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Research mentors and projects for the 2022 UNF REU Program

Check back regularly. More REU mentors will be added shortly!

Dr. Nikki Dix, Estuarine Ecology for Coastal Management

Dr. Dix is off campus at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve ( where she serves as Research Director. The research program at GTMNERR is founded in long-term monitoring of weather, water quality, plankton, salt marshes, and oyster reefs. The selected REU student will work on a project to assist the GTMNERR in implementing high-frequency monitoring of chlorophyll a following recommendations developed in this national project:

Concentrations of the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll a are used as a proxy for phytoplankton biomass by estuarine scientists and managers to study eutrophication, food web dynamics, and harmful algal blooms. Traditionally, chlorophyll has been measured by filtering a water sample and extracting pigments from the filter in a laboratory; however, monthly measurements are not sufficient for tracking plankton dynamics, which fluctuate hourly. Recent sensor technology allows high-frequency, in situ measurement of chlorophyll on the same YSI EXO sondes used in the NERRS long-term water quality monitoring program. However, particles and dissolved organic matter in the water can interfere with sensor fluorescence measurements. The REU student will assist GTMNERR staff in running experiments to develop corrections for those interfering variables. Skills learned specific to this project will include YSI EXO data sonde calibrations and maintenance, experimental design and implementation, data management, and coding with R programming language.

Dr. Jim Gelsleichter, Shark Biology, Physiology, and Ecotoxicology

Dr. Gelsleichter's research program focuses on population ecology, reproductive biology, and ecotoxicology of fish, particularly sharks and their relatives. REU students working with Dr. Gelsleichter will conduct research projects focused on a diverse number of topics such as shark abundance in northeast Florida waters, the roles of gonadal steroids in shark sexual differentiation, stress responses in sharks, reproductive effects of methylmercury, and the effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Gulf of Mexico fishes.

Dr. Quincy Gibson, Dolphin Population Dynamics

Dr. Gibson's research is focused on the behavioral ecology of marine mammals, with an emphasis on social complexity and population dynamics. REU students working with Dr. Gibson participate in weekly boat-based photo-identification and behavioral surveys of estuarine bottlenose dolphins in the St. Johns River (SJR). Past student's projects have examined the link between female dolphin sociality and reproductive success, the impact of a large-scale unusual mortality event on SJR dolphins, and the prevalence of skin lesions as a non-invasive indicator of dolphin health.

Dr. Matt Gilg, Evolutionary Genetics

Dr. Gilg’s research program focuses on exploring the genetic basis of traits important for response to climate change, invasive species management and the evolutionary implications of hybridization.  REU students working with Dr. Gilg will conduct research projects focused on tolerance of coral species to stressors like elevated temperature and light intensity, the genetic diversity of introduced species of marine mussels, or the role habitat plays in hybridization of local killifish species. 

Dr. Laura Habegger, Functional Morphology in Fishes

Dr. Habegger is a functional morphologist interested in understanding how form affects the function of a variety of structural components in vertebrates, particularly fishes. Her research interests are wide ranging from the estimation of bite forces among marine top marine predators to the elucidation of the osteological composition and formation of extreme skull adaptations. Students working with Dr. Habegger will be involved in one of the three following topics:

  1. investigating the osteological development of different skull components in pelagic fish larvae
  2. characterizing major structural differences on the skin of sharks and rays,
  3. characterizing fish otolith (ear stones) morphology from a material science standpoint to understand its potential significance in fish hearing.

Dr. Amy Lane, Biochemical identification of natural products from marine microorganisms

Dr. Lane utilizes marine microorganisms to isolate organic molecules known as natural products. Natural products are promising lead compounds for the development of new antibiotics and act as the "words" of chemical languages "spoken" by microorganisms. These chemical communication signals drive interactions between organisms, including symbiosis, competition, and host-pathogen interactions. Deciphering the meaning of chemical signals enables understanding of marine microbial biodiversity and opens doors for improving marine ecosystem health. NSF REU fellows in the Lane group will select from the following projects:

  1. evaluating natural products as chemical weapons utilized by marine microorganisms to thwart their competitors; or,
  2. identifying genes and enzymes employed by marine microorganisms to assemble natural products that act as chemical weapons and as potential human antibiotics.

Dr. Frank Smith, Genomics and Developmental Genetics

Research in Dr. Frank Smith's lab follows a comparative approach to genomics and developmental genetics to study the origin and diversification of animal body plans. The evolution of the jointed legs that are characteristic of arthropods is thought to have contributed to their evolutionary success. Tardigrades are closely related to arthropods, but unlike arthropods, they retain the unjointed legs that were present in the common ancestor of these two lineages. The summer research project in the Smith lab will focus on identifying homologs of the genes that control leg development in arthropods in a genome of a tardigrade and determining the function of these genes during tardigrade development. Results of this study will provide insight into how jointed appendages evolved in the arthropod lineage.

Dr. Kelly Smith, Restoration Ecology of Coastal Fish Habitats

Dr. Kelly Smith’s interests focus on juvenile fish ecology in estuarine environments and reducing human impacts on the habitat quality for these fishes. Many coastal areas of Northeast Florida are experiencing severe erosion problems, reducing available fish habitat. The lab group is investigating methods for reducing loss of these habitats. Interested students will be able to develop and work on projects associated with shoreline restoration of oyster and salt marsh habitat within both a National Estuarine Research Reserve (Guana Tolomato Matanzas) and a National Park (Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve). Potential projects include

  1. assessing use of restored substrates by mobile invertebrates at varying inundation levels
  2. interpreting video records of habitat use by large motile predators assessing sediment dynamics and benthic infauna in restored habitats
  3. assessing sediment dynamics and benthic infauna in restored habitats

Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is home to over 2000 animals. Within the zoo, the Wildlife Wellness division conducts welfare and wellness related research to ensure that animals living in our care are given opportunities to thrive.  REU students will contribute to research projects focused on a diverse number of species ranging from apes and cheetahs to Komodo dragons and stingrays.  Students will learn a number of skills including use of behavioral (e.g. ZooMonitor) and statistical (e.g. R) software.  Students will conduct mentored research projects focused on aquatic species.


The South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation is dedicated to increasing populations of rare and endangered species through reproductive science. SEZARC scientists perform reproductive health assessments, develop breeding plans, and conduct investigative research for zoo and aquarium species throughout the United States. Projects for this program will focus on enzyme immunoassay of biological samples from nurse sharks, zebra sharks, sand tiger sharks, manta rays or other elasmobranch species to better understand their reproductive biology and to support natural and assisted reproduction programs. We plan to include high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) in the validation process for those assays. The student will be based at our laboratory in the Biology building at UNF.