Author: Patricia Myer

Unlearning Racism in Geoscience (URGE) at DMS

The Summer of 2020 was a difficult time. Covid was raging, and tensions were rising as a spotlight was placed on one case of racial injustice after another. It was difficult to believe that there was still such blatant racism in our country – difficult to believe only for those of us who weren’t facing it daily. It’s a privilege to only hear about injustice on the news.

The events of that summer led to changes in our communities and our department. The graduate student officers started an anti-racism journal club to become more educated about racism in our field and how to address it. This club developed into the Marine Science Pod of the Unlearning Racism in Geoscience (URGE) program in January 2021. URGE was put together by NSF and WHOI as a curriculum for addressing and unlearning racism in geosciences, which notably has very low racial diversity in the field. This lack of diversity, which has not increased in 40 years, limits the quality of research potential in the community. The URGE program features multiple two-week long sessions which contain readings and interviews featuring expert opinions and personal experiences. Pod meetings involve discussing these materials and working on assignments (deliverables) as a group. These deliverables are then posted on the pod website publicly. Graduate student Kelly McGarry reflects on the importance and value of this program, “We’re trying to become experts in the ocean, but we’re not experts in racism. That’s not what we spend all day thinking about and studying and reading and writing about. But there are people who do that, it’s their full-time job to understand these different aspects of racism.”

Members of the DMS URGE Pod joined to better understand racism in geosciences, help develop anti-racist strategies, and make use of the resources offered. Graduate student Hannah Collins shares, “I decided to join because I wanted to continue the education and discussion process the graduate students began over the summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. I thought that, since one of the objectives of the pod was to develop deliverable action statements and items, we would translate our own educational discussions into tangible goals that we could propose to the department, which I felt was really necessary to combat systemic racism within academia.”

So far there have been 8 sessions which have all covered different aspects of racism, including the history, justice, accessibility, inclusivity, and others. Graduate students in the pod share their experiences on the readings, discussions, and deliverables:

“I feel like a lot of people don’t realize how hard it is to break into geosciences as a whole, but what has been enlightening for me has been thinking about and discussing all of the barriers both big and small that work together to prevent people from underrepresented minorities from advancing in the field. For example, the nature of geosciences means that often field work is a necessary experience to develop skills to be a good scientist and researcher, however fieldwork can be expensive and it’s often easier for oppressive actions and behaviors to occur without repercussions when you’re out in the field.” – Hannah Collins

“One thing that has stood out to me as we discussed specific topics is how similar the experiences are across different topics. Whether we discuss issues of accessibility or inclusivity, much of the literature describes the same trans-disciplinary problems that result in institutional barriers for people of color in STEM.” – James DeMayo

“It is through the session deliverables that I have been able to learn about the many resources out there that UConn offers to tackle or handle matters of racism.” – Michael Mathuri

Addressing racism in our field does not stop with the end of the URGE program. After the program ends, pod members aim to continue to hold the anti-racism journal club from last summer, and plan on actively working with the department as a whole to become more inclusive. Jimmy DeMayo shares, “The group has plans to help draft new, prominently displayed, codes of conduct for the department that communicate the department positions on matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are also exploring new ways of advertising available studentships and job positions that help reduce the barrier to entry for students of color interested in marine science.” The department and university support this goal and has signed an agreement signifying support – which can be found here.


A New Partner for DMS

By Jamie Vaudrey

A new Center will soon be joining the Avery Point campus, occupying space in the Weicker Building and elsewhere on campus – the proposed Connecticut National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), the 30th in the nationwide system. As a partnership between NOAA, UConn, and the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), the proposed reserve will protect and enhance Connecticut’s coastal environments by leveraging system-wide programs to provide additional opportunities, capacity, and funds for research, training, stewardship, and education. The NERR will be headquartered on the Avery Point campus and, in the years to come, may bring a new building to campus.

Reserve staff (numbering about 15 people) will conduct and provide support for research, education, training, and stewardship within Reserve boundaries and in neighboring communities. A long-term monitoring program forms a cornerstone of the system and the NERR staff will seek input in 2022 on where we’d like to see that monitoring occurring. Are you interested in research in Long Island Sound and the neighboring upland properties? Collaborating with Reserve staff on science, education, or stewardship projects opens a path to National Science Collaborative funds, a competitive grant program awarding ~$3 million annually. The Davidson Fellowship provides graduate student support, and additional internship and research opportunities are available for undergraduate and graduate students.

The Biden Administration is interested in including the designation of the CT Reserve in their year one accomplishments, so the Reserve should be “official” by January 2022 and hiring staff by July 2022. The Designation Steering Committee, including DMS members J.E. Ward, I. Babb, C. Tobias and J. Vaudrey, and CT Sea Grant Director S. De Guise, is working with an advisory committee (including DMS member P. Vlahos) on a draft management plan and draft environmental impact statement; these will be available for public review in late summer 2021 with public hearings in September 2021.

