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Northeastern Student Probes Environmental Changes in Spartina Grass, Salt Marsh Hero

The tall slender leaves of the marsh grass spartina that edge coastal areas from the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf of Mexico in the United States function as an environmental workhorse, halting erosion and grabbing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in the soil.

“It’s a foundation species in marshes. It holds the sediment in place, which is really important for erosion purposes. It provides habitat for critters—snails, crabs, fish,” says Northeastern University doctoral student Johanna L’Heureux.

And, she says, “It’s super efficient at capturing carbon dioxide.”

But the microbes around the roots of Spartina alterniflora, or cordgrass, also release carbon dioxide into the air when they break down carbon compounds for energy.

Scientists don’t yet know whether environmental changes such as sea-level rise will cause shifts in the identity and behavior of soil microbes. Will the trend be that spartina-associated microbes release more carbon dioxide into the air, or will they store increasing amounts safely in the soil?

L’Heureux is determined to help answer that question as part of her national Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship, under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Over the past year she has set up an experimental station at the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve “right smack dab in the middle between Myrtle Beach and Charleston” in South Carolina.

L’Heureux’s study on microbes will add to a large body of research on salt marsh response to sea-level rise that has been conducted at the reserve.


Read more on [email protected]

June 30, 2022

Instagram takeover: Ocean Genome Legacy Center

Kira Becker and Lee Fenuccio recently completed a co-op at the Ocean Genome Legacy Center (OGL). They are taking over our Instagram the week of June 27 to reflect on their experience. Follow along! 

Lee Fenuccio, BS in Ecology ‘24 

Lee Fenuccio sits against a wall with many trees and flowers in the background

Q: Why did you decide to pursue studies in ecology?

I applied to Northeastern University because I was interested in the biology program but learned about the ecology major early in my first year and switched to it. I care deeply about the environment and the organisms within it, so ecology was the perfect major to explore my interests in the natural world, ecosystems, and conservation.

Q: Tell us why you declared a minor in data science.

Data science is becoming more prominent in many fields, including ecology and conservation biology. There is an abundance of already collected data that, if analyzed properly, can teach us important things about the world. I want to develop my coding skills and be able to view ecological questions through the lens of a data scientist, which will hopefully lead to future discoveries.

Q: How did you learn about the OGL co-op position? Why did you decide to work here?

I found this co-op using NUWorks. I accepted the offer because of its alignment with my interests in ecology and data science. In addition, I knew the role would include working with different data about various organisms.

Q: How did Northeastern courses, professors, or other resources prepare you to pursue this co-op?

My required co-op class prepared me for this role. In addition, Advanced Writing in the Environmental Sciences prepared me for the kinds of scientific reading and writing I did. Introduction to Environmental, Social, and Biological Data prepared me to work with large amounts of data too.

Lee Fenuccio sits in a lab wearing a blue lab coat sitting at a desk holding a specimen above a box

Q: Tell us about your experience at this co-op. 

I really enjoyed the co-op. I had the opportunity to work with samples from very cool and unique specimens, including icefish from the Antarctic. These fish are unique because some do not have hemoglobin in their blood. I also worked with many specimens from hydrothermal vents found in the Gulf of Mexico, which are ecosystems that seem alien-like because they function much differently than the ones we know. Some of the data work was tedious, but that was to be expected. If anything, it has taught me the importance of taking notes and formatting data in ways others can understand and use.

Q: How has this experience informed your future career aspirations?

This co-op has solidified my interest in ecology and conservation, and I’ve learned a lot about potential future careers. I enjoy working in the lab and the field, and I would like a job that combines both.

Q: What advice would you give to students interested in similar co-ops? 

Don’t get tunnel vision for just one thing you’re interested in; open yourself up to experiencing things you might not have been initially interested in, and you might enjoy them too.

Q: Tell us about your experience in the Wildlife Club. 

I joined the Wildlife club during my first year at Northeastern. It’s a great space where students of all majors and backgrounds can bond over our love of nature and the wacky world of animals. I’m currently serving as president, which is a big responsibility because the club is very young, and I’m only the third president. I’m working hard to make the club a welcoming environment featuring activities everyone can enjoy for years to come.


Q: How did you become a volunteer for EcoTarium? Tell us more about this experience. Why is this something you are passionate about?

My interest in science and nature started at a young age when I visited a local nature museum and zoo called the EcoTarium located in Worcester, MA. As I grew up, I visited more often, eventually becoming a volunteer and an employee. I feel deeply connected to the museum because it’s where I first discovered my love of science and why I decided to pursue it. As a volunteer and employee, I help keep the museum running so future generations can have the same experiences I had when I was younger. Hopefully, I can inspire others to pick up that same love of science and nature.

Kira Becker, BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology ’24 

Kira Becker wearing a blue lab coat and mask standing near a lobster amid science equipment

Q: What is your major and predicted graduation year? 

My major is Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and I will graduate in 2024 on a five-year track doing three co-ops.

Q: How did you learn about the OGL co-op position?

At the start of this semester, I was in a strange situation because I had accepted a global co-op in Tel Aviv, Israel, and was prepared to travel there before Omicron hit. Unfortunately, the pandemic shut down the local consular offices and prevented my visa from going through. As I was desperately making backup plans for my housing situation in Boston in late January, my advisor let me know that this co-op position had not yet been filled and that I would be a good fit.

This offer really saved me, as I was not only able to proceed with doing a co-op this semester, but this position also checked a lot of my boxes in terms of what I was looking for in a second co-op: primarily labwork in genetics/genomics, in-person, paid, and commutable.

