Experience Magazine: He spent months underwater. Now he wants to save the ocean.
Mark Patterson, marine scientist, aquanaut, and inventor of underwater robots, walked into San Diego Comic-Con dressed as a giant coral polyp. He was decked out entirely in orange, with ten fake tentacles dangling from his neck. Green and purple splotches on his shirt front represented microplastics pollution, lodged in his polyp-gut.
This was 2015, and producers of the film Aquaman had invited the Northeastern University professor — who had lived in an underwater research station — to speak on a panel of real-life aquatic adventurers. “I said to my wife, ‘We can’t go to Comic-Con and not have a costume,’” Patterson recalls. So his graduate students made him the polyp suit. He brought along his wife, Susan, costumed as Amphitrite, the Greek goddess of the sea, in a dress made of sheer, flowing strips of blue. And he carried another prop: printed copies of a one-page fact sheet about the problem of microplastics pollution in sea water. He stuffed the flyers down his orange pants and passed them out on the convention floor to cosplaying comics fans — green-haired, black-goggled, purple-face-painted.
“It was the most exhausting six hours of my life,” Patterson says, “because I was constantly getting mobbed by people who were freaked out that they had somehow missed a character in the Universal or DC Comics pantheon of superheroes. So they come running up and go, ‘I don’t recognize you. Who are you? Are you some from-Japan thing that we don’t know about?’ I said, ‘No, I’m Polyp-Man, and I’d like to tell you about microplastics.’”
Read more at ExperienceMagazine
When a heatwave comes, this scientist takes a shellfish’s perspective
NAHANT, MASS. — Stepping into the gap between the rocks, it’s easy to understand what Brian Helmuth is talking about.
The summer sun beats down, and the rocky shore surrounding Northeastern’s Marine Science Center is toasty. But in this crevice, the marine biologist is partially shaded from the midday rays, and his feet are submerged in the shallow sea water that remains here when the tide goes out. It’s noticeably cooler and more comfortable.
And so are the creatures that Helmuth studies. Mussels fill the corners of the shallow pool, a crab darts over seaweed, snails cling to the submerged rocks, and barnacles mark a distinct high-water line on the walls of the small coastal canyon. It’s a safe haven for the sea creatures, shaded a bit from the heat of the summer sun and kept cool by the water that collects here.
But when Helmuth steps out of this sanctuary, just a few steps from its entrance, he exclaims, “Everything is dead.”
What would make oysters better? This scientist is figuring it out.
Katie Lotterhos is helping breed better oysters. Not just ones that taste better (although, that’s part of it), but importantly, ones that will be better suited to stave off disease and survive in warmer, saltier, and more acidic waters.
She, along with her colleagues, are doing it by searching for minuscule variations in the genetic makeup of certain oysters then using computer models to predict how those differences will help or hinder the bivalves in complex, changing environments.
“We can breed oysters that will be more resistant to disease, but how will they react to other stressors in their environments? There’s a need to understand how genomes affect how an organism performs against a number of variables,” says Lotterhos, associate professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern.
Her work has wide-ranging consequences, and not just for fans of the half shell.
But humans may be able to help restore marine populations by moving them to more suitable environments or breeding for traits that enable them to survive on their own.
Did a legendary trout really ride the rails from California to Missouri?
Crane Creek flows right to left in front of me, spring-fed and uncommonly clear and cool, slicing through trees that line both banks. Shallow and thin, it runs 25 miles through thick forests in southwest Missouri, at some points no farther across than a fishing pole is long. You could walk across it and never get your knees wet.
I arrive here on a Tuesday with my friend Aaron, two fishing poles, and the hope that in two days here we will see (never mind catch) a mysterious fish that has fascinated anglers for generations — one of the beautiful rainbow trout that hide under the ledges and logs in the water.
They are fireworks with fins: Their green freckles, pink stripe, and silver body pop far more vividly than rainbow trout found in other Missouri streams. These rainbows are a coveted trophy in the fly-fishing community, not just because of their beauty, but because of their wildness, how difficult it is to get one on the line, and how hard they fight once you do.
