Saving the oceans in City Heights

Shara Fisler, the executive director of the Ocean Discovery Institute, was honored as a Women’s History Month Local Hero by KPBS.

Shara Fisler, the executive director of the Ocean Discovery Institute, was honored as a Women’s History Month Local Hero by KPBS.

Shara Fisler thrives at her job. The executive director of the Ocean Discovery Institute, an educational program she founded 15 years ago, Fisler helps young people explore San Diego’s coastal habitats while training them to become scientific and environmental leaders.

Fisler’s passion for studying natural habitats actually began in the desert. As a child growing up in Phoenix, Fisler spent her days horseback riding and exploring the surrounding wilderness.

“As a young person, I was always going out more and more into the desert and then seeing it destroyed over time,” she said. “From that perspective, I really got to see how the natural world worked, and I began to care about conservation.”

After studying environmental science at the University of California Santa Barbara, Fisler journeyed to Haiti, where her interest in the ocean and fisheries was sparked.

“I wanted to do work that was connecting my passion for the environment and for people,” she said. “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.”

She relocated to Miami, where she studied marine resource management at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“You never know how things are going to play out in life,” Fisler said. “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 animatedly about the institute and its goals in encouraging children from kindergarten through high school 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 said. “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 said she started the Ocean Discovery Institute because she saw a need that she could fulfill.

“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 said. “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.”

Said Fisler: “Our program is tuition-free, but not commitment-free. 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 employs a staff of 25 based in Pacific Beach, and reaches 6,000 students in City Heights. Plans are underway to build a state-of-the-art Living Lab in Manzanita Canyon.

The institute serves as a model of environmental education. In 2012, it was a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

“The award was humbling and inspiring,” Fisler said. “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.”

KPBS honored Fisler in March with its Women’s History Month Local Hero award.

“I love my work because I get rewarded on a daily basis,” she said. “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.”