Potential aquatic and terrestrial properties of the proposed CT NERR, this is one option of four being proposed as part of the draft environmental impact statement.
Be on the lookout for more info on the proposed CT NERR! (Barred Owl – the Silent, Ever-watchful Sentinel, by Corey Leamy. (CC BY-NC 2.0))

Success of The Oceanographic Expedition Course

By Samantha Siedlecki

Expedition 10/21 1In the spirit of Jacques Cousteau’s sentiment: “The future is in the hands of those who explore…,” nine graduate students, two faculty, and the crew of the R/V Connecticut ventured out into the Long Island Sound and offshore waters of the Mid-Atlantic Bight on two separate occasions in October, 2020.  The Expedition Course entitled: Connecting urban estuaries to the sea: Coastal oceanography of Long Island Sound and the shelf of the Mid-Atlantic Bight is offered to the graduate students every other year.

This past fall, the course was offered amidst the pandemic, but ship operations had already designed protocols to safely continue operations aboard the R/V Connecticut, and the University agreed to support testing of the students to participate in the course. As a result, the course proceeded, albeit with some adjustments for safety amidst the pandemic.  The students were excited and eager to have their first at-sea research experience and the faculty were eager to revisit the transect they had observed in the class two years before. The 2018 class found that conditions improved with distance from shore – it was actually warmer sampling out there because the ocean water was so warm – consistent with the increased influence of the Gulf Stream waters in the region that has been observed. Sure enough, when the 2020 course embarked onto the outer shelf, they encountered similar warm conditions.  When the students lowered sensors on the outer shelf to measure temperature, salinity, chlorophyll, oxygen, and pH throughout the water column, they discovered a salty subsurface intrusion that brought with it higher pH, nutrient rich water and completely different species than further inshore.

Back at the lab, the samples were analyzed and the results plotted and mapped.   Inspired by their exploration of the coastal waters nearby, the students wrote proposals in small groups about what they would like to investigate further in the future with this experience and ended up generating some very interesting hypotheses about the nearby coastal ocean.  They ranged from questions about the influence of the outflow from Long Island Sound on the phytoplankton composition on the shelf, to mechanisms driving the pH variability associated with the salinity intrusion on the outer shelf, and the influence of temperature on the cross-shelf trends in the biological pump characteristics. Many faculty and staff contributed to the success of the class, and the crew went above and beyond to ensure we got what we needed at sea.  The future is in good, grateful hands.

Expedition 10/21 2    Expedition 10/21 4

Expedition 10/21 5 Expedition 10/21 3

Investigating Mercury Cycling in Contaminated Versus Uncontaminated Estuaries

Emily Seelen FilteringThe element mercury (Hg) enters the environment by natural and human sources, transforms in complex ways, and often ends up in the fish we eat. Mercury can be methylated (addition of a CH3 group) in the environment to form methylmercury, which builds up in fish tissues and can reach high concentrations in large fish. This is a concern because methylmercury is a toxin which can lead to negative neurological, developmental, and even cardiovascular effects. Because of these impacts, it is important to understand how mercury and methylmercury cycle in the environment, so that ultimately, we can develop effective management techniques.

In a recent publication, Professor Robert Mason and former graduate student Dr. Emily Seelen (now a postdoctoral scholar at USC) investigated the differences in mercury cycling between contaminated and uncontaminated sites within 10 estuaries along the coast of the US Northeast. Contaminated sites are areas where mercury was directly released into waterways many years ago, usually as industrial waste. Uncontaminated sites contain less mercury, but it is still present in lower concentrations. Samples and measurements were taken throughout 2012-2016, which produced a data set containing mercury, methylmercury, and chemical and physical properties of the water and sediment. Watershed land use data was also applied. Seelen explains the data analysis, “We used different statistical approaches to look for trends between the variables. The main findings were derived from a multiple linear regression analysis, which we used to evaluate which variables best described the concentrations of mercury and methylmercury in surface waters.”

Emily Seelen Sampling“We found that historically contaminated sites retain and recycle their mercury, which makes external signals such as riverine input less detectable. The longevity of mercury in such systems suggests that remediation by removal of the contaminated sediments is key.” On the other hand, in uncontaminated estuaries, mercury likely enters from via runoff, and is then gradually buried into the sediment. In both cases, methylmercury does not seem to come from the sediment or runoff. “We therefore suggest that the concentration of methylmercury in surface waters is determined by the amount of mercury released into the estuarine system, whether that be from the watershed or the sediments.” Seelen explains.

These findings show that mercury cycling is very different in historically contaminated sites than uncontaminated sites. For uncontaminated sites, the mercury comes from the entire watershed, which does not leave us with an easy way to carry out remediation projects. Seelen states that ultimately, “to lower mercury concentrations in fish, we need to emit less mercury.” According to the EPA, present-day emissions come from a variety of sources including artisanal and small-scale gold mining, coal combustion, metal production, cement production, and many others. The path to regulating and decreasing these emissions begins with studies such as this one.



Seelen, E. A., Chen, C. Y., Balcom, P. H., Buckman, K. L., Taylor, V. F., & Mason, R. P. (2021). Historic contamination alters mercury sources and cycling in temperate estuaries relative to uncontaminated sites. Water Research. DOI: 10.1016/j.watres.2020.116684

Where are they now? Alumni Spotlight – Lisa Milke

Dr. Lisa Milke is a Marine Sciences alumna who received her Master’s in Oceanography from UConn in 2001 and her PhD in Biology from Dalhousie University in Canada in 2006. This interview was carried out by Patricia Myer, a current graduate student, on April 20th, 2021. We discussed her current job at NOAA, her path there from UConn, and advice for current graduate students.