Also: their backstory. You won’t catch another fish with an ancestral heritage like this one. According to legend, the rainbow trout in Crane Creek represent a genetically pure strain of McCloud River redband trout, originally from California and now thriving in this hard-to-reach spot and only a few other places on Earth. To catch one is to come face to face with a mystery: Is the legend true? Are the trout pure? What am I supposed to call these fish?
This is a question not just for the people who fish in Crane Creek, but for every scientist working to name every living thing on Earth — and discovering, with technology’s help, that there are more and more things to name.
|BS, University of California – Davis|
Researchers Observe the Bizarre Sexual Behavior of Shipworms for the First Time
One afternoon, a researcher walked into his lab at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center and saw something shocking: A competitive sexual frenzy was happening right before his eyes, with individuals wrestling and sparring for dominance. The participants? A cluster of shipworms—marking the first time this unusual sexual behavior has been observed and documented.
Shipworms are fleshy, worm-like mollusks that use their shells to carve into unprotected logs, driftwood, docks, and ships and make themselves at home. Once burrowed, the wood-eating clams stay put, slowly eating through their own habitats (and causing billions of dollars of damage to wooden structures in the oceans).
Shipworms have two snorkel-like siphons that are used to bring water in and expel waste. These siphons are the only part of the clam that protrudes from its wooden home.
But, as it turns out, that’s not all those siphons are good for.
Read the full story here
Understanding Nitrogen’s Impact on Coastal Zones
On the cover of this month’s issue of BioScience, the tranquil scene of an evening in the tidal marsh belies the complex biological interplay of nutrients and organisms found within. The impacts and mechanisms of nutrient enrichment in this coastal zone, particularly of nitrogen introduced by human activity, are well documented in literature — but a new study in December’s BioScience suggests that understanding the forms of nitrogen in the system is a missing piece of the coastal management puzzle.
The study, led by Dr. Jennifer Bowen, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of the Northeastern’s Marine and Environmental Sciences Department, synthesizes a decade of research from her team and collaborators, focused on understanding human impacts on the structure and function of salt marsh systems. Dr. Bowen has long used the living labs of the Boston area coasts to examine how urban ecosystems and microbial communities influence biogeochemical cycling. Her latest work examines nitrogen forms and flows in the TIDE project, a long-term nutrient enrichment experiment led by co-author Linda Deegan of the Woodwell Climate Research Center that is based at the NSF supported Plum Island Long-Term Ecological Research site in northern Massachusetts. Co-author Anne Giblin of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, is lead principal investigator of the Plum Island research site. The research team also includes Anna Murphy, a postdoc in Bowen’s lab at the Marine Science Center, as well as Hillary Sullivan of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, Ashley Bulseco, a former PhD student of Bowen’s and currently a professor at Eckerd College, Thomas Mozdzer of Bryn Mawr College, and James Nelson of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It was co-author David Johnson of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who captured the journal’s cover photo, noting the clouds rolling in over the confluence of two branches of West Creek at Plum Island during early evening data collection one summer.
Urbanization, industry, and large scale food production have resulted in steady and increasing influxes of excess reactive nitrogen [from man-made systems]to the coasts, causing eutrophication and damage to coastal habitats. By taking up some of this nitrogen, wetlands serve a critical role in reducing these impacts. But Bowen et al. present analyses demonstrating that the impacts of nitrogen input cannot be assessed unilaterally; rather, there are varied impacts of each specific form of nitrogen. Some forms of nitrogen relieved nutrient limitation and increased primary production in the marsh, whereas others supported higher rates of organic decomposition and muted the rates of primary production. The study argues that both the form and quantity of nitrogen influx to the coasts, and how these different forms of nitrogen mediate the balance between marsh carbon storage and loss, will be crucial for managing coastal wetlands as sea levels continue to rise.
“Understanding how salt marsh ecosystems will respond to global change drivers such as nutrient enrichment and sea level rise requires expertise across a range of disciplines,” Bowen said. “Our team includes biogeochemists, microbial ecologists, and people specializing in plants, invertebrates, and fisheries species that all shed light on different aspects of the whole ecosystem response to these disturbances. This study underscores the importance of the long-term research investment by the National Science Foundation, who funded this work, and in the convergence of researchers from across fields to address questions with important implications for the management of critical coastal resources.”
