Category Archives: Undergraduate

Kelp for the Climate

By: Sachi Elias

Each day a new story hits the stands about the state of our global climate—oceans rising, forests burning, temperatures spiking. However, as environmental scientists, it is our duty and privilege to foster solutions for our struggling planet. Many American universities are at the forefront of climate innovation and USC is no different. Whether it be mycology, GIS or conservation biology, we as Trojans have learned to respond to our earth’s issues with proactivity and passion. My personal favorite climate solution stems from a project I have worked on since the beginning of my sophomore year…

Kelp—the word does not often spark enthusiasm. For my first 18 years on this planet, I lived in New York City, and I hadn’t once seen the protist in real life; it seemed like a made-up myth, “underwater forests of lush green”, how was it possible? However, in my time at USC, I have had the great pleasure of examining this life form in all its wonders. Whether it be its extraordinary growth rate or its strengthening foundation of the California ecosystem, the wonders of kelp never cease to amaze me.

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However, this amazement reached new heights as I discovered Dr. Diane Kim’s research at USC’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies (WIES). Together with Marine BioEnergy Inc., we’ve aimed to bring kelp from our coasts to unchartered territory… the open ocean. In this environment, kelp undergoes a depth cycling mechanism, similar to an elevator, traversing between 8 to 80 meters in the water column. Pelagic kelp requires this process because the surface waters may offer endless sunlight throughout the day, but the open ocean’s depths are nutrient-rich in comparison to the surface. Thus, in order to optimize kelp’s growth capacity of one-meter-a-day, it must be cycled.

Although I’ve had the pleasure of volunteer diving for the kelp project for the past four semesters, being able to spend the first two months of my summer at WIES this year as a Zinsmeyer Intern brought my involvement and training to new heights. Each day at work brought excitement and challenges.

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In May, our study began with young kelp (10 cm in length), but over the course of the summer we observed extensive development, marking varying stages of progress as the protist matured. One week we would consider the number of pneumatocysts and stipes on an individual, but the next week we focused on apical meristems and total lengths greater than a meter. By the end of the summer, our August kelp harvest revealed many species that grew over 4-6 meters! Additionally, I continued to hone my skills as a research diver, logging 40 news dives, completing blue water training, and (attempting to) master the art of underwater data collection (although there’s always room for improvement).

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As I enter my senior year of university, I am also beginning my third year with the kelp project. It has been an honor to see this project through my development as not only a student and researcher, but also a diver. There have been many obstacles encountered, from overcoming physiological challenges of the kelp itself (i.e. pneumatocysts bursting at depth) or technological failures in the open ocean structure (i.e. sinking to depth); Dr. Kim and the team at Marine BioEnergy have repeatedly worked through these hardships to see the experiment through. If we can optimize kelp’s growth rate in the open ocean, an entirely new class of biofuels could eliminate many of the pressures seen in less sustainable fuel choices. As environmental scientists, we understand the nature of what is at stake, and thus, I hope to continue with this project for the following year and see it through to its full capacity.

Thank you to Dr. Diane Kim, Dr. Ignacio Navarrete, Eric Castillo, the entire team at WIES, Marine Bioenergy Inc., the SURF fund, Mr. Andrew Zinsmeyer and Mrs. Barbara Bochner—I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to have conducted this work over the past summer and would not have been able to do it without your guidance.

A Summer of Gobies and Eelgrass

By: Alexandra Stella

Hello! My name is Alexandra Stella and I am currently a Senior at the University of Southern California! I am majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Political Science and Marine Biology.

Working on fish processing- where we measure and identify each fish!

Working on fish processing- where we measure and identify each fish!

My summer as a Zinsmeyer Intern at the USC Wrigley Marine Institute was filled with new experiences and unforgettable memories. I had the opportunity to work on two projects- researching sex change in blue banded gobies with Dr. Devaleena Pradhan and analyzing the health of eelgrass beds off the coast of Catalina Island with Dr. Dave Ginsburg. Most of my days started off early in the morning scuba diving to collect samples or data. After that, I’d move into the lab for fish processing or eelgrass data analysis!

Taking a break from the lab to take a swim in the kelp forest off our dock!

Taking a break from the lab to take a swim in the kelp forest off our dock!

My work with Dr. Pradhan required me to obtain a variety of new skills – from our special in-field fish capturing technique, to taking correct fish measurements for processing, to learning how to dissect the fish, to watching fish behavior, to even small tasks like labelling a centrifuge tube correctly (a very important step, I might add!). Overall, our goal with this summer research was to identify stressors that cause significant morphological and/ or behavioral changes in the gobies. We focused a lot of our time recording fish behavior in response to our test conditions to learn more about the gobies’ individual and group responses to change in the hierarchical make-up of their social groups. Understanding the effects of certain environmental conditions can lead us to a greater understanding of the survival and fecundity of this species which in turn has an impact on its surrounding ecosystem as these fish serve as an important prey source.

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Searching for blue banded gobies to collect and bring back to the lab for experimentation!

My second eelgrass project dealt with more management/ conservation issues. Eelgrass is often overlooked as insignificant in terms of the health of the entire ocean. But Dr. Ginsburg’s team recognizes how critical it is to the success of nearby habitats, and so dedicate themselves to study the health of the beds off Catalina Island. We performed various tasks underwater at multiple sites such as bed mapping and density data collection which involved recording the eelgrass length, width and height. Once we documented this information and compiled the data, we were able to compare it to last year’s data (the first year of this project) to understand how the health of the beds has adjusted over time. My work on this project is only one data point on what will hopefully be a large, comprehensive dataset as we continue to collect data year to year. Dr. Ginsburg’s project provides baseline data for eelgrass beds off the coast of Catalina – once completed, it will hopefully bring to light the significance of eelgrass for the health of other habitats in the ocean!

Presenting my eelgrass research project at the end of the summer!

Presenting my eelgrass research project at the end of the summer!

I learned so much this summer and am very grateful for these hands-on experiences! It feels so rewarding to walk away with a multitude of new skills and knowing you have added a point of discussion to some critical environmental research!

My REU pals and I went on a beautiful hike to Ballast Point!

My REU pals and I went on a beautiful hike to Ballast Point!