Field Experiences in South Texas
The University of Texas Marine Science Institute

Possible Projects

UTMSI faculty have a range of expertise in coastal processes. CLICK HERE to see a list of all current faculty and there interests.  Some examples of potential research projects include:

•  Dr. Bryan Black applies techniques developed by dendrochronologists (tree-ring scientists) to generate chronologies from growth-increment widths in the hard parts (shells, otoliths) of marine and freshwater species. Chronologies are used to a) establish long-term patterns in growth and productivity as well as their relationships to climate, b) address long-term impacts of human use, c) hind-cast climate prior to the start of instrumental records, and d) describe inter-relationships across diverse species and among marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems. Students working for Dr. Black could conduct research in a number of areas including (1) assessing impacts of climate change at high latitudes using fish and bivalve species from the Bering Sea, (2) using trees to hind-cast south Texas drought prior to the start of instrumental records, or (3) establish baseline information regarding the effects of climate on the growth of top-level predators in the Gulf of Mexico.

•  Dr. Edward Buskey’s research focuses on a variety of aspects of zooplankton ecology. Dr. Buskey is also the Research Coordinator for the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve (MANERR), so students working in his lab that are interested in field studies can take advantage of weekly field trips in local bays. Students involved in these trips would learn how to calibrate YSI data sondes and work with radio and satellite data telemetry systems. Dr. Buskey is also the director of the DROPPS consortium, funded by BP and the Gulf of Mexico Research initiative, studying the effects of crude oil and dispersants on marine zooplankton. Students working with Dr. Buskey carry out research projects in a number of areas, including studies of (1) toxic and sublethal effects of oil and dispersants on marine zooplankton (2) behavior and sensory perception of marine zooplankton (3) the role of zooplankton grazers in harmful algal bloom dynamics or (4) bioluminescence in planktonic marine organisms.

•  Dr. Ken Dunton’s work focuses on benthic marine vegetation of subtropical and polar regions, including the biology of high latitude kelps and the ecology of subtropical seagrass and estuarine marsh communities. Many of his current projects study the structure and function of estuarine and coastal food webs, biogeochemical cycling of carbon and nitrogen in aquatic plant communities, application of stable isotopes as tracers of anthropogenic-N in coastal systems, and ecosystem response to climate change. Recent REU projects in his laboratory include (1) stable nitrogen isotopes in vegetation along the San Antonio Bay watershed, and (2) the effect of epiphytes on the acoustic properties of seagrasses.

•  Dr. Deana Erdner’s work focuses on the physiological ecology of marine microbes, primarily eukaryotic phytoplankton but including cyanobacteria and bacteria. Her work seeks to understand how physiological and genetic factors affect the distribution of marine microbes in the environment. REU students in Dr. Erdner’s lab would learn field sampling, measurement of physical and chemical conditions, molecular techniques, and computer-based genetic data analysis. Specific REU projects might include studies of: (1) harmful or toxic algae in coastal systems, (2) effects of oil on phytoplankton and bacteria, and (3) interactions between bacteria and eukaryotic phytoplankton.

•  Dr. Andrew Esbaugh’s research examines the impacts of environmental factors on physiological systems in fish, with particular emphasis on respiratory, acid-base and osmoregulatory physiology with an emphasis on the flexibility of these mechanisms in the face of varying environments. REU students would learn a number of valuable skills including the ability to induce environmental exposures and monitor whole animal variables in a laboratory setting, as well as more advanced molecular and biochemical techniques dedicated to isolating particular physiological pathways. On-going projects in the Esbaugh lab include: (1) understanding the impacts of ocean acidification on the respiratory and acid-base physiology of estuarine fish, and (2) mechanisms of salinity tolerance in estuarine fish.

•  Dr. Lee Fuiman’s work focuses on the behavioral and sensory capabilities of fish larvae using both laboratory and field experiments. Behavioral studies are combined with detailed assessments of changing sensory and locomotor morphology to understand how behavior may be constrained during development. An important part of the ongoing work involves exploring seasonal variability in escape responses of larval fishes and the effects of maternal diet on larval performance. REU students working in the Fuiman Lab would learn a number of techniques for studying the behavior of early life history stages of marine fishes. Specific projects might focus on (1) escape performance of fish larvae (2) effects of maternal diet on growth and survival potential or (3) sensory ecology of larval fish.