Patricia: What is your current position?Lisa Milke portrait

Lisa: I am Chief of the Aquaculture Systems and Ecology Branch at the NOAA Milford lab in Connecticut.

Q: What does the typical day look like at your job?

Lisa: I think there’s no such thing as the typical day. Things are cyclical; you have seasonal activities that come and go. And at this point, I spend a lot more time leading a group of scientists than doing my own research. I consider myself the bureaucracy facilitator and problem solver for the group so that they can focus on the science. So, for me it depends what deadline or problem arises on any particular day.

Q: Could you expand a bit on how your work differs during Covid and before, and what kind of work you do at the Milford Lab?

Lisa: The Milford lab was started in 1931, and we focus on aquaculture research, shellfish research and the interactions between aquaculture and the environment.

Usually, this time of year we have experiments running, people out in the field, and the hatchery up and running. We would be doing research on effects of ocean acidification on different shellfish species. We would have oyster cages in the water, using cameras to identify at fish assemblages and how the cages can create habitat. There’s also ongoing work developing and testing probiotics for oysters in commercial hatcheries.  This is just a bit of the work we usually do.  There’s usually a wide variety going on research-wise.

During Covid, some research has continued, but in a very restricted way. Staff are only allowed to be in the facility if you’re deemed ‘essential’. There are protocols in place to make sure that two people aren’t in the same room at the same time and activities are being conducted safely. So, while we’ve been getting some lab work done, there is also a lot of writing being done by folks at home.  I personally haven’t been to the lab in over a year.

Much of what I do, which doesn’t change whether I’m home or in the lab, is getting people what they need to get their work done.  This could be managing budgets, trying to get approval for someone to be in the lab, finding money to get our research vessel repaired, putting a signature on some form, reviewing proposals and manuscripts or making connections among different groups inside and outside NOAA.

Q: What path did you take to get from UConn to your current position at NOAA?

Lisa: I did my masters with Evan Ward on, of course, shellfish feeding.  I really enjoyed the work I was doing, but I wanted to do something a bit more applied. I tried to get a technician position when I was finishing and couldn’t find something.  I knew I wanted to do my PhD anyway, so I ended up going directly into that after graduation.

I moved to Canada, where they had a national program at the time focused on applied aquaculture research. My work focused on identifying the nutritional requirements of postlarval sea scallops in an aquaculture setting.  As I was getting close to finishing, a job posted at the Milford lab for a shellfish physiologist, and it had been brought to my attention. I was like, no, no, I’m going to move to New Zealand and I’m going to do a post doc, that’s my plan. And the director of research at the National Research Council, where I was conducting my work, walked across the hall, and said, “you’re a shellfish physiologist, and there’s a job for a shellfish physiologist, so, if you don’t apply for that job you’re crazy.”

I ended up applying for it that evening and ultimately was offered the position.  I moved to CT before I was done with my dissertation, and it took me about a year and a half after starting at Milford Lab to finish. NOAA was really accommodating, largely because my dissertation research was the exact type work they wanted me to be doing. There was a lot of kindness from NOAA and the university as I was wrapping up.

I spent 10 years as a research fishery biologist at the Milford lab, where I really was in the lab doing hands on work.  About 6 years ago, my supervisor retired.  I offered to take over the branch chief position in an acting capacity with no intent to do it forever. However, once I was doing the job I realized that I didn’t hate it and I was kind of good at it, and so I switched positions. It was a very conscious move to leave the lab work side of things.  My current position is never where I aspired to be, but is a good fit.

Q: What about your graduate school experience, either Masters or PhD, would you say best helped prepare you for your career?

Lisa: I would say that there were two big pieces. One was learning very practical and broad problem solving. Some days you’re fixing plumbing, some days you’re growing algal cultures, some days you’re spawning animals, and some days you’re doing spreadsheets. Just being able to solve all those different problems and jump from thing to thing is great.  I no longer feel like I’m an expert in anything since I am more removed from day-to-day research, but there is a broad portfolio of things that I’ve done that informs my ability to participate productively in lots of different activities. I think that’s true to much of marine science; there’s a lot of interdisciplinary pieces to getting work done, and that backgrounds is a plus.

The other thing that really prepared me was just, the people. I think you have a tendency to make really long-lasting relationships when you’re in grad school, and those are people that I’m still in touch with.  And even people you don’t keep in contact with you are still connected to.  Last week actually, I was invited to participate in a review panel by a fellow UConn marine sciences alum who I haven’t seen in 15 years. It’s a small community, so having those people and building those relationships is helpful.

Q: What kind of advice would you have for current grad students?

Lisa: First, is to remember to breathe. Grad school is really hard. I think it’s this really weird time where you, in some ways, have a lot of freedom in your time and how you structure your day. But otherwise, you have a lot riding on something that you don’t have complete control over. A lot of different people are influencing your journey. I think that this dynamic can be really hard, and research is hard, and classes are hard. I think it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. To breathe and just move forward I think is a big piece of advice. I probably didn’t do that enough.

