Our Interview with Harris Muhlstein

Our Interview with Harris Muhlstein

April 03, 2021

Our Interview with Harris Muhlstein

We all know that children are the future of our planet -- our future doctors, scientists, teachers, and researchers. With this in mind, Algae Research Supply is honored to have recently interviewed Harris Muhlstein, the School Programs Coordinator for the University of North Carolina, Wilmington’s (UNCW) MarineQuest program. Algae Research Supply got to know Mr. Muhlstein through our teacher training program.

Muhlstein (known as ‘Mr. M’) works with educators to plan and lead marine-science field trips in his lab at the Center for Marine Science, in the field (at beaches and marshes, on research vessels and floating docks, on kayaks in the Cape Fear River and Intercoastal Waterway), at schools, or virtually.  Most of the lessons and projects are based on actual UNCW student research and all are designed to make learning fun and engaging. As Mr. M puts it, “MarineQuest is more than just another day at the beach; MarineQuest is making waves in environmental education!”

Muhlstein loves working with kids. “Because I began my career as a professional scientist with a strong research background, I absolutely love to immerse my students in relevant marine science experiences where they get to utilize the scientific method to solve problems.” He also says that introducing young students to phytoplankton is one of his favorite things to do, as it is not normally on their minds when they think of ocean life. Muhlstein says that while most kids think about dolphins, whales, sharks, and other megafauna, he  gets “...a real kick out of blowing their minds with an in-depth exploration of the extreme biodiversity of the plankton community.” After blowing their minds, Muhlstein introduces young scientists to the vast world of educational and career opportunities for those who are interested in these “awesome drifters.” 

MarineQuest has been around for over 40 years now, and provides excellent opportunities for young people interested in the marine environment. UNCW works with the Center for Marine Science and the Watson College of Education to bring programs that allow young people to explore and discover marine habitats. These programs shape our youth into becoming environmentally responsible adults. MarineQuest offers school programs, weekend programs, and summer camps for kids from preschool to pre-college. 

Muhlstein was not always a science educator, however. He grew up as a “beach bum” on the coast of Long Island. In addition to having this connection to the ocean, his father was an abalone diver and Muhlstein says, “The stories of his haphazard adventures always captivated me and probably were the spark that sent me on this wild marine science/education journey.” In addition, Muhlstein’s home on the water made him very aware of the devastating impact Harmful Algal blooms had on livelihood, the economy, and the shellfish industry. He had never considered a career in education, as speaking in front of people made him nervous.

His “spark” so to speak occurred in his junior year at UNCW. His guest lecturer, a phytoplankton researcher, told the story about how his lab solved the mystery of mass penguin deaths at a popular aquarium. After examining gut samples, the lab discovered the penguins were consuming fish with high levels of a toxic diatom. In a “soap opera twist for the ages” one of Muhlstein’s fellow students had fed the penguins before the incident! After class, Muhlstein asked the guest lecturer if he could volunteer in his lab...and the rest is history.

 After earning a BS in Marine Biology from UNCW, and an MS in Marine Science with a focus in phytoplankton ecology from the University of Texas, Muhlstein went on to be a phytoplankton ecologist at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science. There, he worked in a lab that specialized in culturing harmful algae. His first experience in teaching- an introductory Oceanography Lab class- changed all that. He found that he had been nervous for nothing, and not only was talking in front of people not bad, it was actually really good! As his career as a phytoplankton ecologist, he would often fondly remember his times in the classroom. With the support of his supervisor, he jumped into the education world and never looked back. He began teaching in high school classrooms, but transitioned to his current position as School Program Coordinator at MarineQuest when the job presented itself. It is truly the perfect position, as it combines his love for marine education with his research background.  

Algae Research Supply is very grateful for the people out there like Mr. M, committed to the education of our future climate leaders.

For more about MarineQuest, click here

  • Erin F. Fox, 2021