A Nantucket High School Sophomore Helped Discover What Could Be A Previously Unknown Parasite Infecting Bay Scallops

JohnCarl McGrady •

Dalena Garcia-Sosa. Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

A Nantucket High School student may have discovered a new parasite infecting the island’s bay scallops. On her final day of studying Nantucket Bay scallops with Dr. Valerie Hall and the Maria Mitchell Association, 16-year-old NHS sophomore Dalena Garcia-Sosa found what appeared to be a strange parasite in a specimen’s digestive tract. It was like nothing Hall had ever seen before in her years studying bay scallops.

“I really wasn’t sure what I was looking at,” Hall said. “We are not convinced this is a parasite. We don't know what it is.”

“We were looking at the slides and we saw something we had never seen,” Garcia-Sosa said. “It had a membrane, which led us to believe it was probably alive.”

Hall believes the odds that the findings represent a parasite are “at least 50-50.” But it’s impossible to say for sure at this point. “I don’t really want to go higher than that,” she said.

With Hall retiring and Garcia-Sosa’s research time running out, it seemed like the potential parasite might remain unstudied, but Garcia-Sosa worked with NHS and local marine scientists to set up an independent study allowing her to continue the research. All but one scallop Garcia-Sosa sampled in her independent study appeared to be infected with the parasite.

“When we first found it Val [Hall] was making jokes and saying I could write a paper on it and honestly I would love to but I don't have enough information,” Garcia-Sosa said. “It definitely is worthy of a journal.”

So far, it’s unclear what is causing the infestation and what the potential impacts could be for Nantucket’s scalloping industry, the marine ecosystem, or human consumers. It’s also unclear whether the parasite is an entirely new species, previously unknown to science—but Garcia-Sosa thinks it might be.

“We couldn't find anything that looked like it or did the same things or was in the same area as what we found,” she said. “There are parasites that infect scallops, but they don’t look like this.”

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Dr. Valerie Hall, Ph.D.

Hall had lived on Nantucket for 46 years but recently left the island. After a 35-year career teaching high school science, mostly on Nantucket, she earned her Ph.D. in Fisheries Oceanography at the University of Massachusetts’ School for Marine Science and Technology in 2014. She then began a research and mentoring program at the MMA which Garcia-Sosa was a part of.

“It would be an interesting idea to do some plankton analysis and see if there is anything that looks like this in the plankton,” Hall said. Plankton analysis could determine if the parasite is just passing through the scallops and not infecting it directly.

To confirm if the parasite is a new species, Garcia-Sosa would have to send samples to parasite experts on the mainland for further study. She says she would love to do so, but her age makes it more difficult for her to follow the usual scientific channels.

“I'm only 16,” she said. “I don't have a degree, I don't have a little paper telling people that I'm certified in this.”

If it is a new species, Garcia-Sosa may be able to name it. She hasn’t thought much about what name she would choose—she’s still a little overwhelmed by the possibility that she has discovered a new species of parasite before graduating high school—but she has some ideas.

“It would be really funny if I named it after me, but I honestly don't know,” she said.

Garcia-Sosa hopes to create a program at NHS for other students interested in marine biology.

“I got lucky with a very supportive mom and a great mentor and all of these people who introduced me to the great program at Maria Mitchell. There are a lot of kids I know who want to be a marine biologist and get more involved,” she said. “I could do [further research] on my own but it would take a very hefty amount of time and I think it would be really nice if I could have a little help, but also kids that are as interested in this as I am.”

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Dalena Garcia-Sosa, right, with her mother Lily Sosa. Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

She presented her findings at a School Committee meeting in early June, and committee members were eager to help her continue her research.

“It's a wonderful program and I would love to see this continue,” School Committee member Laura Gallagher Byrne said.

Elizabeth Hallett, the superintendent of the Nantucket Public Schools, echoed Gallagher Byrne’s comments.

“I'm so proud that you were able to do something like this,” Hallett said. “I would love to support a program…to promote this and see if we can continue this for you.”

“We really need to study this a lot more,” Hall said. “Dalena [Garcia-Sosa] is an unusual student. She’s uniquely talented, she’s uniquely committed to marine science. She’s brilliant and she’s going to go a long way.”

Whatever the future may hold, Garcia-Sosa is not finished yet.

“Maybe when I get my Masters I'll write a thesis on this,” she said.

Watch Garcia-Sosa's presentation to the Nantucket School Committee below: 

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