The second week of research brought much progress with the direction of my project. After learning about various marine organisms, I found myself particularly intrigued with the toxic diatom Pseudo-Nitzschia. This coastal phytoplankton releases domoic acid, which contaminates the fish and shellfish that humans eat. The buildup of domoic acid levels coming from these harmful algal blooms (HAB’s) causes humans to experience Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP). HAB’s have been increasing dramatically over the past several decades and thus also increase the poisoning of humans. This phenomenon has grown so large that major shellfish industries have already been shut down from high domoic acid levels that are unsafe for human consumption. Coming from an environmental science background, my interest gravitates towards environmental issues that need solving. Seeing as how large a societal and economic impact Pseudo-Nitzschia is having on its environment, I feel motivated by the need to help better the situation. By investigating Pseudo-Nitzschia’s behavior and movement, there could be further progress on how to resolve the increasing levels of toxins surrounding the areas they are found in.
Although I now had inspiration, I still found myself a bit overwhelmed with having to find a research question, hypotheses, and the materials/methods I would need to test my hypothesis. Alan emphasized the fact that the research process is a step-by-step method. Rather than overthinking everything, I had to slow down and focus on each part individually. I also had to acknowledge the fact that I must be open-minded to multiple revisions of my project as my original question might need to be continually morphed and adaptive to the resources I have. I might also realize that additional knowledge is needed to complete a particular project and start in a different place than originally intended.
I was inspired by the first tour that Alan gave when I observed how the nearby docks were a brackish ecosystem. The area has a continual flux of ocean water and freshwater input of the river that made me curious on how this affected its surrounding natural processes. My research question eventually morphed into how far Pseudo-Nitzschia get into the Coos Bay estuary. Most HABs originate offshore, indicating that their transportation nearshore is highly impacted by surfzone hydrodynamics. I am excited to be finding out how abundant they are found within the estuary. They are not fit to be there and so I would think that their concentrations reach an endpoint sometime before the mouth of the estuary.
As for labwork, I have been playing with different methodologies to go about answering this question. I am gaining experience in identifying all different kinds of phytoplankton. I already knew they all vary greatly, but it is fascinating to see the extent of this through the compound microscope. I am also currently working on dissecting mussels from the nearby docks as they could potentially be a measure of collecting Pseudo-Nitzschia. It’s been a messy learning process, but I am encouraged by the progress I have been making. I’m making sure to not overthink and to “just do it” as Alan puts it.
My time outside of the lab has been just as fun as playing around with mussels and phytoplankton! I have continually been exploring the area outside of OIMB through runs and hiking. I have also been an obvious tourist taking many pictures because there is always a new, gorgeous sight every few steps. In addition to this, all of the REU students got the opportunity to go on the R/V Pluteus this past weekend. I have been on a boat of similar size before and admittedly got sick after a few hours so I was a bit nervous. Fortunately, this time went much more swell (pun intended) devoid of sickness. This small victory, along with all of my other ones this week, has increased my confidence in being able to succeed in the marine sciences.
My name is Nancy Torres and I am from Carson, a city located in southern California. I am currently pursuing a Bachelor's of Science degree in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Barbara. My ultimate career goal is to find a way to combine my passion for learning about the marine realm with my desire to help spread environmental awareness and inspire action.