BELFAST—Mia Fay, a junior at Belfast Community Outreach Program in Education (BCOPE) in Belfast, is headed for big things this spring, representing Maine at the National 4-H Youth Summit on Agri-Science.
The 17-year-old got connected to nature as a child when she and her family lived in Florida.
“I’ve always been drawn to the outdoors and had an interest in how animals interacted with the landscape,” she said. “We used to live near this little retention pond and I’d just sit there and watch the ducks and look at all of the life in the pond.”
When she was 11, her family moved to a wooded property in Belfast, furthering her interest in the outdoors.
“We have a little garden on our land and would grow a lot of leafy greens and potatoes,” she said.
In middle school, she took a garden class and it fired something up in her. “I learned so much from that class and was really excited about it,” she said. “They had a huge vegetable garden and a large stream where we would do research.”
On her own, she began reading up on pre-evolutionary life on Earth and how plants evolved. “I was just blown away by how beautiful and complex Nature is,” she said.
BCOPE is the right fit
However, somewhere between her natural wonder in middle school and the challenges of public high school, Mia admits she lost herself and lost her fire.
“I was disregarding my interests in the natural world; I was lost in being a teenager and lost my incentive being in high school,” she said.
That’s when her guidance counselor suggested moving her into BCOPE, an alternative program for Belfast Area High School, specifically geared to students who don’t necessarily thrive in a traditional setting of high school and who might be at risk for being behind in academic credits.
“I love it here,” she said. “Coming here they helped me with these opportunities to participate outside of school has changed my life. They immediately saw my interest in agriculture when I came here and this school has just enhanced that.”
The school encouraged her to be a participant in the first pilot of the Maine 4-H Agricultural Ambassador Program, which she successfully completed. As part of the program, they encouraged Mia and the other students to apply to the Agri-Science Summit, and based on her essay, she was accepted.
The Maine 4-H Foundation pays for the majority of the trip.
She and five other students around the state will be flying with a chaperone to Washington DC in March to participate in a three-day agricultural summit, taking part in workshops on agricultural sustainability and food security. “I’m going to absorb it all,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to meeting other kids.”
When she comes back she has to write an action plan for her community and BCOPE. “I have a lot of ideas,” she said. “I want to go into this summit with the knowledge that fungi are going to be a big part of the world’s solutions to agricultural challenges, such as pest control.”
Mushrooms as super fungi
“I’m really interested in fungi’s place in bio-defense,” she said. She credits mycologist Paul Stamets, as a source of inspiration. He has been working with the Bioshield Biodefense Program examining the effects of turkey tail mushrooms on the human immune system, particularly on women with breast cancer suffering from impaired immune systems.
Her interest in the topic is not surprising given her entire high school experience so far has been impacted by the Covid-19 virus.
“Covid definitely sparked in my interest in bio-defense,” she said. It’s a topic mostly reserved for scientific journals citing the main defense strategy of fungi is chemical defense, but it’s a topic she’s fully absorbed in.
Paying close attention to the world we live in and exploring how plants and fungi play a part in “Survival of the fittest” is a special talent, indeed, and the first time we’ve profiled a student with that interest. Good luck at the Summit, Mia!
Hail To The Rad Kids is an ongoing feature highlighting teens in the Midcoast with special talent.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org