2021 STAC Awards fund crucial marine-based research

RI STACAs part of its Collaborative Research Grant Program, the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council has funded five interdisciplinary research teams of investigators from institutions across Rhode Island totaling $399,299. The program supports RI NSF EPSCoR/RI C-AIM’s objectives to assess, model, and develop innovative technologies for addressing the impacts of climate variability around Narragansett Bay and beyond.


Evaluating abundance and persistence of the neurotoxin domoic acid in shellfish following Pseudo-nitzschia bloom events in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island ($79,415)
• Matthew J. Bertin, Ph.D. Assistant Professor – University of Rhode Island (PI)
• Roxanna Smolowitz, D.V.M, Associate Professor – Roger Williams University

While effective seafood monitoring programs have greatly diminished the impact of acute domoic acid (DA) poisonings, there is a major lack of knowledge with respect to the potential impacts of chronic low-level domoic acid exposure with respect to human and environmental health. The proposed work under this collaborative research grant will begin to fill this knowledge gap by determining the concentrations of domoic acid that mussels and quahogs accumulate during and after toxic events and by histologically examining these animals for chronic pathological impairments to the tissues of the animals. The investigators will bring a multidisciplinary and integrative approach to the emerging problem of harmful algal toxins for Rhode Island’s coast.

Interaction of micro- and nano-plastics with marine and freshwater bacteria – what’s happening under the tip of the ‘plastic-berg’? ($80,000)
• Arijit Bose, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Engineering – University of Rhode Island (PI)
• Anubhav Tripathi, Ph.D., Professor of Engineering – Brown University

About 150 million tons of plastic are in the world’s oceans currently, and 8 million additional tons of plastics are dumped into the ocean each year. By 2050, the weight of plastics in the ocean will exceed the weight of all marine organisms. This is a highly concerning statistic since plastics can have a half-life of several hundred years. Through ocean action, light and wind exposure these plastic pieces eventually break up into millimeter- and lower-sized objects, known as microplastics. Since the density of many common plastics is greater than that of seawater, these materials sink – indeed, about 14 million tons of plastic are currently on the ocean floor. In the water they encounter an extensive microbial community that is responsible for maintaining local oxygen and nitrogen levels – these bacteria play a critical role in maintaining the marine ecosystem in balance. In this project, the collaborative research partners will use imaging as well as gene sequencing and enzyme analysis to monitor the binding of microplastics to bacteria, and explore the biological response of the bacteria to this anthropogenic stressor. The longstanding collaboration and combined expertise of the groups at URI and Brown University are critical for the success of the project.

Towards the Smart Interconnected Bay – Artificially intelligent detection of harmful algal blooms in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island ($79,943)
• Andrew Davies, Ph.D. – University of Rhode Island (PI)
• Karianne Bergen, Ph.D. – Brown University
• Baylor Fox-Kemper, Ph.D. – Brown University
• Matthew Bertin, Ph.D. – University of Rhode Island
• Kristofer Gomes, Ph.D. – University of Rhode Island

In order to better manage shellfish populations and protect the livelihoods of coastal communities this project aims to determine the underlying links between driving environmental factors and Pseudo-nitzschia bloom formation in Narragansett Bay. To do this the team will develop a novel in situ monitoring and remote sampling approach that integrates real-time chemical and physical oceanographic data with co-located high-frequency field sampling and biological/chemical analysis within an artificially intelligent model framework. We aim to better enable the detection and forecasting of harmful algal blooms. This proposed project is relevant to RI-CAIM as oceanographic measurements of Narragansett Bay, particularly those that are far higher in frequency than before, can be used to help develop an enhanced understanding of how environmental drivers influence ecosystems.

Pathway to Robot-Integrated Bay-scale Ecosystem Observatory (RI-BSCO)P ($79,941)
• Mingxi Zhou Ph.D., Assistant Professor University of Rhode Island (PI)
• Christopher Kincaid Ph.D., Professor – University of Rhode Island
• Christopher Roman Ph.D., Professor – University of Rhode Island
• Georgia Rhodes MFA, Research Associate – Rhode Island School of Design
• Shona Kitchen MA, Associate Professor – Rhode Island School of Design

This collaborative research project is organized around three actions: marine robot deployment, robot-model interaction, and data visualization. It will foster an interdisciplinary team of engineers, scientists and artists from two Rhode Island institutes. The synergic effort is not limited in bringing new technology and advancing the science in coastal ecosystem modeling and observation, but also intend to engage the public and stakeholders. The collaborative research team will also provide concrete evidence and valuable experience to support the future development of the Robot-Integrated Bay-scale Ecosystem Observatory (RI-BSCO) with other external funds.

Towards measuring the pulse of Narragansett Bay: Applying high resolution oxygen sensors to quantify ecosystem primary production and respiration ($80,000)
• Roxanne A. Beinart Ph.D. – Assistant Professor – University of Rhode Island (PI)
• Susanne Menden-Deuer, Ph.D. – Professor – University of Rhode Island
• James L. Lemire M.A.T., Adjunct Professor – Roger Williams University
• Jason S. Grear, Ph.D. – Research Ecologist – US Environmental Protection Agency
• Pierre Marrec, Ph.D – Post Doctoral Fellow – University of Rhode Island

The oxygen concentration in marine waters is the result of the balance between primary production by algae and respiration by all living organisms, as well as the rate of diffusive exchange of atmospheric oxygen. As such, oxygen is a key component of quantifying ecosystem dynamics. Oxygen is also an essential indicator of ecosystem health in the context of climate change and anthropogenic pressures. Warming temperatures and eutrophication are well known to favor ecosystems disequilibria, such as hypoxia (absence of oxygen in bottom coastal waters), which can have tremendous impact on aquatic life resulting in fish kills. Because of logistical constraints, rate measurements of marine food web dynamics are sparse, resulting in low resolution in poor spatial and temporal coverage. As a consequence, most modelling efforts rely on inferring rates from concentrations of constituents, which limits the predictive capacity of our understanding and predictive capacity. The goal for this STAC effort is to test a promising, commercially available optical oxygen sensor (PreSens Oxygen Sensor Spot) to quantify rates of primary production and respiration of planktonic communities. This would be a first step in studying the feasibility of widespread application of this instrument for production/respiration measurements within the Narragansett Bay Observatory.