I would also say, do what feels right to you. I never had a career path or an end goal in mind, but I’ve always done what felt like the right thing to me.  It might not have been what my advisor thought I should do, or my parents thought I should do, or a fellow grad student thought I should do, but I’ve been true to myself and I think that has worked out really well.

And the other thing is kind of getting back to that people part of it. It’s such a small community. So, spend time getting to know people as people, because those relationships can be really helpful in starting your career, really helpful in continuing your career, and it’s just really lovely to have people to rely on when you come against bumps in the road.

Lisa Milke at coast

Meet Jeff Godfrey, Diving Safety Officer

Jeff Godfrey Interview 1Jeff Godfrey has been providing diving support for the Department of Marine Sciences (DMS) since 1999, on projects ranging from studying salps in frigid Antarctic waters to studying fish in the Great Barrier Reef. Before his time at UConn, Jeff worked in the sunny Florida Keys. The news of the diving officer job ad was mentioned to him by a friend who started working at the UConn library. DMS flew him up to not-as-sunny Connecticut for the interview, and he was offered the job. Though it doesn’t compare to the Keys, Jeff says CT is growing on him.

At DMS, Jeff is a vital part of our department, providing diving support as part of our marine operations, and helping students, staff, and faculty that utilize diving as a research tool. He also provides training for beginner scuba divers, through the course Intro to Scientific Diving, as well as offering various advanced certifications.

Jeff’s favorite part of the job is interacting with the students, he says “they make the job fun and sometimes they remind me of how old I am, but sometimes they keep me young too.”  Several of the students that were scuba certified through Jeff’s class went on to careers that utilize diving, including an instructor at NOAA diving facility and a diving safety officer at URI.

For Jeff, diving is not just a job, but also a passion. He spends many weekends diving, exploring a lot of local wrecks. “When I retire, I don’t plan on changing much.”

Jeff Godfrey Interview 2         Jeff Godfrey Interview 3

Departmental Achievements, Spring 2021

There have been many achievements in our department in the past months! Here are highlights of recent awards, grants, and publications in the Department of Marine Sciences from October 2020 through April 2021.

Awards Description
Prof. Senjie Lin Elected as an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Fellow and joined the 2020 ASLO (Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography) Fellows. These honors recognize his work in dinoflagellate biology and biological oceanography as a whole.
Prof. Ann Bucklin Received the 2020 UConn Faculty Excellence in Research and Creativity Award in the Sciences.
Allison Staniec (graduate student, Prof. Penny Vlahos) Chosen in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Dissertations in Chemical Oceanography (DISCO) Fellowship.
Hannah Collins (graduate student, Prof. Evan Ward) Awarded a grant from the Lerner-Gray Memorial Fund for Marine Research.
Tyler Griffin (graduate student, Prof. Evan Ward) Awarded the Melbourne R. Carriker Award from The National Shellfisheries Association.
Melissa Sanchez (undergraduate student) Awarded Sea Grant Summer 2021 Undergraduate Research Fellowship. She will examine the influence of selenium on the accumulation of methylmercury in phytoplankton with Prof. Robert Mason.


Grants Description
Prof. Samantha Siedlecki and Prof. Catherine Matassa NOAA OAP: Assessing vulnerability of the Atlantic Sea Scallop social- ecological system in the northeast waters of the US (2020-2023), $1,034,822. PIs Siedlecki, Meseck, Colburn, Matassa, Curchitser, Bethoney. This grant is for a collaboration between UConn, NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation (CFRF), and Rutgers University to study the impact of ocean acidification on Atlantic Sea Scallops in the US northeast and the development of management tools.
Prof. Samantha Siedlecki NOAA MAPP: The predictability of oxygen and its metabolic consequences for fisheries on decadal time scales (2020-2013), $439,315. PIs Siedlecki, Long, Petrik.

NOAA MAPP: Modeling Climate Impacts on Predictability of Fisheries and Other LMRs (2020-2023), $511,452. PIs Long, Siedlecki, Petrik.

NOAA MAPP: Towards the prediction of fisheries on seasonal to multi-annual time scales (2020-2023), $510,000. PIs Petrik, Long, Siedlecki.

NOAA MAPP: Building capacity for predictability of climate impacts on living marine resources in US coastal systems using the NOAA MOM6 ocean model. (2021-2024), $1,513,782. PIs Curchitser, Alexander, Resplendy, Siedlecki, Stock.

Prof. Heidi Dierssen NASA Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry: Advancing Remote Sensing of Microplastics on the Surface Ocean (2021-2024), $401,914. PIs. Dierssen, Chowdhary, Ottaviani, Ibrahim, Knobelspiesse

NASA Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry: Quantifying linkages between sea ice, phytoplankton community composition, and air-sea carbon fluxes west of Antarctic Penninsula through field, airborne and satellite (2020-2023), $1,095,330. PIs. Dierssen, Schofield, Stammerjohn, Munro.

Prof. Penny Vlahos EPA/NYSG/CTSG: Alkalinity in Long Island Sound Embayments (ALISE) (03/01/2021-02/28/2023), $131,088. We are investigating the range of alkalinity and carbonate saturation in several LIS embayments to identify areas where conditions may be of concern for aquatic species.

NIH-RO1: Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology: Applying a Multidisciplinary Approach to Investigate the World’s Most Common Tubulointerstitial Kidney Disease (09/01/2021-08/31/2026), $528,717. This project is a continuation of our original R21 grant to conduct water quality testing in endemic and non-endemic regions to identify possible causative elements.

