Five graduate students from the University of Georgia, Georgia Southern University and Georgia Tech have been selected to lead year-long coastal research projects as part of the Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship. This marks the sixth year of the traineeship, which has supported a total of 36 students from universities across Georgia since its launch in 2018.
“The research traineeship allows students to apply their knowledge and identify solutions to real world issues in collaboration with coastal experts in marine science and coastal ecology,” says Mark Risse, director of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “The traineeship gives students the opportunity to design and execute their own projects, preparing a diverse workforce for jobs in the future.”
As part of the traineeship, students conduct independent research projects that address one of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s four focus areas: healthy coastal ecosystems, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, resilient communities and economies, and environmental literacy and workforce development.
The students conduct these projects while being advised by university mentors. They are also encouraged to work with extension and education specialists at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to collaborate and share their research with coastal communities.
Anna Carnes is an undergraduate student in biology at Georgia Tech where she’s studying marsh restoration, particularly the use of native versus nonnative Spartina alterniflora species in Georgia marshes.
As part of her traineeship, she will compare the genetic diversity of Spartina alterniflora populations from natural Georgia ecosystems to those of nurseries from adjacent states. She will also look at the success rate of planting native spartina versus the nonnative varieties. There are currently no nurseries in Georgia that supply native Spartina. Carne’s research will help determine the need for local sources at plant nurseries and will inform future marsh restoration practices.
“I am excited to collaborate with people who are as enthusiastic about the marsh and restoration as I am. This opportunity will help me to grow as a research scientist by providing feedback on my work and connecting me with mentors to learn from,” Carnes said.
Alejandra Daniel is a master’s student in biology at Georgia Southern University. She is studying corals found along the southeastern coast of the U.S., specifically Oculina arbuscula.
Oculina arbuscula has been found to be resilient to the negative effects of climate change, including ocean acidification. Unlike most corals, Oculina arbuscula can continue to produce its skeleton when exposed to ocean acidification. Daniel’s project will involve studying the mechanism behind the coral’s resilience to ocean acidification.
“My professional goal is to pursue a career where I can both perform marine research and help develop programs that not only strive to eliminate societal pressures that deter K-12 children from developing a baseline knowledge of science, but also spark a curiosity about science that results in a desire for continued knowledge. The traineeship will assist me in reaching these goals,” Daniel said.
Julia Frees, a master’s student in biology at Georgia Southern University, is studying the impact of contaminants, including microplastic fibers and pharmaceutical chemicals, on oysters.
Her project will involve studying whether microplastic fibers increase the uptake of synthetic estrogen by eastern oysters. She will survey the levels of pollutants in oysters in coastal Georgia and conduct lab experiments to examine how microplastic fiber exposure affects synthetic estrogen concentration in oyster tissue, oyster growth and reproduction. The findings will be valuable to recreational and commercial oyster harvesters.
Frees will be working with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s Water Resource Specialist, Katy Smith, to deliver educational workshops to the public and the aquaculture community.
“As I interact with these groups to increase awareness of microplastic fiber and synthetic estrogen contamination, I will build rapport and gain a better sense of their needs. Ultimately, the skills that I will develop through the traineeship will equip me to accomplish my goal of applying research to improve conservation by working for a non-governmental organization, private conservation group, or federal/state environmental department,” Frees said.
Diane Klement, a master’s student at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, is studying migratory bird populations, particularly those experiencing rapid declines, like the painted bunting.
Her project seeks to understand which plants provide high-quality habitat for migratory birds to inform conservation efforts. Her research will use new tracking technologies and corresponding space-use estimates to accurately quantify habitat quality for the painted bunting. Findings will be shared with coastal resource managers and homeowners to inform these groups about which plant species provide preferred bunting habitat.
“I applied for the Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship due to the program’s commitment to serving coastal Georgia through integrated research, extension, and education programs in collaboration with the local community. Working with [the organization] in the past allowed me to grow as a science communicator, introduced me to partners conducting innovative coastal research, and ultimately led me to attend UGA for graduate school, and I am so grateful to continue this partnership through the research traineeship,” said Klement, who served as a 2022 marine education fellow for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.
Mallory Mintz is a master’s student in the University of Georgia Department of Marine Sciences. Based at UGA’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, her research focuses on harmful algal blooms on the coast.
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are increasing due to warming waters and increased nutrient runoff. In Georgia’s Skidaway River, HABs are largely unreported despite their potential impact on oyster aquaculture. Mintz’s research involves collaborating with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant volunteers who participate in NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network to document the abundance of a HAB-forming red tide species, Akashiwo sanguinea. She hopes to determine the drivers of Akashiwo blooms and enhance understanding of HAB dynamics in coastal Georgia to improve monitoring efforts.
“The traineeship not only provides financial support to allow me to continue research for another year, but it fosters invaluable professional connections with the Georgia scientific community. I look forward to collaborating with peers and mentors to continue my ongoing research and contribute to the broader scientific community,” Mintz said.
The Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship program is funded by Georgia Sea Grant, part of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program, a network of 34 Sea Grant programs located in coastal and Great Lakes states and territories.