Aquarium partners with Avery Point for new student research program

Mystic Aquarium announced Monday that it has requested a $283,827 National Science Foundation grant with the Marine Sciences Department at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton.

The aquarium announced that the grant had been awarded Monday morning, but later in the day clarified that the final official notification from the NSF has not yet been issued. Cheryl Dybas, spokeswoman for the NSF, said the grant application is a "proposal in process."

If awarded, the grant would be used to develop a program to train UConn students in laboratory and field-based research skills.

It would be the first NSF grant received by the aquarium, and the first NSF grant to be awarded to its Research Experiences for Undergraduates program involving an aquarium, said Katie Cubina, senior vice president for mission programs at the aquarium.

The grant would fund eight students per year for the next three summers in 10-week paid internships during which they will conduct research in how global environmental change affects marine animals and their ecosystems, the aquarium said in a news release. The aquarium’s chief scientist, Tracy Romano, and Michael Finiguerra, assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Avery Point, would lead the project.

According to a news release, the basic question students would investigate is: How do environmental stressors affect the physiology, behavior and ecology of phytoplankton and marine animals in relation to the marine ecosystem? Students chosen for the project will be assigned to research mentors at Avery Point.

Stephen Coan, aquarium president and chief executive officer, said the receipt of the grant would be "a testimony to the depth and quality of Mystic Aquarium's marine science research focus.
“For over 40 years we have recognized that research is core to our mission," he said.

Cubina said the students in the program would research a range of marine animals, from tiny copepods that live in Long Island Sound to the beluga whales of the Arctic.

"As our world is changing, how are these species being affected by warming water temperatures, pollution and ocean acidification?" she asked. "How are marine animals reacting? Are they adapting?"

Students in the program would have opportunities to investigate a wide range of marine animals using the labs of the aquarium and the marine sciences department, both located at Avery Point. Regular trips to the aquarium would also be a major component. There, students would observe the animals and ecosystems, do job shadowing, attend seminars and interact with the public, among other activities.

Romano and Paul Anderson would serve as mentors at the aquarium, and UConn marine sciences professors Heidi Dierssen, Ann Bucklin, Hans Dam, George McManus, Evan Ward and Hannes Baumann would mentor students at Avery Point.

“UConn Avery Point has a close relationship with Mystic Aquarium, and that strong foundation positions us to share our regional resources and expertise nationally with deserving future scientists,” said Annemarie Seifert, director of Avery Point. “We are very excited to welcome diverse students from around the country to the University of Connecticut, the Avery Point campus, and our distinct maritime region.”

The students in the program would receive a stipend, housing and meal and travel allowances, the aquarium said. They would be selected based on a personal statement of interest, academic record, letters of recommendation and other information. Romano said students from underrepresented minority groups, particularly Native Americans and Alaskan natives, would be recruited. The overall goal of the program, the aquarium said, would be to give students an experience that encourages them to pursue postgraduate studies or careers in marine science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Students will present their work at the aquarium for audiences of scientists and the public.

The work is important, Romano said, given the increasing stresses on marine animals and ecosystems from humans and environmental changes.

“Our objective is that this project will have a broader impact on the future STEM workforce by increasing its diversity - promoting scientific literacy in underrepresented communities and science arenas at large and exposing students with expanded STEM career opportunities,” Coan said.

For information about the program, including the application process, visit http://www.mysticaquarium.org/reu or send an email to tromano@mysticaquarium.org or michael.finiguerra@uconn.edu.

j.benson@theday.com

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