NSF: Carbonate system dynamics and biogeochemistry in a changing Arctic (05/01/2021- 04/30/2023), $272,619. We will be performing a suite of biogeochemical measurements in the marginal ice zone to understand the unique chemistry of this receding region.

Prof. Evan Ward and Prof. Sandra Shumway Establishing robust bioindicators of microplastics in Long Island Sound: Implications for reliable estimates of concentration, distribution, and impacts. Awarded by the Long Island Sound Study Research Grant Program, a cooperative program of the EPA Long Island Sound Office, Connecticut Sea Grant (CTSG), and New York Sea Grant (NYSG).


Publications Description
Prof. Peter Auster Prof. Auster presents a publication describing a rarely observed feeding frenzy of deep-sea sharks feeding on an Atlantic swordfish recently settled to the seafloor, including predation on a small shark by a wreckfish. (Auster, P.J., K. Cantwell, R.D. Grubbs, S. Hoy. (2020).  Observations of deep-sea sharks and associated species at a large food fall on the continental margin off South Carolina, USA (NW Atlantic).  J. Ocean Sci. Found., 35 (2020), pp. 48-53.)

Prof. Auster and Marine Science Major Lissa Giacalone pioneered a new approach for using 360-degree camera technology for analyzing the interactions of single and mixed species groups of predators and their prey in Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. (Auster, P.J. and Giacalone, L. (2021). Virtual Reality Camera Technology Facilitates Sampling of Interactions Between Reef Piscivores and Prey. Marine Technology Society Journal 55(2):54-63)

Prof. Zofia Baumann Prof. Baumann and colleagues present research explaining how the kidneys and liver of water birds detoxify methylmercury. (Poulin, B. A., Janssen, S. E., Rosera, T. J., Krabbenhoft, D. P., Eagles-Smith, C. A., Ackerman, J. T., … & Manceau, A. (2021). Isotope Fractionation from In Vivo Methylmercury Detoxification in Waterbirds. ACS Earth and Space Chemistry.)
Prof. Penny Vlahos Prof. Vlahos contributed to the United Nations Second World Ocean Assessment (WOA II), the newest outcome of the only integrated assessment of the world’s ocean at the global level covering all three pillars of sustainable development. (
Prof. Michael Whitney and Prof. Penny Vlahos Profs. Vlahos and Whitney show that mitigation efforts have reduced hypoxia in Long Island Sound, but also that warming waters are working against these trends. (Whitney, M. M., & Vlahos, P. (2021). Reducing Hypoxia in an Urban Estuary Despite Climate Warming. Environmental Science & Technology, 55(2), 941-951.)
Prof. Sandra Shumway Prof. Shumway was part of an international team of researchers reviewing the developments in global aquaculture over the past two decades highlighting its integration in the global food system. (Naylor, R. L., Hardy, R. W., Buschmann, A. H., Bush, S. R., Cao, L., Klinger, D. H., … & Troell, M. (2021). A 20-year retrospective review of global aquaculture. Nature, 591(7851), 551-563.)
Prof. Heidi Dierssen NASA has a proposed mission called the Surface Biology and Geology (SBG) mission as recommended by the 2018 Decadal Survey. Dierssen recently participated in a large collaborative effort to review existing hyperspectral and thermal algorithms relevant to the SBG mission across the following categories: snow/ice, aquatic environments, geology, and terrestrial vegetation, and summarize the community-state-of-practice in each category. (Cawse-Nicholson, K. et al.  (2021). NASA’s surface biology and geology designated observable: A perspective on surface imaging algorithms. Remote Sensing of the Environment. 257: 112349.)

Red and green algae growing on snow in the Antarctic Peninsula causes significant extra snowmelt that is on par with melt from dust on snow in the Rocky Mountains, according to a first-of-its-kind scientific research study that Dierssen worked on. (Khan, A. L., H. Dierssen, T. Scambos, J. Höfer, and R. R. Cordero. (2021). Spectral Characterization, Radiative Forcing, and Pigment Content of Coastal Antarctic Snow Algae: Approaches to Spectrally Discriminate Red and Green Communities and Their Impact on Snowmelt. The Cryosphere. 15, 133-148.)

Prof. Julie Granger From seasonal surveys, we show that nutrients inshore are persistently higher than in source waters offshore in the Southern Benguela Upwelling System (eastern Arctic Ocean), due to benthic-pelagic coupling of production and regeneration on the broad and shallow shelf. The incidence of “nutrient trapping” inshore explains the high productivity of system and explains hypoxic events. (Flynn, R. F., Granger, J., Veitch, J. A., Siedlecki, S., Burger, J. M., Pillay, K., & Fawcett, S. E. (2020). On‐shelf nutrient trapping enhances the fertility of the southern Benguela upwelling system. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 125(6).)
Prof. Robert Mason Prof. Mason and past graduate student Emily Seelen investigated differences in mercury cycling in contaminated versus uncontaminated estuaries in the US northeast. (Seelen, E. A., Chen, C. Y., Balcom, P. H., Buckman, K. L., Taylor, V. F., & Mason, R. P. (2021). Historic contamination alters mercury sources and cycling in temperate estuaries relative to uncontaminated sites. Water Research.)