Coastal photo by Dr. David Johnson, @DavidSamJohnson
Two Northeastern Leaders Receive Lifetime Fellowships for Exceptional Contributions to Their Fields
Two Northeastern leaders recently received fellowship awards with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a lifetime honor for their exceptional contributions to their fields.
Carla Brodley, dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern, and founding executive director of the Center for Inclusive Computing, was chosen for her outstanding national service towards diversifying computing, combined with broadly impactful research in the field of machine learning.
Geoffrey Trussell, chair of the marine and environmental sciences department and director of the Marine Science Center, was selected for his research combining ecology and evolution to understand the functional role of species in ecological communities.
Trussell and Brodley are not the first members of the Northeastern community to receive this fellowship. They join the ranks of university president Joseph E. Aoun, provost and senior vice president David Madigan, university distinguished professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett, and university distinguished professor of biology Kim Lewis, to name a few.
Read the rest of this story here
Cuttlefish and Co-ops: A Conversation with Marine Biology Major Gwendolyn McManus
Marine Biology student Gwendolyn McManus is co-author of a new paper in Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology examining behaviors of the Flamboyant Cuttlefish.
She chatted with our team recently about her work as a co-op at Marine Biological Laboratory that led to the publication, and her current projects.
What drew you to MBL’s Hanlon Lab for your co-op?
I chose the Hanlon lab because they studied cuttlefish camouflage, which I thought sounded interesting, but also because the job involved animal care, and because there was a possibility I could do some scientific illustration work, which is one of my hobbies. I did end up creating the illustrations that are featured in the paper, which was such a cool experience!
Since the lab studies primarily European cuttlefish (which aren’t found in the Americas), my co-op was much more lab-based than field-based. I did, however, go to the beach every week or two and spend a few hours shaking seaweed into plastic tubs to collect gammarid amphipods that we used to feed our youngest cuttlefish!
What was your favorite part of the work?
My favorite part of the work was getting to interact with the cuttlefish day-to-day. Our animals were very aware of the fact that humans = food, so they liked to come up to the surface when you approached and raise their eyes above the water just to see what was going on. All of them had different personalities and tendencies as well! By the end of my co-op, I got good at telling them apart, even in tanks with 3-4 identical animals.
What are you up to now, and what’s next?
I worked in the Hughes Lab at the Marine Science Center during my Spring 2020 co-op, and transitioned to virtual work after COVID. I’m currently collaborating on a project to develop a video game that will teach students about the ecology of seagrass beds. We’ve got a long way to go on the project, but it’s fun work!
I’m hoping to get my master’s degree with the Three Seas Program in 2021-22, and I haven’t decided exactly what to do after that. I really enjoy the intersection between science and art, so I can see myself ending up in research, conservation, or educational/awareness work of some kind.
Roger T. Hanlon, Gwendolyn McManus. Flamboyant cuttlefish behavior: Camouflage tactics and complex colorful reproductive behavior assessed during field studies at Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 2020; 529: 151397 DOI: 10.1016/j.jembe.2020.151397
Mapping Black Mangroves Along the Gulf: MSC Researchers Receive Grant to Grow Coastal Resilience
The black mangrove, Avicennia germinans, is the most abundant of the three mangrove species found along the Gulf coast, and its range is expanding. Marine Science Center researchers Randall Hughes and Steven Scyphers have just been awarded a grant to explore the impacts of this expansion on the region’s ecosystem and communities.
Avicennia germinans has several clever adaptations to ensure success in the unforgiving coastal environment; it is the most cold-tolerant of the region’s mangroves, it can take up saltwater and expel the salt through its leaves, and can grow pneumatophores, roots that rise up out of the soggy mud and seawater like snorkels to provide air to the tree. This resiliency also means mangroves are displacing salt marshes along coastlines in the Gulf of Mexico, which can have significant impacts on communities dependent on marshes for coastal protection and habitat health.