In addition, I’ve been connected to Northeastern’s Marine Science Center since high school through local programs. I volunteered briefly during my first and second years here, so I was familiar with the lab and community. Had I been looking for co-ops in Boston, I would have definitely applied to this co-op from the beginning for these reasons.

Kira Becker moves test tubes out of a box in a lab

Q: How did Northeastern courses, professors, or other resources prepare you to pursue this co-op?

This co-op involves a lot of lab and technical DNA-related work. My most recent DNA lab experience was in a course taught by Professor Jen Bowen, where we did a project extracting and sequencing DNA from supermarket fish. I learned a lot from that course, which helped prepare me for this position.

Q: Tell us about your experience at this co-op. 

The Marine Science Center is in a fantastic location, with ocean views, a shuttle connection to campus, and a friendly, helpful community of marine and environmental scientists carrying out fascinating and important research. The OGL is a marine biorepository, a sort of archive for DNA collected from marine animals worldwide. As a co-op, I’m researched preservatives that can be used to prevent DNA from degrading when it is stored in the long term, keeping OGL collections fresh and intact for years.

Q: How has this experience informed your future career aspirations?

I enjoy lab work and research, and genetics is a topic I’m interested in too. I really like marine biology, too, and I’d love to continue working with marine animals and be as close to the ocean as possible.

Q: What advice would you give to students interested in similar co-ops?  

Read as much as you can about the topic you’re researching and the techniques you’re using in the lab because the better you understand what you’re doing, the better you’ll be at your work and solving problems that you will experience!

Follow us on Instagram, @northeasterncos! 

June 22, 2022

These fish live in sub-freezing waters. Why are so many getting sick?

Antarctic fish have evolved to survive—and thrive— under unbearable conditions. They make their living at the sub-zero Centigrade, freezing temperatures of the ice-filled Southern Ocean, and they keep their bodies from freezing solid by producing an antifreeze protein in their blood.

But now, Antarctic fish face a new threat: A novel disease involving large skin tumors.

Northeastern’s H. William Detrich, professor emeritus of biochemistry and marine biology, and his 2018 Antarctic field research team, discovered a new disease that afflicted a substantial number of fish belonging to two different species, reported in a paper published in the journal iScience. The pathogen at fault was previously unknown to science.

“This may be an early warning signal of the impact of oceanic warming,” says Detrich, an author on the paper. Because polar regions, both marine and terrestrial, are warming more rapidly than temperate zones, they serve as bellwethers for climate change effects, he says.

If, as the scientists suspect, the stress of climate change is what caused this new disease outbreak, “This is a potential example of what we might expect to see in more temperate latitudes,” Detrich says. “This discovery makes it all the more important that people be aware of the potential for climate-stress-mediated disease” in the Antarctic and beyond.

Read more on News@Northeastern.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

June 13, 2022

Q&A with Nishaila Porter, MS in Environmental Science and Policy

nishaila porter poses for a headshot outsideNishaila Porter is a student in the College of Science Master’s of Science in Environmental Science and Policy program, planning to graduate in the spring of 2023.

Q: Why did you decide to enroll at Northeastern University and pursue this degree?

Northeastern University’s joint program between the College of Science and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs offers a fantastic opportunity to gain a scientific understanding of environmental issues while also learning about the policy and regulations to create change. The dual nature of the program was very attractive to me as it merged my interests in urban resilience. Additionally, as a Boston native, learning in the city I grew up in has been a great bonus.

Q: Tell us about your experience in the program so far.

My experience with the program has been great thus far. All of my professors are super helpful and are doing exciting work. I don’t feel limited with my course selection either. The courses I’ve taken are also closely aligned with my interest in urban resilience, and I still have a working list of other classes to take for the next semester.

Q: What has been your favorite part of the program?

My favorite part is being able to connect and work with my peers. It’s interesting to see the various backgrounds people come from and our merging interests. I’m also a peer mentor with Northeastern’s African American Institute Legacy program, which I enjoy. I think it’s great to interact with undergraduates, share knowledge, and be supportive.

Q: Are there any particular faculty or resources that have helped you succeed in this program?

Benjamin Dittbrenner, the director of the program, has been extremely helpful. He taught the Seminar 2 course and provided insightful information about networking, job opportunities, and more, in addition to the required course material. It’s nice to know the program director is accessible to you and willing to help.

Q: How has your experience at Northeastern prepared you for your future career path?

I plan to participate in Northeastern’s cooperative education (co-op) experience next semester. This hands-on experience will allow me to experience a new sector of the environmental field and strengthen my work experience. I appreciate this opportunity to reaffirm my plans before graduating.

Q: Which skills have you learned from your program that have proven most useful during a co-op or that you think will be helpful during a future job search?

Thus far, I’ve taken two technical courses that have made me very marketable for my co-ops, the Introductory Geographical Info Systems (GIS) course, and Coastal Process Adaptation & Resilience course. The GIS course will be valuable for my entire career in mapping to analyzing data.

Q: What are your post-graduation plans?

Upon completing the graduate program as a capable environmental science and policy professional, I plan on working in the public sector to push forward initiatives that improve environmental standards and protect vulnerable communities, specifically in urban areas.

Q: Do you have any advice for graduate students seeking work experience in similar fields?

I recommend taking advantage of the co-op program, where you gain work experience, connections, and get paid. It’s a win all over. I would also recommend enrolling in courses with a service-learning component; this is a great way to work with local entities or on a project in a structured way.

June 13, 2022

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