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Marine researcher sticks to her roots

by Angela Herring

As a teenager, Jen­nifer Elliott read about a con­ser­va­tion project to save the rare endemic birds of her home­land of Mau­ri­tius, a small island located in the Indian Ocean. “I was imme­di­ately intrigued by this project and wanted to meet the sci­en­tists in charge to learn more,” Elliott said. “I wanted to help.”

When she grad­u­ated from high school, Elliott turned her words into action, vol­un­teering in the cap­tive breeding center at the non­profit Mau­ritian Wildlife Foun­da­tion. She looked after pink pigeons and echo parakeets—the num­bers of which had been declining in recent years due to loss of nat­ural habi­tats and the intro­duc­tion of inva­sive species. Even­tu­ally Elliott and her coworkers released the birds back in the wild to boost the local population.

Now a doc­toral can­di­date in the lab of pro­fessor Mark Pat­terson at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center, Elliott is con­tin­uing her quest to pre­serve the Mau­ritian environment.

After vol­un­teering at MWF, she began working at Reef Con­ser­va­tion, a non­profit that spe­cial­izes in marine con­ser­va­tion and education—and helped Elliott find her calling.

“While working for Reef, I got a better under­standing of how var­ious anthro­pogenic activ­i­ties were neg­a­tively impacting the coral reefs of Mau­ri­tius,” she said. “For example, the water quality has degraded in sev­eral places—it is now cloudy when it used to be very clear.”

The ocean is typ­i­cally a very nutrient poor envi­ron­ment, she explained, and corals have learned through eons of evo­lu­tion to thrive in this state. Through their sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship with a micro­scopic alga, corals use pho­to­syn­thesis to obtain energy, Elliott said. Corals can also obtain energy by eating zooplankton.

Pol­lu­tants from land often reach the ocean after heavy rains and excess fer­til­izers can some­times cause algal blooms. Both spell bad news for the corals and other marine organ­isms living in the coastal zones.

Elliott’s research aligns with Northeastern’s focus on solving global chal­lenges in sus­tain­ability and is part of the MSC’s broader effort to examine the inter­con­nected sys­tems at play in urban coastal com­mu­ni­ties, including global coasts as far away as that of Mauritius.

Still working in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Reef Con­ser­va­tion, Elliott is now pur­suing research to deter­mine the best ways for the Mau­ritian gov­ern­ment to pre­serve one of its most impor­tant indus­tries. “Sug­ar­cane used to be our main cash crop,” Elliott said, “but now the tourism industry is our major eco­nomic pillar.” And the tourism industry depends, in part, on a healthy coral reef.

One way to reha­bil­i­tate coral reefs is to grow corals in a nursery and then trans­plant them back onto the reef. For her dis­ser­ta­tion, Elliott is inves­ti­gating whether pro­viding corals with extra food in the form of zoo­plankton would help the corals grow faster in the nursery.

If it does, it would help the local gov­ern­ment main­tain a con­tin­uous supply of frag­ments that could be used to reha­bil­i­tate the reefs. But her ini­tial results show that the type of dried food that she used did not increase coral growth significantly.

While her results are still pre­lim­i­nary, and there’s still much work to be done before her dis­ser­ta­tion is com­plete, infor­ma­tion like this can be of sig­nif­i­cant use in devel­oping effec­tive con­ser­va­tion efforts.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on April 22, 2104.
Photo by Julian Mason

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