My daughter is fidgety when we return to the Marine Resource Center, and I worry. My aunt’s friend told her that he was busy, but he’d try to find a few minutes for us. I don’t want him to regret it – I don’t want a busy man’s valuable time squandered on a child who refuses to engage. (For all that she’s outgoing with her friends, my daughter is shy with strangers.)
This part of the trip is all for her. My daughter loves the ocean and everything that lives in it. This few-minute backstage tour is an incredible opportunity.
My aunt’s friend bustles out of the tank room, eager and excited, and his excitement is infectious. He’s clearly done tours before. He welcomes my daughter, and points out a sign hanging above the doors to the tank room:
and thinking what nobody has thought.
He explains to her, explains his whole theory of scientific discovery. He encourages her to ask questions – insists that she ask questions! – because that’s where the discovery lies. In seeing something no one else has noticed.
We enter the tank room.
The Marine Resource Center serves the entirety of the Marine Biological Laboratories – one of the biggest marine research facilities in the world. The tank room is where all of the animals used in said research come from.
It is enormous.
I have seen it before. I watch my daughter.
She is speechless – not shy almost-teen speechless, but oh-holy-wow speechless. She stands there, taking it all in – massive steel tanks as far back as she can see, the bustle of interns bringing new fish in, pipes everywhere, the sounds of circulating water. Then she notices the tidepool tank, and she is utterly absorbed.
My aunt’s friend grins.
He launches into a description of all of the organisms – sea urchins, squid, crabs, scallops. He shows her. He provokes a scallop into shooting backward; he shows her its many tiny scattered eyes, pinpoints of blue of pale flesh. He puts sea urchins in her hands. He demonstrates the squid’s method of communication. He shows her how to determine a lobster’s gender. She is absolutely riveted.
She turns back to the tank when my aunt’s friend is interrupted on genuine business. I watch her study it, her long blonde hair pulled back into a low ponytail to keep it away from the lobsters, her slim body bent over the tank to the point of almost being in it, sea stars brushing her fingers.
When my aunt’s friend turns back to her, she asks, What are those? Those tiny specks?
My aunt’s friend is delighted and offers her a job on the spot. She laughs skeptically. He’s not entirely joking. Those are larval squid, he says. Most people need a microscope to see those. He needs people with sharp eyes to go out and collect things like that, the tiny things like larval squid and egg casings, the things that she has been noticing in this tank that other people just don’t notice.
Really? she asks.
He launches into a short list of what he wants her to do, eyes flicking to me to make sure I’m taking notes. Scuba certification. Small-boat certification. He can’t hire her til she’s eighteen, but she should go to the Woods Hole School for Science for the next few summers if she can swing it; it will give her a good background.
And as he’s listing, there is a light in her eyes, and I see everything click for my daughter.
I see her realize that this is actually something people get to do for a living.
I see her realize that she could be one of them. And that she wants to.
She follows him eagerly to the next tank, and the next. They feed minnows to squid; my daughter flings the minnows out and watches the squid dart forward, wrapping the still-squirming food in their tentacles. They feed a squid to sharks, first squeezing its blood into the water to provoke a mild frenzy – the sharks bob out of the water eagerly, startling my daughter back from the tank, laughing.
And all the while my aunt’s friend is talking. About my late uncle’s research on shark retinas, and why it was important. Anecdotes from years of heading up the resource center, interspersed with fun facts about every animal we’re observing. A lament that students these days don’t get a sufficient grounding in the basics, that they fast-track. He tells my daughter this – that she needs to get her basics down, and then let her interests lead her. He tells her that students used to apprentice, and don’t anymore, and should – he tells her how much richer her education will be if she comes here and works side by side with another generation of scientists.
That this place has so much to teach her, and it’s hers for the taking.
She nods eagerly, she asks complex questions, she reveals knowledge that makes him laugh with pure excitement.
Our few minutes spread out to about two hours.
At the door, I attempt to thank him profusely for his time, but he interrupts, thanking me profusely for bringing her. She has been a joy to speak with. He turns to her, reminds her – scuba certification, small-boat certification, School of Science. He reminds her - discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought. He reminds her – ask questions. Look at things differently.
He says he’ll see her next summer, and goes back inside.
My daughter turns to me and says, Mommy, I think I know what I want to do with my life.