Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute
Historically, oyster reefs have flourished along the mouth of the St. Johns River and its tributaries.
But they have gradually declined over the years and people are starting to ask why. Is it the quality of our water, which has been besieged by algal blooms, or the lack of shell habitat from excessive harvesting?
That’s one of the questions biology students at Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute are trying to answer, says Dr. Quinton White, the institute’s executive director.
Students have been placing settling plates with oyster shells at the site of previous reefs in Sisters Creek, Pumpkin Hill Creek and the St. Johns River to see if there’s enough larvae naturally present for the oysters to recolonize.
As part of the process, graduate student Kimberly Mann has learned that, since 2008, there’s been a growing concentration of the good organisms that are important to the oysters, which filter the water for food.
“I didn’t know what I would find,” Mann says. “But I’m glad because it means the habitat is okay. It’s a better environment for the oysters, which are an indicator of the health of the creek system.”
She’s been working with an undergraduate student on the project. While she concentrates on the oyster community, he helps collect water samples and teaches her about fish.
“I just happen to really like the water,” Mann says. “I’m glad I got into this field. I like waking up every morning and coming to school because I’m learning new things.”
Meantime, graduate student Madelyn Woods says she’s become an expert in plankton. She’s been participating in an ongoing study on toxic algal blooms and their impact on plankton, small organisms that are a crucial source of food for fish and other aquatic life.
“Most marine science programs aren’t very flexible,” she says. “But JU offers a lot more freedom. We get lots of mentoring and lab and field work. We have to justify and defend our projects, but they try not to limit us.”
That’s just what White wants to hear.
“They are our eyes, they’re out there looking at what’s going on,” White says about the students. “It’s real world experience, it’s good training, good science and good exposure for them.”
Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience
A stingray skims the bottom of a saltwater pond outside the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, where water is piped in from the Atlantic Ocean across the street. Locals who visit the pond frequently never know what they might see there.
Wedged between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, the facility on ocean Shore Boulevard is a marine biomedical research center of the University of Florida.
Unlike other universities that are landlocked, it is the easy access to a wide range of marine life that makes Whitney Laboratory unique, says Dr. Mark Martindale, director of the center about 15 miles south of St. Augustine. “It’s different on each side of the street.”
Professors and students spend years studying marine organisms at the lab to find novel solutions for problems in human health and the environment. Examining life’s simpler forms can often shed light on complex human systems, Martindale says.
Horseshoe crabs have caught the attention of one professor, Dr. Barbara-Anne Battelle. They’re helping her understand how our biochemical time clock affects light sensitivity, a project that could eventually help people with weak vision.
During the summer, Whitney offers undergraduate internships for first generation college students and other college students who don’t have access to advanced laboratory training.
The center also reaches out to 4,550 local youths each year with summer camps offering hands-on science projects or the Traveling Zoo, a van that transports marine animals to schools so youngsters can see, touch, and learn about local marine life.
Other studies now underway at Whitney are designed to help scientists better understand our sense of smell, the nerve circuits in our brain and spinal cord, and how hair cells – like those in our ears – may help us navigate turbulent water.
PhD candidate Gabrielle Winters has been working with mollusks to learn more about synaptic plasticity, or the structural changes that occur between nerve cells in the brain that allows memory to develop and persist. She says the collaboration between biologists in many different fields has amplified her educational experience.
“The diversity is what you really look for in a marine lab,” Winters says. “As technology and research advances, there’s a need for interdisciplinary approaches and working with other collaborators to give you a different perspective on your research.”