about our universe so you can really blow kids’ minds in that lab. But…  seventh [grade] through high school, I love our basic snorkel. And so you guys didn’t get to do that one, but it’s the third snorkel we go on. And during that one we float jump and have the option to free swim, but I try to convince kids to do a longer snorkel and we end up getting sometimes a half a mile away from our camp, maybe more like three fourths of a mile. And once I did it and I didn’t know we were supposed to and I got a little bit too far, but like seeing the kids how they were reacting to these different transitions from sandy bottom to rocky reef, and then the slope from rocky reef back to sandy bottom and then a pickup of like really heavy algae force, it’s just crazy. It’s crazy, and then the whole time they’re like “Ah!” You hear them screaming in their snorkel and then you’ll go down, and like pick something up off the bottom, and you’ll look up and hear “Ah! Ah!” from the bottom of the ocean. And you’ll be like “this is the ocean, be passionate about it!” 


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