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An aquatic adventure resurfaces

by Angela Herring

Sara Williams first heard about Aquarius when she was in middle school: Girl Scouts of the USA was sending a group of young women to the under­water research habitat for a week­long ocean sci­ence pro­gram. Williams, a Girl Scouts member her­self, didn’t get to attend, but the idea of vis­iting the habitat stuck with her for more than a decade. It would only be a matter of time before she’d be suiting up and making the trip 63 feet below the sur­face of the sea to the vessel that has both trained astro­nauts and inspired bud­ding young sci­en­tists like herself.

saraWilliams made her first visit to the habitat in 2012, when she par­tic­i­pated in a live-​​streamed talk with renowned ocean explorer Sylvia Earle. Back then, Williams was still an under­grad­uate stu­dent at the Col­lege of William and Mary and had just begun her research with cur­rent North­eastern pro­fessor Mark Pat­terson on the coralline gas­trovas­cular system—the net­work of pas­sage­ways inside a coral’s body that trans­port oxygen and nutri­ents through the animal, acting as both its car­dio­vas­cular system and its gut.

Now, as part of Mis­sion 31, a month­long under­water research dive spear­headed by Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the leg­endary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, Williams is going back to Aquarius and spending even more time with the corals she’s come to love. She has since taken on a full-​​time posi­tion as a research tech­ni­cian in Patterson’s lab at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center and con­tinues to study the way oxygen and nutri­ents flow through a coral’s body.

Trained in physics, Williams will use an elec­trical net­work approach to model that process. “It’s actu­ally quite sim­ilar to fol­lowing an elec­trical charge through a cir­cuit,” she explained. “Only here the ‘elec­trical charge’ is oxygen.”

Her plan is to col­lect data on a series of coral colonies in the reef. She will examine each one for a full 24 hours, mea­suring both its internal oxygen levels and the acidity of the water nearby. With the help of the aqua­nauts based at Aquarius for the dura­tion of Mis­sion 31, Williams will also be able to gather infor­ma­tion about the pho­to­syn­thetic activity of the algae living in the coral’s bodies.

The goal of the research project, she said, is to have a good base­line under­standing of oxygen dynamics in corals in order to see how they might change under changing cli­mate con­di­tions. “We want to see how their phys­i­ology will react to daily envi­ron­mental stres­sors on the reef,” she said.

Williams has been researching the same ques­tion back in the lab on land for a few years, but Mis­sion 31 now gives her the rare oppor­tu­nity to look at the organism in its nat­ural envi­ron­ment for long periods of time.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on June 10, 2014

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