Prof. Mason and colleagues examined how factors such as mercury concentration in water and sediment, and the watershed land use, influenced the concentrations of mercury in mummichogs and silversides in estuaries from the Chesapeake Bay to northern Maine. (Buckman, K.B., Mason, R.P., Seelen, E.A., Buckman, K.B., Taylor, V.F., Balcom, P.H., Chipman, J., Chen, C.Y. (2020). Patterns in forage fish mercury concentrations across Northeast US estuaries. Environ. Res. 194, Art. # 110629.)

Prof. Ann Bucklin This review is a collaborative effort of the Scientific Committee for Ocean Research (SCOR) Working Group WG157: MetaZooGene.  The MetaZooGene Barcode Atlas and Database (MZGdb) includes >150,000 mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase I (COI) sequences for ~5,600 described species of marine zooplankton. The MZGdb is a reference database for identification of species from DNA barcoding and metabarcoding of pelagic biodiversity, with advanced search functions by ocean region and taxonomic group. (Bucklin et al. (2021) Toward a global reference database of COI barcodes for marine zooplankton.  Marine Biology.)
Gihong Park (postdoc, Prof. Hans Dam) Prof. Dam and Park present a novel framework to incorporate the cost of defense in toxin-producing prey/predator relationship models. This paper was selected in Faculty Opinions as one of special significance in its field, considered as highly important emerging research. (Park, G., & Dam, H. G. (2021). Cell-growth gene expression reveals a direct fitness cost of grazer-induced toxin production in red tide dinoflagellate prey. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 288(1944).)
Kelly McGarry (graduate student, Prof. Samantha Siedlecki) McGarry and colleagues developed equations to estimate highly variable carbonate system properties in northeast US shelf waters from other variables – temperature, salinity, oxygen, and nitrate – that are affected by the same processes that drive carbonate system variability but are measured more frequently with better spatial coverage. (McGarry, K., Siedlecki, S. A., Salisbury, J., & Alin, S. R. (2021). Multiple linear regression models for reconstructing and exploring processes controlling the carbonate system of the northeast US from basic hydrographic data. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 126(2).)
Veronica Rollinson (research assistant, Prof. Julie Granger) Rollinson and colleagues measured nutrients and the naturally occurring nitrogen (N) and oxygen (O) stable isotope ratios of nitrate discharged from the Pawcatuck River over an annual cycle and uncovered a seasonality to loading and sources of N from the watershed. Seasonality in the nitrate isotope ratios also informed on N cycling. (Veronica R. Rollinson, Julie Granger, Sydney C. Clark, Mackenzie L. Blanusa, Claudia P. Koerting, Jamie M. P. Vaudrey, Lija A. Treibergs, Holly C. Westbrook, Catherine M. Matassa, Meredith K. Hastings, and Craig R. Tobias (2021). Seasonality of nitrogen sources, cycling and loading in a New England river discerned from nitrate isotope ratios. Biogeosciences discussion.)

Departmental Achievements, Fall 2020

There have been many achievements in our department in the past months! Here are highlights of recent awards, grants, and publications in the Department of Marine Sciences from April 2020 through October 2020.

Awards Description
Prof. James O’Donnell O’Donnell was appointed to the Governor’s Council on climate change, and now serves as the co-Chair of the Science Subcommittee. Co-authored two draft interim reports.
Prof. Pieter Visscher Visscher was appointed to the executive committee of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology.
Prof. Cesar Rocha Rocha received the Editors’ Citation for Excellence in Refereeing for Geophysical Research Letters from the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
Kayla Mladinich (grad student, Prof. J. E. Ward) The Ruth D. Turner Foundation awarded Kayla Mladinich the Ruth D. Turner Fellowship for her project titled “Evaluating bioindicator Species of Microplastics in the Marine Environment: A Comparison of Bivalves, Gastropods, and Tunicates.”
Halle Berger (grad student, Prof. Catherine Matassa and Prof. Samantha Siedlecki) Berger was placed with the NOAA OAR Ocean Acidification Program and NOAA NOS National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science Competitive Research Program as their coastal stressors (ocean acidification and harmful algae blooms) program coordinator as part of the 2021 Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship Program.


Grants Description
Prof. Heidi Dierssen Dr. Dierssen was recently awarded a large NASA grant for an interdisciplinary project with colleagues at Rutgers University and University of Colorado exploring the uptake of carbon dioxide in a rapidly changing oceanic region near the West Antarctic Peninsula.  Specifically, she will lead the team evaluating linkages between sea ice, mixed layer depth, optical properties, carbon export and other biogeochemical and physical parameters on phytoplankton biomass, community composition, and productivity.
Prof. Hans G. Dam Linking eco-evolutionary dynamics of thermal adaptation and grazing in copepods from highly seasonal environments. National Science Foundation, $531,434. The grant tests how warming oceans changes the feeding habits of the most abundant animals on Earth, copepods.


