Algal project earns top honors for Thornber lab student researcher
There are people who know early on where their passion lies. And then, there is Emily Bishop, who will graduate in a couple of weeks from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in marine biology.
“I was a marine biologist for Halloween when I was in kindergarten,” laughs Bishop, 22, from Groton Mass. “I loved (the movie) Free Willy.”
Earlier this month, Bishop capped off that precocious insight with top honors at the 54th annual meeting of the Northeast Algal Society, a regional phycological society dedicated to furthering algal research and education in the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada.
“Grateloupia turuturu actually was discovered in Rhode Island in 1994 by a student in the (URI) BIO 418 lab. All of the existing literature describes the invasion, how it got here and where it spread, but no one looked into what it was doing to the environment.”
The symposium singled out Bishop for the President’s Award, given to the best undergraduate poster, for her honors project — Herbivore Impacts on the Invasive Marine Alga Grateloupia turuturu.
The presentation was a culmination of Bishop’s honors project; her advisor was Associate Professor Carol Thornber, whose research area is marine population and community ecology, and algal ecology. Thornber also serves as principal investigator of Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).
Bishop’s work contributed to RI NSF EPSCoR research into the impact of climate change on marine life an ecosystems. As marine invasive species grow increasingly common, their appearance can alter food web structure in marine environments.
An AP student in high school biology, Bishop says she pursued an education at URI because of the research opportunities: “I definitely came here because of marine biology. I always knew I was interested in environmental research and marine biology seemed like the best thing to do.”
As luck would have it, when touring the URI campus, Bishop happened to meet Thornber and says she was struck by the availability of faculty to engage with prospective students.
She enrolled at URI, in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS), and wound up conducting research in Thornber’s lab. Bishop also spent two summers in the RI NSF EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, gaining additional research experience and developing her skills.
Grateloupia turuturu is an invasive, Asian red seaweed species that possibly arrived on our shores in the ballast waters of boats, according to Bishop, who wondered whether the alga could outcompete species native to Narragansett Bay.
“Grateloupia turuturu actually was discovered in Rhode Island in 1994 by a student in the (URI) BIO 418 lab,” Bishop notes. “All of the existing literature describes the invasion, how it got here and where it spread, but no one looked into what it was doing to the environment.”
That gap in research literature provided the perfect entry point for Bishop. She says she was curious about whether the snails and crabs that feed on seaweed in Narragansett Bay would eat the invasive species, how they interacted, and whether they might help control and prevent the spread.
If not, if the invasive species outcompetes the native species, then the resulting lack of biodiversity would carry significant consequences. For example, Bishop explains, if the invasive red seaweed takes over, but the snails and crabs don’t eat it, then the herbivores don’t have anything to eat and ultimately die out, dislodging a key component of the food web and deconstructing the balance of the ecosystem.
Snails, crabs & algae
To conduct her experiment, Bishop measured pieces of the alga, cut and weighed them, and placed them in a series of buckets — four with snails, four with crabs and four with both. She measured the change in algal mass after six days.
My first year, I learned what it was like to do research. My second year, I learned to do research on my own. My honors project served to bridge the gap between undergraduate and graduate work. Because of SURF, I knew what it would take — the experimental design, the timeline of the project, and factoring any setback.
If there was a decrease in weight, that would mean the herbivores were eating it. What Bishop discovered was that the snails in the snail only bucket ate the Grateloupia turuturu, but not the crabs in their respective bucket. In the bucket of combined snails and crabs, there was indication of eating by the snails, but not as much.
“I think the snails were stressed out,” she explains. “They avoid crabs whenever possible.”
Bishop says the next step would be to repeat the experiment with multiple species of algae. Perhaps, she notes, the snails ate the Grateloupia turuturu because it was the only option. Would they ignore the invasive species if native species were available?
If so, that would pose additional problems, Bishop says. If the snails eat everything but Grateloupia turuturu, their waste would provide nutrients for the invasive species to grow unchecked, with no herbivore eating it to keep it somewhat under control.
EPSCoR makes an impact
Bishop credits the clear-cut nature of her experiment — why she was investigating the topic and where she intended to go with the project — for the positive reception it received at the symposium. She also says her experiences with the RI NSF EPSCoR SURF program turned out to be an invaluable resource.
“My first year, I learned what it was like to do research,” says Bishop. “My second year, I learned to do research on my own. My honors project served to bridge the gap between undergraduate and graduate work.
“Because of SURF, I knew what it would take — the experimental design, the timeline of the project, and factoring any setback.”
And, as is often the case, there most definitely was a setback with this winter’s snowfall. Bishop couldn’t collect any specimens until February and, even then, it was not an easy task.
“The problem was that the snails and crabs like to hang out in the low intertidal zone, and the best time to find them is at super low tide,” she explains. “The whole intertidal zone was covered in ice and snow. I had to dig through two feet of snow.”
After graduation May 17, Bishop will head to the state of Washington, where she will conduct marine bird surveys for a non-profit organization. Interested in coastal habitat monitoring and restoration, she intends to head to graduate school after spending a year working.
Story and photo by Amy Dunkle