Drs. Hughes and Scyphers have begun research to examine range expansion of the black mangrove in the northern Gulf of Mexico from Cedar Key, Florida to Port Aransas, Texas, supported by a 697K grant from the Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This was one of 6 projects awarded by the GRP this year, $5.3 million in total, to enhance understanding of gulf ecosystems.
The Marine Science Center researchers are teaming up with Dr. Christine Shepard, Director of Science at The Nature Conservancy, Gulf of Mexico and Dr. Michael Osland, Research Ecologist at the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center, to use coupled natural-human systems approaches to study the black mangrove.
The project will examine the current and future geographic distribution and associated ecosystem functions of black mangroves, and how these are impacted by the social and policy landscape in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Existing data on the black mangrove’s distribution and ecosystem function, as well as analysis of the current attitudes, beliefs and decisions of stakeholders in the region, will inform projections of the future of this critical species and its place in the local environment.
The researchers ultimately hope to connect this valuable ecological and social data with enhanced Coastal Resilience decision support tools, including a Mangrove Explorer interactive app to help determine the communities most at risk due to these ecosystem changes.
Learn more about the Gulf Research Program Awards.
‘To Benefit the Earth and Those Upon It.’ Announcing the 2020 Muckenhoupt Scholarship Winners.
Congratulations to Allison Noble and Haley Bayne, this year’s recipients of the Dr. Carl Muckenhoupt Scholarship!
The Muckenhoupt Scholarship is awarded each year to Northeastern undergraduate students who will use their training in science “to benefit the environment of the earth and those upon it.” The 2020 recipients were chosen from an impressive pool of academically exceptional and environmentally inclined students.
Allison Noble (’21), Marine Biology
Noble says she has most appreciated the opportunities to do field work in a diverse array of different ecosystems, especially the oyster reefs in both Florida and Rhode Island. Her work studying stony coral tissue loss disease was featured in a news feature earlier this year.
Noble’s latest project, in collaboration with Jeriyla Kamau-Weng, another Northeastern student, is development of the Marine and Environmental Sciences Peer Mentoring program. The program — the first of its kind in the College of Science — will be launched in the fall and already has over sixty participating students!
This summer, Noble volunteered at the Trevor Zoo in Millbrook, NY for the third year in a row, and participated in a virtual internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researching soundscapes in areas with varying levels of habitat degradation at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Her sound ecology work will continue this Fall with a co-op at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researching sensory and sound ecology on coral reefs.
Hayley Bayne (’20), Environmental Science
Haley Bayne (2020) is an Environmental Science student with interests in sustainability, ecology, and science communication.
She has enthusiastically seized opportunities for study and field research abroad during her undergraduate degree. One of her favorite experiences was a Dialogue course in Iceland, where she explored local geology and was inspired to consider ways that sustainable energy practices in place in that country could be and applied in the United States.
Bayne also worked in the Rosengaus Lab studying antifungal mechanisms in termites, where she honed her research skills, mentored younger students, and produced a research paper which will be published later this Fall.
Last year, she was invited to attend a research conference in the Netherlands, where she was able to attend lectures as well as network with researchers at the top of their fields. Bayne is currently taking virtual classes at Northeastern in addition to exploring new interests and developing her skills in science communication and lab research.
Congratulations to both of these scholars on receiving the 2020 Muckenhoupt Scholarship and for all of their exciting research! With co-op and research experiences throughout their time at Northeastern, these students With co-op and research experiences throughout their time at Northeastern, Bayne and Noble are well prepared to make a positive impact with their future work.
They’re Planning to Build a New Space Station… at the Bottom of the Ocean
When we wanted to study space, we built the International Space Station—a place where astronauts could live, work, and conduct long-term experiments without having to return to Earth.
What if we had something similar on the bottom of the ocean?
Fabien Cousteau, a renowned aquanaut, environmentalist, and documentary filmmaker (and grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau), has been envisioning exactly that. And Northeastern is helping to make it a reality.
