Students tighten their focus on NC aquatic vegetation

Kesha Williams
September 20, 2011

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Benjamin Graham and Josh Phelps knew that they would need to participate in research projects in order to prepare for graduate school and to build their careers. Thanks to their instructors Dr. Maurice Crawford and Dr. Margaret Young in the Elizabeth City State University Biology Department, the two not only secured a research project, but also will have the opportunity to present their findings at conferences and publish their work. 

Two additional perks came with the research project -- funds for their research from a $82,214 contract from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Division of Marine Fisheries and the research can be completed in the nearby Albemarle and Currituck sounds. The sites are located within a few hours' drive so the students can easily reach them. Both students admit the project requires patience, attention to detail and a willingness to explore a topic new to them. Twice a week, Phelps wades in water chest deep to collect samples from the sites that Graham later evaluates and processes in the biology lab. Phelps says several steps are involved before he can return to the campus lab.

"We take water quality samples. You must measure light penetration of the water, take air and water temperature readings, test the water's salinity (salt concentrations)," Phelps said. "Once we do water quality tests, we take core samples to estimate population levels of plants in the area."

He ultimately is searching for submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), the underwater vascular plants found along North Carolina and Virginia shorelines. According to Jim Hawhee of the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program, 138,741 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation, mostly in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary, were mapped recently. In addition to producing dissolved oxygen that fish need, the underwater grasses filter pollution and serve as food, hiding places and home for fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Hawhee says protecting these underwater grasses is important to North Carolina's $1.75 billion fishing industry, which employs 24,000 people. Environmental economists value SAV at about $12,000 per acre per year because of its importance to fisheries and overall aquatic health.

The goal of the grant is to see if populations of SAV species differ based upon their genetic background. Dr. Maurice Crawford is the principle investigator (PI) on the research project and Dr. Margaret Young is the co-PI.  Currently, the students and ECSU professors are trying to find the best technique to extract DNA from the SAV samples. Results from these findings will provide a better understanding of how to restore SAV habitat. In addition, scientists will learn if SAV are genetically distinct or if they are clones that have reproduced asexually. Graham said he is confident this project will help to prepare him for a graduate degree program in biology.

"Research projects like this help to prepare you for the work world and keep you involved in current science," Graham said. "You have to figure out how to understand the challenges of different techniques. I would recommend research projects for other students. You must be willing to spend 10 to 15 hours a week in the lab. It holds my attention, too."