During his tenth-grade year, Eli Shifrin ’23 was fly fishing in the Webb River in Weld, Maine, and witnessed a lot of pollution. It got him thinking about native brook trout and how this pollution might affect their habitat and water quality. He was taking Research Methods in Science with Peter Southam then and made water quality the focus of his research. He discovered how the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) monitors rivers, and he learned about Edmund Muskie, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the restoration of the Androscoggin River during his research. This planted the seed for his Senior Four Point project, three years in the making.
Here he learned one of his most influential lessons. Gould Science Teacher Peter Southam has impressed upon students for years that if they need access to a published paper that’s not available or behind a paywall, contact the professor in question, and they will give them access to any documents or data they need—free of charge—if you say the four magic words. “High School Science Project.”
Armed with the confidence that people were willing to help, Eli set out to monitor Maine fisheries to create and interpret data in ways that would help MDIFW determine when trout populations in Maine are at high risk and suggest solutions to help lower the threat. The summer entering his junior year, Eli started experimenting with dropping sensors into waterways.
“I dropped three temperature sensors, zip-tied to bricks in this tiny creek,” said Eli. “I also dropped a flow monitor, a little turbine that spins. I had it all hooked up to a calculator in a dry bag tied to a tree on the shore. I was pretty impressed. I thought it was so cool.”
Eli collected data in that tiny stream for six weeks before discovering no time stamps existed, rendering all the information useless. But it was a beneficial lesson. From then on, Eli moved all his data collection to a web-based monitoring system. As the time for his Senior Four Point project approached, he was determined to design and build a water temperature station. He spent the summer building the prototype. He had to wire and code everything himself, which was difficult because he didn’t have experience with either. Director of the Marlon Family IDEAS Center Billy Ayotte got him started with both.
“Mr. Ayotte showed me how to code the whole thing and how to build it. There [isn’t] a part of that station that he hasn’t directly helped with,” Eli explains. “That’s not to say he did the project. He taught me how to do it. He gave me the tools I needed. His knowledge of robotics, engineering, and modeling was why I could do it. Without him, I would still be zip-tying sensors to bricks.”
This iteration contained everything but the kitchen sink. He had sensors to gather as much information as possible, including a ten-dollar turbidity sensor pulled from a dishwasher. He deployed it for a week. An expired LTE subscription and subpar battery life presented challenges, but the station worked. There was something to build on; this was proof of concept.
Feeling confident in his premise, he tested Peter Southam’s magic words and reached out to his state senator, Lisa Keim, and MDIFW. Collecting data in Maine fisheries was only one piece of the project. The other was to enact change.
Two factors that exhibit the sustainability of brook trout fisheries are water temperature and water depth (stage). Therefore, Eli decided to strip down his station only to collect these two data sets. You might think Maine would be home to a vast network of similar stations, but only seven in the state collect water temperatures and stage info. Eli hypothesizes that this is due to the high cost of installation. Installing temperature stations typically cost the state $25,000 to $40,000.
“Most states have many more stations. In 2020, Congress set a goal of installing 4,000 string gauges nationwide, yet we’re only at 3,700. So, in my newest simplified iteration, I brought the cost down from $500 to about $150.”
Eli’s data suggested that the trout population would benefit from fishing restrictions in specific waters as summer temperatures rise. However, Eli understood that the state would resist closing down fishing entirely in vulnerable areas, not wanting to lose vital tourism revenue during the busiest season. So instead, he recommended installing his affordable string gauges strategically and promoting lower-risk spots that would help to sustain the impact from anglers.
“One risk management strategy is to diversify. In Maine, many people go to places like the Magalloway or the Rapid River because they’re famous fisheries,” says Eli. “Installing multiple sensors will highlight prime waters for more people to fish. Spots that make sense for the public to use. That will spread anglers out to more spots and lower that risk in the summer. You won’t have 50 cars at one spot. You’ll have five cars at ten spots.”
The magic words gained him an audience, but he received pushback from MDIFW, saying they had published their research and didn’t think the string sensors were necessary.
In writing his paper, Eli continued to contact professors and biologists using the Southam rule. Time and again, people shared their work and encouraged him to continue his work, despite the roadblocks.
“Turns out Southam was right,” laughs Eli. Throughout his research, Eli had a 100% success rate when reaching out to professors and state representatives after explaining it was for a high school science project. “I'm still in contact with many of them. They were like, ‘This is a cool idea. Keep me updated.’ Building connections was a special part of this process.”
Eli is continuing his work. He finished his paper and met with Senator Keim
a second time. He sat in on hearings and got a chance to pitch his idea again. It’s still a “no” from the state, but Eli isn’t giving up.
“Why should I just hang it up?” Eli asks himself out loud. “I want to do justice to it. I was given this opportunity and the resources for this project; I should follow through. So many people have helped me along the way…I don't feel like I should just stop halfway through. I believe in the idea.”
Next year, Eli will begin his studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. He believes his Senior Four Point project greatly impacted his acceptance. He knows this valuable experience will assist him wherever his research brings him from here.
“Eli undertook serious time and effort to help the state of Maine answer a question that could not be answered with current data,” said Billy Ayotte. “He developed a design to find these answers. He had numerous challenges in engineering, programming, and even politics. Challenging the established status quo with science is a long road, and he has persevered to continue on that road.”
“To have an idea, do the research, and see that it is backed up is special,” says Eli. “You feel like an expert in the field when you understand what’s happening. There were a lot of nos, but for each one, someone else said, ‘Keep going.’”
To be as transparent as possible and continue the tradition of letting others see and build upon his work, Eli has created a website for his project entitled “Too Hot to Fish
,” complete with a dashboard where you can see current data, the Arduino code for a water quality monitoring station as well as a parts and price list for building your own. You can also find his response to MDIFW regarding their findings on why string sensors are unnecessary.
Since this article, Eli received the Bonnie Pooley Earth Day award, which honors the student who embodies Ms. Pooley’s passion and activism for advancing the work of preservation and sustainability of our environmental and natural resources. Eli will choose a conservation or environmental organization to which a donation will be made in his name.