Publications Description
Prof. Pieter Visscher Dr. Visscher presents two new publications on arsenic cycling in the preoxygen world, based on research in 2.72 billion year old rocks and modern microbial mats in the Atacama Desert (Chile). This groundbreaking work has been featured in multiple online articles, radio, television, and newspapers. (Modern arsenotrophic microbial mats provide an analogue for life in the anoxic Archean) (Evidence for arsenic metabolism and cycling by microorganisms 2.72 billion years ago)
Prof. James O’Donnell Dr. O’Donnell and colleagues worked on a collaborative project to model storm surge and wave heights for flood risk assessments. This project yielded an interactive map on the CIRCA website: The Connecticut Costal Towns Storm Annual Exceedance Probability/Return Interval Viewer. (Estimating the Annual Exceedance Probability of Water Levels and Wave Heights from High Resolution Coupled Wave-Circulation Models in Long Island Sound)
Prof. Robert Mason, Assistant Prof. Zofia Baumann, and Gunnar Hansen (grad student) Sediment, water, forage fish and invertebrates were collected and analyzed for mercury forms from sites in the Still River, CT that had been impacted by mercury pollution from hat making in Danbury in the late 19th/early 20th century as well as from unimpacted sites to examine the legacy of this contamination. (Evaluating the impacts on local fish from the eastern United States)
Prof. Heidi Dierssen Dr. Dierssen published a new remote sensing method with colleagues from the NASA CORAL project in Remote Sensing of the Environment for classifying shallow seagrass and benthic algae habitats and simultaneously characterizing the water column properties including phytoplankton concentrations. (Benthic classification and IOP retrievals in shallow water environments using MERIS imagery)
Prof. Hans G. Dam and Postdoc Matt Sasaki Recent publication showing that genetic adaptation is important to predict how animals cope with the ongoing ocean warming. (Genetic differentiation underlies seasonal variation in thermal tolerance, body size, and phenotypic plasticity in a short-lived copepod)
Prof. Hannes Baumann Recent publication showing that oxygen consumption in fish embryos, but not larvae, is affected by acidified water conditions. (Synergistic metabolic responses of embryos, but not larvae, of a coastal forage fish to acidification and hypoxia)

Recent publication showing that fish grow up smaller under acidified water conditions, but these effects do not differ between males and females. (Are long-term growth responses to elevated pCO2 sex-specific in fish?)

Prof. Cesar Rocha Working on the problem of horizontal convection, Rocha and collaborators discovered a mathematical identity that relates the horizontal buoyancy flux (or heat flux) to the molecular dissipation of buoyancy (or temperature) variance. This new identify justifies the definition of a horizontal-convective Nusselt number in analogy to the Nusselt number of the more widely studied Rayleigh-Bénard convection. (The Nusselt numbers of horizontal convection)
Yipeng He (grad student, Prof. Robert Mason) During a research cruise from Alaska to Tahiti, samples were collected for determining the concentrations and forms of mercury in the atmosphere. Two methods were compared in the paper as there has been controversy over the accuracy of one of the methods. (Comparison of reactive gaseous mercury measured by KCl-coated denuders and cation exchange membranes during the Pacific GEOTRACES GP15 expedition)
Tyler Griffin (grad student, Prof. J. E. Ward) Recent publication comparing and discouraging the use of fecal sampling as a substitute of gut samplings for the blue mussel. (Direct Comparison of Fecal and Gut Microbiota in the Blue Mussel (Mytilus edulis) Discourages Fecal Sampling as a Proxy for Resident Gut Community)
Prof. Senjie Lin Visiting scholars in Lin Lab Tangcheng Li and Hongfei Li recently published papers with Professor Senjie Lin in Science in the Total Environment about how a harmful algal bloom dinoflagellate and a coral endosymbiont dinoflagellate cope with nitrogen-nutrient deficiency and about tolerance of ammonium toxicity. (Transcriptome profiling reveals versatile dissolved organic nitrogen utilization, mixotrophy, and N conservation in the dinoflagellate Prorocentrum shikokuense under N deficiency)

Research Continues Safely Amid COVID-19

Wesley Huffman inspecting his salt marsh mesocosm for an experiment.

COVID-19 has drastically changed all aspects of our lives, including how we teach, do research, and stay connected at UConn. The Department of Marine Sciences is adapting to a new normal, and this Fall Semester has been unlike any other.

Classes are mostly online, however, some courses have continued in-person. In these situations, students are of course practicing social distancing and wearing their masks. Classes which feature research cruises and scuba diving were thankfully able to carry out these activities safely. Graduate student Wes Huffman comments on his positive experience with his online classes. “I initially thought an online discussion-based course would be challenging, with either no one discussing or people talking over each other. I have also previously found online lectures to be more challenging to pay attention to. However, video-based online discussion has worked exceptionally well and has been on par with similarly styled in-person courses.”

Research is affected but still continuing safely. Everyone working indoors is required to wear masks, social distance, and check in and out of each lab space (for contact tracing). Most professors and students are working from home often or even entirely, only coming to campus when it is necessary. This has resulted in many adaptations to ongoing research. Wes shares, “One of my projects that has been ongoing during COVID is a series of mesocosm experiments… Remote monitoring and control of this experimental system have been critical in allowing me to continue working from home when possible while streamlining in-person sampling. This not only mitigates potential COVID exposure but has improved the quality of data gathered by being able to fine-tune parameters more frequently than otherwise feasible while in the lab.”

