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Lessons Learned by High School Lake Ecology (HSLE) Leaders

Cecily Smith, senior at Grinnell College majoring in Sociology and Chinese with plans to pursue a career in education During high school, I took AP Environmental Science taught by a phenomenal teacher and loved everything I learned, which inspired me to study Environmental Science in college and pursue a career in conservation. When I applied...

Cecily Smith, senior at Grinnell College majoring in Sociology and Chinese with plans to pursue a career in education

HSLE Leader Cecily Smith headshot
Cecily Smith, HSLE Leader 2017

During high school, I took AP Environmental Science taught by a phenomenal teacher and loved everything I learned, which inspired me to study Environmental Science in college and pursue a career in conservation. When I applied for Shedd Aquarium’s High School Lake Ecology (HSLE) program, I wanted to try leaving my comfort zone before embarking on the next chapter of my life.

Participating in HSLE in 2014 was my first experience camping in the backcountry, kayaking and engaging in field science. I was uncomfortable in the beginning; mosquitos constantly swarmed me, I had to share a tent with people I met only a few days before and I couldn’t shower. However, in these moments of unease, my new friends were there to support me. In just seven days, I learned the power of immersing yourself in nature.

When returning for the HSLE Leadership Program, I had the responsibility of leading and mentoring teens while also designing and implementing a frog swabbing protocol for the Shedd’s Microbiome Project, made possible in part by the generosity of The Grainger Foundation. The frog swabbing data contributed to the Microbiome Lab’s research in better understanding the microbiome of frogs in the Apostle Islands and their environment. Since HSLE travels to the same location every summer, a compilation of this longitudinal data allows scientists to understand frog populations and factors that may influence it.

Now as a HSLE leader three years later, I had more insight on my personal growth and my future. I realized my love for camping and the lifestyle of living in the wilderness. Although it was only one week, being in nature allows me to find inner peace and learn what makes me happy. One of my favorite memories was a three-hour journey kayaking when a bald eagle swooped in front of us approximately 20 feet away, caught a fish and flew into a tree to enjoy its snack. It was jaw-dropping and I will probably never witness anything like it again.

In addition, the participants and staff made it unforgettable. By the end, I felt confident instructing groups and facilitating team-building activities, and being a leader came naturally to me. This experience helped me narrow down my career path to becoming a high school counselor. I learned so much from my Shedd mentors who were pivotal in my growth this summer and believed in me.

To a future participant, my advice is to stay open-minded. Situations may not go as planned and problems may arise, but your attitude influences how much you will learn and gain from the experience.

Daniel Ethan Basa, recent graduate of Elgin Academy and an incoming freshman at Eckerd College

HSLE Leader Daniel Ethan Basa, headshot
Daniel Ethan Basa, HSLE Leader 2017

Prior to signing up for High School Lake Ecology (HSLE), I only took science classes at school but always dreamed of working in the field. The mix of backcountry camping and field science was perfect for me, and after HSLE, the difference was so noticeable – I stood a little taller and spoke with more confidence. Most of all, I had a feeling of purpose, responsibility and loyalty to the natural spaces of this Earth. The greatest lesson HSLE 2015 gave me is knowing how to work with people because at the end of a long day of paddling or a cold rainy night, it’s your team members who need your words of encouragement and positive attitude. You must tackle every day with purpose, determination, and compassion.

My role as HSLE leader is the bridge between staff and teen participants, so this position was a dream come true for me. It was the excitement of sharing my experiences with my sibling that pushed me to apply, and through this program, it was almost as if I had a new group of 26 siblings that I could guide as they took on new challenges. I was able to show the impact that young people in science can make. Guiding teens through data collection protocol and collaborating on their projects taught me what it means to be a leader.

As a HSLE leader, I learned a lot like how to be a better listener. While I know there is power in my voice, being a leader means recognizing the power of the voices around you. This also can translate to paying closer attention to detail when following research protocols.

The memories and positive experiences that I had with HSLE has motivated me to pursue a career in conservation advocacy. Throughout the week, I saw teens that had never been camping before, blossom and thrive while working in an outdoor setting. This emphasized my belief that it is important to acknowledge your roots as a scientist and as a person, and to experience the natural world. Especially as a member of my generation, I feel it’s my personal responsibility to fight for the natural world and inspire change within the youth of our world. Science has never been so important!

To incoming HSLE participants, my advice is: keep an open mind, carry yourself with purpose and speak with passion. Most importantly, never be afraid to be yourself. Shedd Learning Programs have taught me this important life lesson – that there is no shame in being the kid who is way too excited to be there. So jump right in and enjoy these moments because it will change your life.

As the HSLE motto says: May your futures be bright and your socks always dry. I hope you all found what you are looking for. I know I did.”

To learn more about Shedd Aquarium’s learning programs, visit

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Meet the Author

Shedd Aquarium
The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District.