The rest of this story can be read here
Women in Science: Water Stewards
Building Knowledge and Pathways to Positive Change
Women make up less than a third of the global research population, but scientists at Northeastern University’s Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences are driving the change in that statistic through their innovative, successful research and their contributions to a thriving STEM pipeline for young women and future researchers. This Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting faculty who are advancing scientific knowledge and removing barriers for the next generation of women in STEM.
How are humans impacting the waterways we depend upon, and how can we ameliorate these impacts?
Featuring Dr. Loretta Fernandez
Dr. Loretta Fernandez is working to answer those questions and communicate
critical information to the stakeholders and stewards of our shared waterways. Her work
utilizes environmental organic chemistry to pioneer passive sampling methods for organic
contaminants in water and sediment, as well as monitor the transport, transformation, and
biological exchange of organic contaminants in our environment. Dr. Fernandez recently
developed a straightforward method for determining the concentration of contaminants most
likely to end up in the tissues of organisms living in polluted waterways, providing crucial
pollutant data to the EPA and other researchers. She is currently collaborating with the Munoz
Lab at the Marine Science Center to examine industrial contaminant mobility across the land
sea interface; these contaminants are detrimental to human and ecosystem health, and are
mobilized by geomorphic and biochemical processes for decades. Fernandez and her
collaborators are examining the stability of these compounds in floodplains and the coastal
ocean at several locations across New England and the Atlantic Coastal Plain.
Dr. Fernandez has been an active part of connecting environmental science with students and
with the local community. She has presented hands-on water quality activities at the Marine
Science Center Open Houses, and has been a mentor for young women at various science
career stages. Recent undergraduate research assistants in her lab have gone on to pursue
graduate research at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Colorado School of Mines, and Univ. of California
Santa Cruz. Creating pathways to success for young researchers is one of the ways Dr.
Fernandez is helping ensure that the environmental systems around us have scientific sentinels
into the future. Dr. Fernandez recently turned her lab’s expertise in environmental pollutants
into an innovative solution for testing facemask effectiveness against the COVID-19 virus,
working with Dr. Amy Mueller and a team of engineering students to modify their software to
assess particle movement through the masks, and establish the best materials for protecting
people against an airborne virus.
How can we measure, characterize and understand the huge and heterogeneous system of our earth?
Dr. Amy Mueller works to tackle these complexities by enabling critical
environmental measurements of the water in natural systems around us and in the built
systems we use each day, and enabling optimization of infrastructure like stormwater sewers
and wastewater treatment plants. Dr. Mueller’s Environmental Sensors Lab is developing new
sensors, instruments, and signal processing strategies to optimize our ability to study the
natural and built environments. Her sensor development space at Nahant’s Marine Science
Center and chemistry labs on the Boston Campus provide space and infrastructure to bring
together engineers and scientists from a variety of disciplines to tackle critical challenges. Dr.
Mueller and her team are advancing our understanding of nutrients in ocean ecosystems by
developing an in-situ trace-metal clean sampler capable of automated sample collection and
now working on nitrogen nutrient sensors to support more environmentally friendly
aquaculture pens. On the wastewater front, she is working with collaborators at the University
of Washington and a number of operating treatment facilities in New England to validate novel
sensor systems for use in current next-generation wastewater treatment reactors. Dr. Mueller
recently combined labs and expertise with Dr. Loretta Fernandez into an innovative solution for
testing facemask effectiveness against the COVID-19 virus, modifying their software to assess
particle movement through the masks and establish the best materials for protecting people
against an airborne virus.
Dr. Mueller is active in efforts to communicate science to community stakeholders and students
alike. She has shared her innovative water monitoring work with attendees at the Marine
Science Center’s public lectures and open house series, and is co-leading a wastewater
treatment workshop series bringing together regional plant operators, engineers, instrument
experts, and researchers to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the
A 10,000-mile Journey for Microbes
“I think it’s incredible how much power they [microbiomes] have,” says Andrea Unzueta-Martinez, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center.
Unzueta-Martinez spent three months at the Port Stephens Fisheries Institute raising oyster larvae to try and figure out how they acquire their microbiome.
The term microbiome refers to the billions of microscopic colonists that inhabit every living creature. Even your own body is teeming with bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea—they make up more than half of your cells.