White Salmon student gains marine science skills

The study of biology is as varied as life itself, and with three-quarters of Earth’s surface covered by water, what better place to discover that diversity than by exploring the coral reefs of Hawaii?

This past winter (before COVID-19’s travel restrictions, that is) a White Salmon student had the opportunity to do just that, combining skills in underwater photography and computer processing to create three-dimensional models of coral reefs at the University of Hawaii.

“I love biology, and learning how the environment works,” explains Allison Balogh-Easlon, 17, who is enrolled at Columbia Gorge Community College through Washington State’s “Running Start” program. This is one of several avenues in Washington and Oregon for high school students to gain college credit prior to graduation.

“Biology is my current major, and I am trying to broaden my perspective by trying different fields, which is what sparked my interest in marine biology,” Allison said.

Allison’s science instructor at CGCC, Rob Kovacich, nominated her for a Hawaii internship sponsored by PlanB Consultancy, a project management firm based in Lake Oswego. PlanB is project manager for the 2020-21 capital construction program at Columbia Gorge Community College, which will break ground on a workforce skills center and student housing this July.

The internship was at the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab at the University of Hawaii. During her internship, Allison learned how to create three-dimensional reconstructions of underwater habitats using a technique called “photogrammetry,” or the use of photography to take measurements.

In just a week she was able to learn the necessary computer processing tasks as well as collect imagery of coral reefs with underwater cameras while snorkeling. She successfully used her own imagery to create several 3D models.

“It gave me more insight into what current methods marine biologists are using in their everyday work. This helped me to better know what to look for in a career,” Allison noted.

“I am only seventeen and participate in Washington’s Running Start program, which is allowing me to do dual enrollment in my high school and CGCC. I love that this school is close to home and is in a place that I am familiar with.”

PlanB has sponsored these internships for the past six years. Ian Burns, the company’s chairman and a Columbia Gorge resident, has two big reasons for supporting the MEGA Lab’s research at the University of Hawaii.

“The more people we get interested in the environment, the better,” said Burns. “Living in the Gorge and in the national scenic area, I’m reminded every day how important it is to live in harmony with the environment.

“But most importantly, my son had a teacher in high school who turned him on to marine biology, and now he is one of the foremost experts in his field.” Dr. John Burns is an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, which recently honored his achievements as “Best Professor” for the current academic year.

“Teachers can make all the difference in students’ lives,” Ian Burns notes.

Allison lives with her family in White Salmon. “I love being outside, practicing photography, writing, art, music, and exploring the area we live in. During the summer, I sail with my family, go wakeboarding, and basically am in the water the majority of the time.

“My career plans aren’t yet determined: I’m taking my time, learning as much as I can about the world we live in and how I fit into the equation. The more I learn, the more I discover what I like and don’t like, what I excel in and what I could put a little more work into. For now, I know that I love how people and animals work, both physically and mentally, so that is what I am focusing my studies on.”