Rosette Preparation
Graduate students prepping the sampling rosette as part of the Oceanographic Expedition course.

In such a unique situation, new opportunities have also been possible. Molly James, a graduate student, shares her experiences. “A great opportunity that I wouldn’t have been able to do under normal circumstances is attend meetings of the Governor’s Council on Climate Change (GC3). My advisor suggested I participate in the virtual meetings for the GC3’s Science and Technology Working Group. As a result, I produced information sheets for the public detailing climate change impacts and projections in Connecticut.”

This year, mostly everything has been online. Seminars and brown bags are both continuing regularly on WebEx. However, these weekly events were set times that many of us from the department would step away from our individual work and get to see each other. The online meetings, both professional and social, bring feelings of isolation, as expressed by many people.

On the bright side, since we’re all staying at home more than usual, this seems to have caused a widespread interest in pursuing new hobbies. Molly shares, “Some silly results of quarantining are rearranging my bedroom and living room (more than once) after becoming mildly addicted to DIY and home decor YouTube channels; baking many loaves of bread; attempting to become a jogger/runner; doing a language exchange with a friend in Seoul; and many hours on friend group video chats.”


A student using a salinometer outside during Prof. Pieter Visscher’s in-person geomicrobiology class. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
Deploying Sensors
Temperature and Relative humidity sensors deployments to the City of New Haven. Molly James (left) and Kay Howard-Strobel (right) are attaching them.

Building the Groundwork for Remote Sensing and Tracking of Plastics in the Ocean

Dierssen and Garaba
Dierssen and Garaba using a spectrometer to measure the spectral properties of washed-ashore plastics at the Mystic Aquarium.

We’ve all heard stories about the garbage patches that are kilometers wide floating out in the ocean. While the garbage islands that many of us imagine are much closer to fiction, there is definitely a lot of plastic in the ocean, and most of it is in the form of microplastics (<5mm). This makes it difficult to identify and track the plastics that are floating around.

Satellites are able to find things like plankton blooms in the ocean by their spectral information (such as color). However, when it comes to plastics, they all have different colors and compositions and can be very small in size. This makes it tricky to distinguish plastic floating on the ocean surface.

In a recent publication, Professor Heidi Dierssen and a former postdoctoral researcher from her lab, Dr. Shungu Garaba now at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, built a database of the spectral information of many different types of plastics. They measured spectral reflectance, which represents the “color” of the objects, in the ultraviolet (UV), visible, and infrared (IR) parts of the spectrum. As explained in the publication, “The spectral reflectance of an optically active object (e.g. plastic, coral, seawater, algae, sediment) has a characteristic shape that explains how it can reflect or absorb light. The spectral shape is a combination of peak (reflection or fluorescence) features and trough (absorption) features that are distinctive optical properties of the objects.”

spectral reflectance measurement of marine microplastic particlesThe figure above is an example of a spectral reflectance measurement of marine microplastic particles, showing dips (troughs) of the curve highlighted with gray lines. These dips, called absorption features, are unique to the object and can help identify the type of plastic. Dashed lines represent standard deviation.

Assorted marine-harvested microplastics.

Dr. Dierssen and Dr. Garaba sampled many different types of plastics that are representative of what would actually be found floating in the ocean. “Many research studies on marine plastics purchase new plastic bottles and other debris for their studies. This does not represent the actual objects found floating on the ocean surface and their environmental state,” Dierssen explains. The types of plastics that were sampled included microplastics (0.3- 5 mm), macroplastics (>5mm), and new plastic polymer pellets (for comparison). Microplastics were collected from the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean using surface-sampling nets. Macroplastics were sampled at the Mystic Aquarium, as part of a traveling exhibit raising awareness about plastic pollution, titled “Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.” These plastics (buoys, containers, ropes, toys, nets, etc.) were collected from beach clean-ups on the West Coast. Dierssen describes that “their colors and material had been weathered by the sun and exposed to ocean turbulence. This provided a much closer library of real plastic objects that would be observed floating at sea than if we purchased new [plastics].”

The large plastics washed ashore are easily identifiable, but much less is known about the composition of the small microplastic particles found floating at the sea surface. To address this, Dierssen and Garaba also measured reflectance from new plastic pellets of 11 different polymer types.  Absorption features of microplastics were compared to the plastic pellets to determine the closest matching spectral properties.  The microplastics were most similar to low-density polyethylene and polypropylene often used in bottles and packaging material.

The measurements of the different types of plastics from this study are available in an open-access database as a reference for others.  This data will help with remotely sensing and tracking plastics in the ocean, and eventually be used to identify the types of plastics floating around from satellites! As Garaba states, “Our contribution to the monitoring of plastics is the groundwork of understanding the key properties of plastics that can be used to develop algorithms/models/statistical approaches to derive essential descriptors about the plastics from remote sensing tools since these plastics have an optical signature or a unique light signal.”

Dierssen and Garaba recently submitted a NASA proposal to continue their collaboration to develop ways to remotely sense microplastic particles across the global ocean. Look forward to hearing more from them in the future!


Garaba, S. P., & Dierssen, H. M. (2020). Hyperspectral ultraviolet to shortwave infrared characteristics of marine-harvested, washed-ashore and virgin plastics. Earth System Science Data. DOI:10.5194/essd-12-77-2020