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Kennedy Science Scholar looks to save marine life


Jonathan Mashal, of Merrick, has been fascinated by life on the ocean floor since he was 4. “Just the fact that the marine world is so different from ours,” he said, “is something I’ve always had an interest in.”

As a child, Mashal would scamper along the beach with a bucket, picking up any shell he found interesting. As a 4-year-old, he noted, “you find every shell interesting.”

At the local library, he would inspect each shell he had picked up and pore through books to identify them.

Now, as a senior at John F. Kennedy High School, Mashal was recently named to the exclusive ranks of Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholars. He may be one of 40 students to bring their research to the competition’s finals in Washington, D.C., this spring.

Mashal entered Kennedy’s Advanced Science Research program, led by teacher Barbi Frank, as a sophomore, and for three years now he has pursued graduate-level research on “Bay Scallop and Eastern Oyster Survival Within Crepidula fornicata Shell Beds in the Peconic Bays of New York.”

As a sophomore, he prepared for his research and work on a scallop restoration project in Mattituck by earning his scuba certificate. Mashal practiced in-pool dives, learning the basics and emergency procedures, followed by four open-water dives before he was ready.

“I had never done it before,” he said. “I hadn’t really thought about it prior to this experience, but now I’m really happy that I have it.”

Certification in hand, Mashal spent the last two summers at a lab in Mattituck, on the North Fork of Long Island — about an hour-and-40-minute drive from Merrick.

Mashal said that his parents weren’t “initially in love” with the idea of him researching so far away, as well as scuba diving daily, but “they knew it was a passion of mine, and they supported me through it.” They even rented him an apartment for Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in Mattituck.

His project’s aim is to find an alternative habitat for sea scallops, which generally live in seagrass. According to Mashal, for 20 to 30 years, seagrass has been on the decline, largely due to human activity (see box).

Some scientists, including Mashal, believe that the shells of the Crepidula fornicata, or common slipper shell, which cover much of the ocean floor, could serve as a habitat in which to restore some of the scallop population.

“Obviously, this isn’t an issue that’s going away any time soon,” Mashal said. “And it extends to the rest of the world . . . Increased carbon emissions lead to ocean acidification, having an impact on a ton of animals.”

Overfishing and fertilizer runoff also lead to rampant algae blooms that overtake parts of the seabed, and can release neurotoxins or eat up oxygen during the death and bacterial decay process, leading to what scientists call an oceanic “dead zone.”

“Between all these things, you find that a lot of new issues are arising, and will continue,” Mashal said. “They’re going to be more impactful in the future if we don’t do something about it.”

Mashal also serves as student government president and a peer tutor with Tutors for a Cure, a program that pairs students in middle and high school with older peers who help them with their studies. Twenty percent of the modest fee charged goes to the American Cancer Society.

“It’s good, really good, to give a little back,” Mashal said. “It’s also a little bit of a cheaper alternative to some private tutors.”

He also has played the clarinet since fourth grade, and recently has been working on a science fiction novel. Mashal said the story follows an intergalactic arms dealer on adventures throughout the galaxy with his partner, a robot.

Kennedy Science Chairman Robert Soel said that Mashal and his fellow Kennedy Science Scholars, Whitney Sussman and Jake Levine, deserved plaudits for their work.

“We congratulate them on this outstanding accomplishment,” Soel said, “and wish them best of luck in the next phase of the competition.”

Mashal said he had not yet decided where he will attend college.

Finalists in the competition were expected to be announced on Wednesday, after the Herald went to press.