Alexandria Brasili is a marine science and aquaculture educator at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde, where she works with hundreds of students a year, introducing them to the marine sciences, training them in aquaponics and helping them run their own small businesses. We called her up to learn about her path to Port Clyde and got sidetracked talking about octopuses, the gossip center of the St. George Peninsula and the care and feeding of sea urchins.

HOW TO GET THERE FROM HERE: After college, Brasili applied for the Island Institute’s Island Fellow program, and, as part of that program, in 2010 she started teaching at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde, which was founded in 1999 by Phyllis Wyeth, the wife of painter Jamie Wyeth and a long-time summer resident of the area. But last time we checked, Port Clyde was not an island? “It is a remote coastal community; that is how they slipped it in.”

She lived smack in the middle of Tenants Harbor in an apartment right on Main Street. “That forced me into the middle of the community, so to speak.” On Saturdays, she volunteered at the library, where the town gossip was free-flowing when residents dropped by, and as the youngest volunteer, her help with computers was much appreciated. She liked what she was doing at Herring Gut so much that she decided to stay after the fellowship ended.

Alexandria Brasili is a marine science and aquaculture educator at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde.

Alexandria Brasili is a marine science and aquaculture educator at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde.

TEACHER, TEACHER: This fall marks her sixth year teaching at Herring Gut, which Wyeth started to provide the community’s children with career options in the face of the decline of wild fisheries, like groundfish and shrimp, Brasili said. “She was really pretty visionary in 1999 to be thinking that way.” Brasili’s duties encompass the education programs from marine sciences to aquaponics, including teaching groups of alternative education middle school students who spend three days a week at the learning center. The shorter, multiday programs have drawn students from other towns in the region, including Camden and Waldoboro, and Herring Gut offers one-day field trips, too, which students from all over the state can attend. The grand total of students who visit Herring Gut in the course of a year? A thousand.

LIFE LESSON: The alternative education students who study aquaponics are generally at-risk youth. “They have had some issue with school that has led them to have a disconnect with the traditional classroom.” Another group from the St. George school district is farming kelp. Middle schoolers; do they fight all the time? She laughs. “They all fight, but they get over it after five minutes.” One of the most important things Brasili (and the other educators at Herring Gut) tries to develop in students is a sense of confidence. “The whole idea is that the students are running a business. So we teach them to look people in the eye and shake their hand.” The feedback they get from impressed visitors (Source was one, and we were indeed impressed) is invaluable. “It gives them a boost.” The most rewarding part of Brasili’s job is seeing these kids engage with projects that dovetail with what they know from home. “A lot of these kids…have parents who are fishermen or lobstermen. A lot of them have boats.” There’s no guarantee that they’ll move into aquaculture careers. “But our hope is that it opens their eyes to the possibilities that the marine environment will create other ways to earn an income.”

EAT YOUR VEGETABLES: The aquaponics students grow everything from lettuces to herbs, and the students in the summer program also work raised beds to grow garden vegetables like peas, beans and cucumbers. They sell these throughout the summer and when the market wraps up in August, either the staff eats the vegetables or the kids bring them home. “What I have seen with the kids that I have worked with is that they have no idea what vegetables look like in the ground.” Teaching them how to grow and sending them home with the fruits of their labors (not literally, just vegetables) is a major step. “And we always do taste tests. I am Italian, so we have to taste everything.”

HARD SELL: Somehow this woman gets all of those children to try beets. They may never eat another one, but she swears they do try them. “It is a hard sell. I don’t know if I have converted anyone to beets, but they have definitely all tried them. They will try anything. It is really amazing.”

WHERE I COME FROM: Brasili grew up in Leominster, Massachusetts, and fell in love with Maine while vacationing here with her parents. When she was looking for colleges, “I knew I wanted to be in Maine.” Bowdoin’s Coastal Studies Center on Orr’s Island was a nice piece of bait on the admissions hook. While at Bowdoin, she did lab work on sea urchins, specifically how temperatures affect growth. She had tanks filled with water at varied temperatures, and 500 individually tagged sea urchins. Wait, how do you tag a sea urchin? “They each had their own basket, with a tag on it.” She ordered some of her sea urchins from a hatchery in Lubec and collected others herself from the Rockland breakwater. “You can reach in the crevices and just grab them.” What did she learn? It’s more like she confirmed the expected: “The ones in the coldest tank grew slower but to larger sizes.”

HIGHER EDUCATION: Brasili just finished a master’s in science education, online through Oregon State University. “I got it because in my undergraduate career I hadn’t taken any education courses, and I felt like my academic background was lacking.” She’d always planned on being a scientist, probably on the marine side. “I always loved the ocean.” But as she went deeper into research, she realized something: “What I liked most about it was talking to people about what I was doing and explaining the science.” Teaching made for a natural segue.

FACE RECOGNITION: What’s the last new thing Brasili learned? She just finished a book called “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery, a topic that particularly appealed to her from her student days as an intern at the New England Aquarium. “I learned that they can recognize people’s faces.” Would those octopuses in Boston recognize her again? “I don’t think I was there long enough. But I definitely remember vividly working with the octopuses. You have to interact with them because they are so intelligent. If you leave them without any stimulation they will go crazy.” What would that interaction entail? “I would get to hold their arms.” Whoa. Was that weird? “I would have all these hickey marks on my arms from them.” Soulmates.


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