•  Dr. Amber Hardison’s work focuses on the dynamic processes influencing carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling within coastal systems and the impacts of human and climate processes on these cycles. REU students in Dr. Hardison’s lab would learn field sampling methods as well as laboratory-based stable isotopic and organic geochemical techniques to study the sources and transformations of C and N in estuarine and marine ecosystems and the role of sediment microbes in processing these nutrients. Specific REU projects might include (1) characterization of organic matter sources using lipid biomarkers in shallow coastal bay sediments, or (2) studies of nitrogen cycling processes in systems dominated by either seagrass, macroalgae, or microalgae.

•  Dr. Zhanfei Liu’s research focuses on understanding organic biogeochemical processes that occur in marine and terrestrial environments. This work involves analyzing specific organic compounds as biomarkers and bulk chemical composition of natural organic matter to understand source and diagenetic processes of environmental samples. REU students working in Liu Lab will have hands-on experience in using these instruments and interpreting the data. Specific on-going projects in Liu Lab include (1) analyzing oil components in sea surface contaminated by Deepwater Horizon oil spill, (2) studying peptide and protein hydrolysis in coastal environments, and (3) understanding the role of wet-dry cycles in affecting geochemistry of salt marsh sediments.

•  Dr. James McClelland’s work focuses on the transport and fate of water, nutrients, and organic matter from land through coastal ecosystems using a variety of approaches including analysis of historical data sets, field studies of biogeochemical cycling and constituent transport, and modeling. REU students working with Dr. McClelland would be trained in these approaches and encouraged to use one or more of them in local studies of land-sea coupling. Dr. McClelland is currently working in several river-estuary systems along the Texas coast that would provide excellent context for development of REU projects. Specific projects that students might pursue are (1) characterization of hydrodynamics in tidal freshwater zones of the Mission and Aransas rivers, (2) sampling and analysis of nutrient profiles along salinity gradients in local estuaries, and (3) examination of relationships between stable N and C isotope ratios in estuarine biota and watershed sources of nutrients and organic matter.

•  Dr. Peter Thomas’ research focuses on fish reproductive physiology and toxicology. His current research projects include investigations of the rapid actions of steroid hormones mediated through novel 7-transmembrane receptors using fish oocytes and sperm as models. Another research emphasis is on the impacts of environmental hypoxia on fish reproduction. Specific projects for students working with Dr. Thomas include (1) maintaining wild fish in the laboratory and to conducting experiments with oocytes and sperm using tissue culture procedures on steroid hormone actions, and (2) carrying out laboratory-based studies on and the effects of hypoxia on fish reproduction.

•  Dr. Tracy Villareal’s research interests are in understanding the processes and interactions that structure phytoplankton communities. His lab uses both field and laboratory studies to understand phytoplankton responses. His current research programs use laboratory and field studies to examine the growth requirements and N2 fixation rates of diatom-diazotroph symbioses. Specific projects for students working with Dr. Villareal include (1) nitrogen-fixation studies; (2) oil addition effects on various phytoplankton processes such as growth, nitrogen-fixation, sinking or photosynthesis; and (3) quantification of open ocean species using towed imaging systems.

•  Dr. Benjamin Walther’s research interests include the use of biogeochemical signatures to reconstruct either migratory movements of mobile organisms or environmental variability in coastal environments using fish ear stones (otoliths) and bivalve shells. REU students working with Dr. Walther will be able to explore patterns of fish habitat use or temporally dynamic environmental patterns in estuarine regions through retrospective analyses of biogenic carbonates. Specific projects may include (1) reconstructing drought and flood patterns in south Texas using bivalve shell chemistry, (2) quantifying movements of coastal fishes across estuarine salinity gradients and (3) estimating environmental and trophic histories of sedentary fishes. 

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