In its first year of existence, the Texas Sea Grant Scholars Program sent three of its initial class to present their research findings to Texas Legislators.
Cyrenea Millberry, a senior at Texas A&M University, and the team of Josh Carter and Raven Walker — both seniors at Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG) —represented their respective institutions at Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the state capitol in Austin on April 26.
The event is designed to showcase the research experiences of undergraduate students for Texas legislators and the public and highlight how research conducted by undergraduate students positively impacts Texas and Texans through the theme, “Transforming Texas Through Undergraduate Research.”
Millberry, with guidance from Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences (WFS) Assistant Professor Dr. Masami Fujiwara, studied how the combination of freshwater from river discharges and changes in tides affect populations of white and brown shrimp in Texas estuaries. “Freshwater inflows can determine salinity and temperature in estuaries, which affects shrimp growth,” Millberry says. “This is important to Texans because if you live in this state you are in some way affected by the economic impacts of the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery. If shrimp populations are affected, then other estuarine-dependent species might be as well.”
She presented part of her results in January to a meeting of the Texas Chapter of the American Fisheries Society in Conroe.
Carter and Walker used the economics principle of supply and demand, and “ephemera” like newspaper ads and restaurant menus to infer the population health of commercially valuable animals in the Chesapeake Bay area through a timeline of their prices going back to 1850 — 100 years before the federal government began recording catch data. The pair, under the mentorship of Marine Sciences Professor Dr. Glenn Jones, found that the price for most of the species rose faster than the inflation rate, indicating that these populations were in decline long before official records began. Millberry, Carter and Walker are three of six students chosen to undertake independent research projects as part of the inaugural Texas Sea Grant Scholars Program — which is a cooperative effort between the Texas Sea Grant College Program at Texas A&M and the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program administered by Texas A&M’s Honors and Undergraduate Research (HUR) Office. The Texas Sea Grant Scholars Program is open to students at Texas A&M and TAMUG.
“The Texas Sea Grant Scholars Program and the funding it provides creates opportunities for undergraduates to do research and present results that may not exist without it,” Millberry says. “I think being a Texas Sea Grant Scholar and conducting this research is the most valuable thing I’ve done in my academic career.”
Dr. Pamela Plotkin, the director of Texas Sea Grant, developed the idea for the scholars program as a way for the program to engage undergraduate students.
“As a recognized high impact practice, undergraduate research experiences increase student learning and success, not only while students are at Texas A&M, but long after graduation,” Plotkin says. “This new partnership with the Honors and Undergraduate Research program enables Texas Sea Grant to invest in Texas A&M students and develop our future workforce. The Texas Sea Grant Scholars program is the first of our efforts to support Texas students with the aim of developing a cadre of ocean and coastal leaders in Texas.”
To be considered for the program, undergraduate students were required to submit a proposal for an independent research project — under the mentorship of a faculty member — related to the marine environment in any discipline. The chosen students each received $1,000 to conduct their research. As part of the program, the students are expected to prepare formal research reports and participate in a number of workshops and events, including presenting their results during the annual Texas A&M Student Research Week.
“The Texas Sea Grant Scholars program provides a great opportunity to recognize and reward our outstanding Undergraduate Research Scholars in marine sciences,” says Dr. Duncan MacKenzie HUR’s associate director for undergraduate research. “By partnering with Sea Grant, we are able to provide additional support to undergraduates for travel or research expenses that can add a new dimension to their research projects. We expect this program to attract academically talented undergraduate students to the study of the marine environment, nurture their development as independent researchers with practical, hands-on knowledge of modern research techniques, and prepare them to continue on to academic, industrial, or governmental careers where their knowledge will directly benefit the Texas marine environment.
Other members of the first class of Texas Sea Grant Scholars comprised Marcella Nunez, a TAMUG senior Marine Science major; Gary Baine, a TAMUG senior Marine Biology major; and Ellen Giddens, a TAMU junior WFS major.
Baine, working under Associate Professor of Marine Biology Dr. Christopher Marshall, tried to correlate variations in skull shapes between closely related species of sea lions in the northwest Pacific Ocean region of the country to their hunting capabilities and their choice of prey animals He hopes to determine if a change in or movement of the prey animals has hampered the sea lions’ ability to find and catch food, which may be responsible for an 80 percent decline in these sea lion populations over the past 40 years. Giddens, mentored by WFS Assistant Professor Dr. Luis Hurtado, sampled blue crab DNA from nine sites spread between South Padre Island and Tampa, Fla., to determine if these populations are genetically different from each other. The results may lead to better management of blue crab populations.
Nunez, a student of Associate Professor of Marine Biology Dr. Antoinetta Quigg, sought to determine if sodium bicarbonate — baking soda — can become a less expensive source of carbon for growing microscopic marine algae and if limiting nitrogen would increase the amount of fat the microalgae produce. The fat burns at a high temperature and can potentially replace some of the petroleum in fuel blends. The resulting alternative fuel releases less carbon dioxide during burning than does traditional petroleum-based fuel.
Giddens says she appreciates the Texas Sea grant Scholars Program for the advantage it will give her when she enters graduate school. “I get to work in a lab and am around these professors who I get to know very well, and the graduate student I work under has taught me the little things that would take me some time to learn if I went into a graduate program without having this experience,” she says.
Nunez encourages more undergraduates to get involved in research, and she says the first step is as simple as talking to their instructors. “A lot of freshmen don’t want to talk to their advisors or their faculty because they feel there is a barrier there. Once you break that barrier, your doors open. Be confident,” Nunez advises. “Don’t be afraid of getting to know your professors. They will notice your ambition, and that ambition can help you in your research.”
Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 32 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Within the university, Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.
Media contact: Jim Hiney, Communications Coordinator at (979) 862-3773