Summers of Science

By: Nate Churches

It’s that time of year again: leopard sharks are in the cove, the green grass has shriveled to classic SoCal brown, and Research Experience for Undergraduates (REUs) have arrived for the summer.

Mentoring REU students at the Wrigley Institute has become a part of my graduate studies that I genuinely look forward to. These students are top picks from around the country, some of the brightest aspiring scientists to be found anywhere, who come to Catalina Island for a summer of high-level research science. Their projects range from studying ecosystem level bacterial profiles, to the archaeology of Catalina’s first inhabitants, to ocean acidification and marine toxicology – and everything in between. How cool is that?

Each year the Wrigley Institute hosts approximately 12 REU students, and these cohorts form a bond that will last throughout their academic careers. As an undergraduate, I had the pleasure of participating in an REU program at Friday Harbor Labs in Washington State, and have enjoyed watching my peers from that year go on to earn PhDs, take jobs in scientific policy management, and impact the world through non-profit environmental work. This year’s Wrigley REU cohort will do no less, I’m sure.


Lauren Averilla (left) and Megan Fogle (right) enjoy some delicious Pacific Oysters during their first week in California as REU students.

This summer I have two students that I am mentoring, Megan Fogle and Lauren Averilla. Together, we will be studying bivalves in the context of microbiomes and pollution. Bivalves are molluscs that have two shells (hence, “bi”-valve). Some of the more familiar varieties include the mussels, clams, and oysters. All tasty, too! In fact, I treated our REU students to some fresh oysters as my way of saying “welcome to California!”.

I don’t bring up the fact that bivales are highly edible by accident: that’s one of the main drivers of the research we are conducting. You see, bivalves are an extremely important food crop for the future of sustainable ocean farming, referred to as aquaculture. Currently, humans are over-harvesting our wild fisheries, are under feeding approximately 1 billion people across the planet daily, and are putting aquatic organisms under extreme stress due to pollution. One way to curb some of these monumental human challenges is to efficiently and sustainably farm the seas, and bivalves fit the bill. However, we know comparatively squat about bivalves next to land-grown foods like corn, pigs, and cattle. In fact, it is 100% guaranteed that you are eating a wild animal if you slurp an oyster at the fish market!


The research greenhouse at the Wrigley Marine Science Center, divided into the “Green” (terrestrial) and “Blue” (marine) houses – my aquaculture work is being performed on the blue side.

That’s where our research priority comes in; we want to know what can impact these molluscs in their natural environment. In a commercial context, we are interested in this so that we can create ‘improved’ bivalve crops. Keeping that in mind, this summer Megan is looking into how fertilization in Pacific oysters might be affected by pollution in the environment. Does copper affect a sperm’s ability to find eggs? Does ocean acidification reduce fertilization success? These basic questions can directly impact aquaculture, but are also very informative to conservation biology and ecology.

Lauren, on the other hand, will be trying to understand the dominant bacteria in oyster stomachs; aka the “gut microbiome”. Can we associate different gut microbiomes with traits that are relevant to commercial fisheries? Is there a way to develop an inoculation for oyster crops that will make them grow faster? Clearly, this branch of research might serve the commercial sector directly.


Photo of the interior of the ‘blue-house’, designed by Nate.

On a hot day you can find us all in the air conditioned Blue-House hatchery space that I developed for these studies (see photo above). Feel free to stop by, cool off, and say hello to me and these talented REU students I will be mentoring. If your timing is right, we might even be able to offer a tasty and sustainable bivalve as a snack. See you this summer!