Hamilton High School student Ciara Isaak is ready to bring some of her undersea exploration experience back home to Montana.

The 16-year-old recently returned from an internship in Florida that included working alongside marine science researchers and meeting NASA astronauts training for future missions.

Isaak’s 10-day visit was part of a program run by Florida International University, which operates the Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s only undersea research lab.

The base is located more than 60 feet under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, almost 5 1/2 miles off the coast of Key Largo.

Her time in Florida didn’t include visiting the undersea base herself, because it can only accommodate six scientists at a time. She primarily operated from the land-based mission control center at Islamorada.

During her visit, the undersea lab was in use by a group of astronauts from NASA who were training as part of the 20th NEEMO mission.

NEEMO, a project that stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, sends astronauts and scientists to live in Aquarius for a period of two weeks, with the goal of providing a similar experience to space travel.

It is part of an eventual NASA goal to send astronauts to near-Earth asteroids and eventually conduct a manned mission to Mars.

“They had to experience how things like a delay in communications with Earth would affect their ability to conduct operations as far away as Mars or one of its moons,” Isaak said.

While she said the majority of her time during the internship was spent shadowing Aileen Soto, the education and outreach coordinator with FIU’s marine research program, she also led a snorkel tour of the reef near the base for a group of visiting leaders from Africa and helped film educational videos that will be distributed to teachers across the country.

Isaak said she first became interested in science through classes at Hamilton High School, and was introduced to the work being done at the research base in Florida by her sister Ashtyn, who works at FIU.

“I’m not sure about marine sciences for a career, but I definitely want to do something in the STEM fields,” Isaak said.


Isaak’s internship ended upon her arrival back home in Hamilton on July 22, but that doesn’t mean her involvement with Aquarius has ended.

“When I came back, Aileen said they wanted me to continue to work on projects in Hamilton,” Isaak said.

Her goal now is to bring some of the lessons she learned in Florida into Hamilton High School.

One of the projects the Aquarius base will be working on this fall is attracting sharks to the coral reef next to the underwater lab to see how the other organisms react to an increase in predators.

Isaak said one of her ideas is to organize a marine science-themed week at school to coincide with the project.

“We would have a series of activities than have one of the aquanauts from the lab visit by video and have a sort of virtual field trip,” she said.

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