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Records Pond in Laurel, Delaware shows a cyanobacterial mat, which is often how blooms appear whenever winds blow surface scum to one end of the lake or pond. Chris Grasso sampled bodies of water like Records Pond as part of his summer internship opportunity.

Summer of Learning

Photos courtesy of Chris Grasso

Delaware Sea Grant arranges internships to enhance student success and serve the community

The Delaware Sea Grant College Program uses the latest marine and coastal science to benefit the state’s communities through research, education and extension. Among its four focus areas, shared with Sea Grant programs nationwide, is a commitment to workforce development to help students prepare for careers in science.

While the program provides considerable support to graduate students during their studies, Delaware Sea Grant (DESG) has worked over the past year to increase what it can offer students to help them beyond the classroom and the lab. Collaborating with members of its Sea Grant Advisory Council — corporate, non-profit and government partners who help guide the program — DESG has begun to help place students in internships in their fields to help them gain professional experience and make valuable connections.

“We nominate students for Sea Grant’s Dean John Knauss Fellowships in Washington, D.C., every year, and we know how incredibly valuable that year can be for those students in learning about and finding work in the federal government,” DESG Director Kathy Coyne said. “We wanted to find ways to help more students have those same kinds of experiences locally.”

After a successful pilot with Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control last school year, DESG was able to arrange for two more internships to run over the summer. Through them, two graduate students in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment were exposed to hands-on learning opportunities that helped prepare them as they make the transition from graduate work to future careers.

Chris Grasso

Chris Grasso spent the summer travelling throughout Delaware collecting samples from various bodies of water as part of his DESG-funded summer research internship.

The internship was overseen by Ed Whereat, program coordinator for UD’s Coastal Monitoring Program managed by the DESG Marine Advisory Service.

Grasso, who just completed his master’s in marine biosciences, worked with Whereat in the Pollution Ecology Lab looking at samples of freshwater lakes and ponds for cyanobacteria, otherwise known as blue-green algae, which are a type of bacteria that get their energy through photosynthesis like many other algae and land plants.

Grasso said that while Delaware has been fortunate so far not to have any fatal incidents of exposure to cyanobacteria-associated toxins by either humans or domestic animals, it is still important to develop accurate, quick and simple protocols for state agencies to implement in order to quickly identify any potential dangers associated with cyanobacteria in Delaware’s freshwater ponds and lakes.

“Cyanobacteria are a completely normal part of most freshwater ecosystems, but can start to cause problems when they grow in large quantities,” Grasso said. “Blooms have become more and more common in recent years, and my research will hopefully provide a strong base for monitoring efforts in the future.”

As part of his internship, Grasso collected samples from lakes in Rehoboth, several ponds near Laurel, some freshwater bodies in the Dover area and at the Newark Reservoir.

While Grasso collected samples from those bodies of water, he said there wasn’t any cyanobacteria bloom event of concern in those areas. He also stressed that the whole study was focused on monitoring Delaware's lakes and ponds for cyanobacteria, not responding to active bloom events.

“The sites that I was fortunate enough to visit were beautiful areas that I recommend wholeheartedly to all nature lovers,” Grasso said. “Nearly all of them have paths and areas to explore, and those that are a part of the Delaware State Parks have even more to offer.”

Grasso worked in Coyne’s lab as a master’s level student, researching a class of algae called "dinoflagellates" and natural methods for preventing and controlling them in the Delaware Inland Bays system.

He said that he enjoyed working on a project that was both familiar in some ways and completely new to him in other ways this summer.

“I had never dealt with cyanobacteria in any of my prior research, and knew very little about them when I began, but they share a number of similarities with various types of algae,” Grasso said. “The skills I learned and developed in the lab this summer strengthened my base of microbiology knowledge, and I'm really appreciative to both Dr. Ed Whereat and Delaware Sea Grant for the opportunity.”

Grasso also thanked the two lab technicians he worked with in the Pollution Ecology Laboratory: Lou Schlecker and Haley Glos.

Emily Ruhl

Emily Ruhl worked this summer with the Delaware Center for Inland Bays (CIB), helping with outreach and educational programming. Ruhl helped with a new program where CIB partnered with Sun Otter Tours to help “citizen scientists” learn about and be involved with programs such as oyster gardening, saving oyster shells to use in restoration programs, horseshoe crab counting and fish surveys.

Ruhl also helped CIB develop a pamphlet for stakeholders and policy makers explaining the benefits of living shorelines, which she said is a big focus of CIB.

“They want to increase the use of living shorelines throughout the inland bays,” Ruhl said. “It’s a restoration technique that is not using hard structures like bulkheads or seawalls in order to mitigate sea level rise, climate change, terrible storm surges and erosion.”

Installing a living shoreline is a method of shoreline protection or restoration that is built using natural materials and native plants to mimic natural coastal habitats. Information on Living Shorelines in Delaware can be found around Lewes and CIB has virtual tours of the Living Shorelines on their website.

Ruhl completed her master’s work as a student in the lab of Danielle Dixson, assistant professor of marine biosciences, where she looked at 3D printing to see if the technology could be used to replicate corals that fish could use as habitat.

She is interested in doing outreach and has been involved in many outreach projects while at UD.

“I’ve worked with Chris Petrone [director of the Marine Advisory Service] a lot throughout my time here, volunteering at science fairs or doing outreach talking about my research,” Ruhl said. “I was working with a teacher and a couple students at MOT Charter in Middletown, Delaware. Those two students helped me 3D print some of my corals. They wanted to be a part of the research so they 3D printed about a dozen and then I took those in the field with me.”

Ruhl said communicating science to the public is important to spread environmental awareness, especially to children from states in the middle of the country, like Indiana, who may have never seen a horseshoe crab before.

It was also eye opening for her this summer to see the inner workings of an environmentally focused non-profit, which is something she is interested in getting involved with in her career.

“There’s really not a lot of people that work at CIB, and it’s amazing how much they’re able to accomplish. They really do a good job of getting the community involved in restoration and in trying to clean up the bays,” Ruhl said. “After living here for a couple of years, it was a cool experience to see how an organization is making steps to keep that area beautiful.”

Ruhl thanked Chris Bason, executive director at CIB; Amy Barra, outreach and education coordinator and Marianne Walch, science and restoration coordinator, for their support and guidance over the summer.

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