Friday Harbor Labs welcomes the community to annual open house

The University of Washington’s Marine Laboratories has been a part of the Friday Harbor community for over 100 years. It has been stationed at Point Caution since 1923. This May, the labs will welcome the public to learn about their most recent discoveries.

“We love the San Juan Island community, and feel very fortunate to be part of this vibrant group,” said Billie Swalla, director of the labs. She explained that their open houses are both an opportunity for scientists to connect with the public and for islanders to have a hands-on look at the facility and learn about research happening right in their backyards. The open house lasts from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 20. To get there leaving Friday Harbor, turn right on Tucker Road and take another right turn on University Road. There will be signs and greeters who will provide maps and parking directions. Families are welcomed, but please leave pets at home, as the property is a biological marine preserve.

For the last 12 years, the labs has held an annual open house. According to a website on the labs history — set up by longtime lab resident scientist Claudia Mills — the tradition of opening the facility to the public dates back to the 1920s.

This year, adults and children alike can participate in the usual favorite events like eating free popcorn aboard the R/V Centennial while learning about their remotely operated oceanographic tools and sonar systems, or listening to marimba music on the deck of the dining hall where hot dogs and beverages will be available for purchase. There will also be interactive, self-guided tours, like the touch tank filled with sea stars, sea cucumbers and other critters. Microscopes will be set up and there will be opportunities to speak with scientists about their work. Due to the popularity of dive demonstrations, there are three showings scheduled this year, according to Swalla, rather than the usual two. In the lecture hall, beginning at 11:30 a.m., Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research, will kick of presentations with “The Whales of the San Juans.”

The rest of the schedule is as follows:

• Noon, Adam Summers “The FHL Scan All Fishes”

• 12:30 p.m., Katie Dobkowske “Bull Kelp in the Salish Sea: It’s Hard Out There for a Kelp”

• 12:45 p.m., Shawn Lluttrell “Getting a Head with Ptychodera Flava Regeneration”

• 1 p.m. Matt Kolmann “From Friday Harbor to French Guiana — Cataloging Form and Function of Fishes”

A strong bond between the labs and islanders has always existed. Many Friday Harbor teenagers’ first job is in the dining hall, Swalla said, “working for the amazing Laurie Spaulding, dining hall manager.” Projects like the Friday Harbor Labs Outreach Program K-12, which works to bring hands-on science to the local schools, have also been invaluable to the community.

“I think that all children love science,” Swalla said, explaining that unfortunately many people grow up and believe research is too complicated for them to understand.

Research is difficult work, she admits, but that shouldn’t scare people. Swalla advises young students, interested in science, to learn the basics first. In the end, if they are passionate about the field, she said, they will excel. Science is an exciting field, she added, because it’s always new and full of discovery. Swalla herself began her scientific journey as an undergraduate, studying ecology and evolution. After taking a developmental biology course, she became fascinated with embryos.

“Every animal starts as one cell, a fertilized egg,” Swalla said. “It must go through a complicated process of embryonic development to become recognizable. I think this is just an amazing process and I have spent over 30 years studying it.”

Embryonic studies led her to research marine invertebrate embryos. She worked at various marine labs before becoming the first woman director of the labs a few years ago. Swalla encourages young girls interested in a scientific career.

“Follow your heart and do something that you love,” she said. “My nieces in high school roll their eyes at me when I tell them this, but it is good advice.”

While working on her doctorate, Swalla took time off because she wasn’t sure if it was really her path. After missing her research, she returned to finish her doctorate, and has no doubt about the journey her life has taken.

“My work takes me all over the world, telling other scientists about the Friday Harbor Labs,” she said proudly, adding that if there is any local group interested in learning more about the labs, she is more than happy to talk.

“We have many opportunities for people to get involved if they are interested in marine research and teaching, and 50 wonderful full-time staff,” Swalla said.

Read this article to view photos from this year’s event.