GROTON -- In the open air, sailing the ocean blue and operating a robot submarine scanning the sea bottom, college student Valerie Pietsch has a summer internship most people can only dream about.
"I've never done so much marine stuff before, so it's been exciting to be on the water every day," said Pietsch of days spent on the American Promise, a 60-foot sailboat operated by the Rozalia Project. "As an environmental engineer, I'll be involved in a lot of water-quality management issues, so I have to decide whether to stick with that after graduation or go into the conservation field. If I decided to switch, this internship will be good experience for that.
The Rozalia Project is a Maine-based environmental group that provides the use of its sailboat to conduct ocean cleanups and as a platform for marine research. At the same time, interns are sought to help out and get experience in environmental activism.
"We help with sailing the ship and reaching out to different social media to let people know what is happening and how they can sign petitions," said Pietsch of her duties aboard the American Promise.
Pietsch, a graduate of Groton-Dunstable Regional High School and a senior at Cornell University majoring in environmental engineering, heard about the internship from a friend and decided to apply.
With "energy" and resistance to seasickness being the major qualifications for interning with Rozalia, Pietsch was accepted for the May 19 to June 14 internship program, the primary objective of which is a "direct action campaign" involving efforts to protect the largest and deepest kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard.
According to Pietsch, though the area is currently protected, there is a proposal to open close to 75 percent of the forest to bottom trawling by the local fishing industry.
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"The kelp forest is home to different marine species that use it like a nursery," explained Pietsch, adding that newly hatched fish then linger in the area until they reach maturity.
Unfortunately for Pietsch, rough seas 70 miles off-shore, where the Cashes Ledge kelp forest is located, have prevented her from reaching the area as a member of the eight-man crew.
"The biggest frustration is the weather, which has not been cooperating," said Pietsch. "That, and a little touch of seasickness. Otherwise, it's just been fun learning how to sail and learning and using the ROV" (the ship's remotely operated vehicle).
Unable to reach their objective, she and the other four interns have had to content themselves visiting Jeffreys Ledge, a lesser kelp forest closer to shore.
"We made it out to Jeffreys Ledge, which also is a protected area," said Pietsch. "There are a lot of whales out there and it was nice to see that the protection plan is working."
Among Pietsch's duties aboard the American Promise is learning to operate the ROV, a robot submarine with a camera that enables researchers to explore the sea bottom without having to go there themselves (although Pietsch is a qualified scuba diver).
"It's the first time I've ever operated an ROV, so I'm learning at the same time," said Pietsch. "It's simple to operate. It's like a video game."
When finished with her internship, Pietsch will be required to give a pair of presentations about her experience with the Rozalia Project at public venues in her school or local community.
Happy with her experience aboard ship, Pietsch was certain other students like herself would find it as worthwhile as she has.
"I'd definitely recommend this experience to other students," Pietsch said.
"It's just been really fun to do this kind of work and do it outdoors and all of it for an important cause."
Looking ahead, the Broadmeadow Road resident said she still was not certain of her immediate future and is considering graduate school after finishing at Cornell.
"I'm interested in marine stuff, so I'll probably be going into marine biology," Pietsch said.
For information about the Rozalia Project, visit rozaliaproject.org.