Women’s History Month Local Hero Shara Fisler Helps Youth Become Scientific Leaders
Women’s History Month 2015 Honoree
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Shara Fisler thrives at her job. She is the executive director for the Ocean Discovery Institute, an educational program she founded 15 years ago, in order to empower young people to explore San Diego’s coastal habitats and become scientific and environmental leaders of tomorrow. For someone who started out in life living hundreds of miles away from the nearest ocean, her passion for studying natural habitats actually began in the desert.
Fisler is a 2015 Women’s History Month Local Hero, who grew up in landlocked Phoenix, Arizona, nearly 400 miles from the Pacific coast, where she would spend her days horseback riding and exploring its ecosystem.
“As a young person, I was always going out more and more into the desert and then seeing it destroyed over time," she remembers. "From that perspective, I really got to see how the natural world worked, and I began to care about conservation. That was probably my first passion.”
After studying Environment Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Fisler journeyed to Haiti, where her interest in the ocean, and in particular, fisheries, was sparked.
“I wanted to do work that was connecting my passion for the environment and for people,” she says. “Spending weekends on the coast of Haiti was the moment when I realized I really loved the coastal environment, and learning about how the world functions. That's the moment I decided I was interested in fisheries.”
According to Fisler, studying fisheries made sense to her because fish are a critical species for understanding the world, and vital to humans as a source of nutrition. She relocated to Miami, Florida where she attended graduate school in Marine Resoruce Management at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
“You never know how things are going to play out in life,” reflects Fisler. “I always tell our students, ‘There's no A to Z path. You get a vision and you work towards it, and you never know how it’s going to play out.’ I ended up, not pursuing a career in fisheries management, but still focusing on fisheries, which is a huge part of what we do at the Ocean Discovery Institute."
When it comes to her organization, Fisler brims with enthusiasm, speaking rapid fire about the institute and its goals in encouraging children, K to 12, to get excited about science. She points out that the students at the Ocean Discovery Institute aren’t just doing classroom lab assignments; they’re conducting research in the field.
“One of the big projects that the students are working on, in partnership with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), is looking at reducing the accidental by-catch and capture of sea turtles," Fisler says. "Fishermen use nets to capture the food that we all want, and sometimes when they’re doing that they accidentally capture sea turtles. Sea Turtles breathe oxygen but when they're captured in the net, they sit 24 hours in the water and die. It’s a huge issue and a global problem. Our students have been designing and testing methods to reduce the accidental capture of sea turtles and other animals, in order to protect the future of the ocean."
Fisler started the Ocean Discovery Institute out of a need she saw.
“I was teaching at the University of San Diego, as an adjunct faculty member, and having all these college-age kids who'd been given every opportunity, take my class,” she recalls. “Sometimes they were interested in science, but weren't prepared by their earlier academics. Or they were non-majors and terrified of science. That obviously was disconcerting to me, something I wanted to address, both personally and professionally.”
The vision of the institute is to “ leverage San Diego’s natural environments as a means to engage young people from underserved communities and inspire them to become part of the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders.” This is achieved in a multitude of ways and is free to the students.
“Our program is tuition free but not commitment free,” she notes. “We serve the community with science and conservation that is relevant to their daily life. The canyons are a good example, as they can be places of crime and pollution or they can be an opportunity to experience nature. We work with all 14 schools in City Heights. They get our classroom program and their students get to go out in the field. We also work with students who have demonstrated leadership skills, and we foster their skills to help them go to college and pursue a career in science.”
Today, the institute reaches 6,000 students in City Heights, but for Fisler that isn't enough. She and her staff of 25 currently work out of trailers in Pacific Beach, but plans are underway to build a state-of-the-art building for the Institute, in City Heights. When it opens, in approximately a year, she envisions serving the entire community under the age of 18—20,000 in all.
Today the Ocean Discovery Institute serves as a model for scientific education. In 2012 it was a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, an indelible moment for Fisler.
“The award was humbling and inspiring. We started in a kayak closet on Mission Bay, and 12 years later, I'm literally representing Ocean Discovery in the Oval Office, standing in front of the President of the United States. It still makes me teary thinking about it.”
In reflecting on how far Fisler has come with the institute, and all she's yet to achieve with the new facility, she is filled with gratitude.
“I love my work because I get rewarded on a daily basis," she says. "I don't know that there's that many people who go to work and walk away each day feeling there was some moment when you were ecstatic. That comes from the people I work with. My staff is outrageously great. My board has so much fun. I laugh my butt off. And knowing that these kids deserve the expectations that this new building will set for them, so that they will become leaders and trailblazers in science, I feel very fortunate that I've been given the opportunity to do this kind of work. I'm grateful, too, that San Diego believes in what we do. The Local Hero award recognition is nice and it'll bring a lot more attention to this organization.”
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