A positive outlook (and willingness to get dirty) is exactly the attitude you need to be a marine scientist! Larisa Bennett talks about research being conducted at UNC Institute of Marine Sciences this semester by UNC undergraduate students in her latest guest post. From freezing cold water to covered in mud, this field is not for the faint of heart!
Oysters Crabs and Mud, Oh My!
Dirt. Muck. Mud. Flies. Heat. All things that Madeline Denton and Abbey Vinson have had to deal with while working on their independent research projects at the Morehead City field site. Both undergrads are working with Dr. Mike Piehler’s lab. Denton is focusing on microplastics and how they affect oyster filtration. Vinson is working on microalgae and their relationship with oysters. Their experiments require oyster collection which is a muddy operation. Full days spent sweating in the coastal heat, slogging through muck where you find razor sharp oyster beds buried below, and slapping at biting flies buzzing around you above have challenged both students. Their struggles are not the only ones that field site students are going through with their independent research projects.
Patrick Winner and Kayla Pehl have both also had to collect specimens to perform their research on. In the case of Winner, who works with Dr. Niels Lindquist, this involved mucking about in freezing cold water to gather oysters to take back to the lab to measure and record their sponge coverage. Pehl is working with Dr. Joel Fodrie and is experimenting with fish and their responses to being around a predator caught in a fish trap nearby them. She has 32 different treatments that require 6 fish each as well as the predators – shrimp, a toadfish, and a blue crab. At one point in her experiment she actually ran out of fish and had to acquire more before she was able to continue. Her blue crab she was using disappeared one day never to be found and I helped her use a seine net to catch another one. This required us to get into huge waders that did not fit and unravel a giant net and slog through the mud dragging the net hoping to catch some crabs. Thankfully, we caught three on the first try and did not have to go back out into the cold November water. Having to rely on constant supplies of marine creatures can make for a tough time running experiments.
One student had to recreate his entire project after he broke his hand playing basketball. Originally Anderson Tran was doing research with Dr. Pete Peterson’s lab that required him to place rubber bands around the claws of live crabs to see if the crab’s presence nearby caused different behaviors in fish even though the fish could not be harmed by the crab’s disabled pincers. However, with a broken hand you cannot stretch rubber bands around crab claws. Now Tran’s project is still with crabs, but had to be changed entirely. Subsequently, to top off his independent research struggles, his crabs came down with a disease that killed quite a few and left the others weakened. Now that this confounding and unfortunate variable has been introduced he can no longer document reproducible scientific conclusions about his experiment. No scientist wants to intentionally have his group of organisms come down with a disease during an ongoing study.
Kelsey Barnhill has had difficulties with her research as well. She is working with Dr. Tony Rodriguez studying marsh shoreline erosion. Documenting erosion requires that she go out into the marsh and measure the shoreline twice a week at low tide to track its retreating boundary. Marshes can be tough environments – slogging through mud and muck while avoiding stepping on furiously scuttling crabs or submerged razor sharp oysters as well as taking care not to stumble and pitch clumsily into the water. Kelsey has stepped on a fish (which swam away apparently unscathed) while in her marsh and tripped over submerged egg cases of some sort of marine organism camouflaged in the water so she did not see them. On one occasion when I accompanied her on a marsh measuring mission I accidentally stepped on a stingray I failed to see sliding through the murky water with my bare foot. I was very grateful it decided not to sting me!
Independent research has many associated challenges – but the opportunity to perform hands on bona fide science alongside some of the world’s top researchers is worth every bit of blood, sweat, broken bone, falls into the mud, fly bites, urchin spines in the foot, knee, or hand and tears. When you have contributed a piece of real world science research at the end of your field site semester it will feel so rewarding. At the end of the day, all that difficulty was worth it. Carpe diem!