Five students from Florida universities have each received $2,000 from the Florida Sea Grant Scholars program to support their research in timely and innovative ocean and coastal-related studies.
The 2017 Florida Sea Grant Scholars are:
- Erica Ross, University of Florida
- Abigail Engleman, Florida State University
- Bryan Keller, Florida State University
- Conor MacDonnell, University of Florida
- Devon Pharo, University of Florida
This year’s scholars are conducting research important to the health of ocean ecosystems statewide. Topics range from using 3D printers to create coral reef prosthetics to understanding the migration patterns of coastal sharks. In addition to the monetary award, each student will have the chance to meet with Sea Grant’s outreach faculty, and learn about Sea Grant’s statewide program of extension and education.
Karl Havens, director of Florida Sea Grant, said the program helps develop the next generation of marine scientists and resource professionals by exposing them to the state’s top research and extension faculty.
“We are pleased that Florida Sea Grant can support the research of such outstanding young professionals, and give them an opportunity to learn about our program, including the exciting work by our extension agents in Florida coastal communities,” he said.
Erica Ross is a Ph.D. student in the fisheries and aquatic sciences program within the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation, and a 2015 Guy Harvey Scholar. Her dissertation research examines how climate change will impact the transmission of PaV1, a virus that infects juvenile spiny lobsters.
“Clearly, Erica has great potential to move the fields of lobster and chemosensory ecology forward using a species of particular importance to Florida,” said her adviser, Don Behringer, an associate professor at UF. “The Florida Sea Grant Scholarship will enable her to tackle an ambitious project and inform management for Florida’s iconic fishery.”
Ross, who was also awarded an honorable mention for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship, said she became interested in marine science as an undergraduate at Boston University.
“Getting to travel and work at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and calling that ‘work’ was a pretty good deal as an undergrad,” Ross said.
Upon graduation, Ross, who is also an aspiring yoga teacher, hopes to pursue a career with a conservation organization doing research and outreach work.
Abigail Engleman is a Ph.D. student in biological science at Florida State University, and a 2016 Florida Outdoor Writers Association scholar. With her scholarship, she will be using 3D printing technology to create coral reef ‘prosthetics’ that can repair physically degraded reefs.
“These ‘prosthetics’ are generated by scanning coral and printing out a new ‘replicate coral,’ using the same material as natural coral,” said Engleman, who is also an avid scuba diver. “These can be added to reefs, providing immediate habitat and encouraging more coral growth in the future.
Engleman, who has previously worked as an intern in NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries helping to craft education and outreach materials, hopes to pursue a career that combines her love of science and communication.
“Pursuing communication, rather than research, will allow me to bridge the gap that hinders current conservation success, and inspire future ocean enthusiasts,” Engleman said.
Bryan Keller is pursuing a Ph.D. in biological oceanography at Florida State University. He is studying the spatial ecology and seasonal migrations of coastal sharks.
“In my opinion, migrations are one of the coolest behaviors in the animal kingdom. I could not easily find my way around the United States without a compass, map, or GPS, yet so many animals easily accomplish this task each year,” said Keller, who has interned at the Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas. “When I think about migrations in the ocean, it becomes even more impressive. My intrigue in this topic has inspired me to attempt to determine what mechanism sharks are using to facilitate their navigational success.”
Keller, who grew up in the desert far away from the ocean, said he first became interested in marine science during his family vacations to the coast. On his 14th birthday, he received his first saltwater aquarium and began working at a fish store.
“Over the course of the next few years I set up four additional fish tanks at my house and became a certified scuba diver. When I started college, I enrolled in classes related to marine science,” Keller said.
Upon graduation, Keller hopes to pursue a career with a state or federal agency and be involved in the formation of new environmental policies.
Conor MacDonnell is a Ph.D. student in soil and water science at the University of Florida. For his dissertation research, he is studying the effects of artificial structures on seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon.
“The goal is to see if artificial seagrass, integrated with live grass, can reduce herbivory by fish through association resistance,” MacDonnell said. “This is when the fish bites into the fake seagrass, hates it, and associates the fake grass with the real bed, giving living seagrass a better shot at survival.”
He is also working with bigger artificial structures called BESE lattices, which act as an anchor for restored grass to protect against larger animals like manatees.
“Manatees typically pull both the shoots and the roots of restored seagrass. But with the BESE lattice anchoring the seagrass, manatees may only clip the blades of grass, saving the plant,” MacDonnell said.
MacDonnell said he’s open to a variety of future careers, but hopes to find a job that “makes the largest restorative impact” on the coastal environment.
Devon Pharo is a master’s student in the fisheries and aquatic sciences program within the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation. He is studying how algal blooms might affect stone crabs in Florida Bay.
“Cyanobacteria blooms have a major impact on hard-bottom habitat in the Florida Keys and could have negative effects on the condition of the stone crabs inhabiting these impacted areas,” said Pharo, a Florida native who grew up fishing and diving along the state’s coasts.
Before starting his master’s program, Pharo worked as a research technician monitoring Caribbean spiny lobsters for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and for Don Behringer’s lab at the University of Florida.
“He came to my lab as a certified AAUS science diver and dive master, so he was an invaluable ‘turnkey’ tech, now turned graduate student,” Behringer said. “He has proven to be extremely capable and dependable in the lab and in the field. But perhaps more for a student, he wants to fully understand what he’s doing and why.”