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Spotlight: Jay Vavra, '87

Making a Project of San Diego Bay

Courtesy Jay Vavra

JUNIOR RESEARCHERS: Vavra and his biotech students do fieldwork at High Tech High, where science is as cool as football.

By Joanne Jacobs

In 2005, Jay Vavra returned to Stanford to present his research team’s study, Two Sides of the Boat Channel, about a section of San Diego Bay. In January, Vavra’s new team published a comprehensive analysis of the bay’s biogeography, Perspectives of San Diego Bay: A Field Guide.

Vavra isn’t a professor and his researchers aren’t graduate students. They’re 11th graders from his biotechnology class at High Tech High, a San Diego charter school. Vavra brought four students to a symposium at the School of Education supported by the Stanford Redesign Network and What Kids Can Do.

As an undergraduate, Vavra fell in love with marine biology at Hopkins Marine Station. He combed shell mounds and garbage dumps of the early inhabitants of Baja California to write the outstanding senior honors thesis of the year in biological sciences—and anthropology. He studied archaeology at Stanford in Greece, then worked in medical diagnostics and environmental consulting before earning his doctorate in marine biology at USC.

As a teaching assistant for a six-week class in Antarctica, Vavra discovered “a real passion for teaching.” He taught at the community college level but was stricken to discover that many of his students lacked basic skills. Then he heard about High Tech High, with its emphasis on project-based learning, collaboration with local biotech companies and a curriculum that integrates the humanities, math and science. He soon became a high school teacher—one who each year has “60 field assistants doing studies of the bay.”

At High Tech High, there are no Advanced Placement classes: what’s good enough for the best students is good enough for everyone. All graduates go on to college. Researching intertidal creatures is considered cool. “There are 35 science fair teams at our school,” Vavra says. “It’s like the football team.”

The field guide, available at, was inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, an account by the novelist and sometime Stanford student of his 1940 explorations with biologist Ed Ricketts. Vavra’s students read Steinbeck and practiced creative and historical writing while working on the guide, which includes poetry and reflections on nature. They used graphs and high-tech mapping techniques to explain the bay’s biodiversity. Three of his researchers are now Stanford freshmen.

Forensic conservation biology recently joined his curriculum. A class of High Tech High students, in collaboration with San Diego Zoo geneticists, learned to isolate the barcode-like DNA sequences that would identify the species of butchered meat. The study addresses concerns about “bushmeat,” food obtained through the hunting of wild animals in Africa. Conservationists hope DNA analysis will identify bushmeat readily, making it easier to crack down on the illegal hunting of endangered species.


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