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Research mentors and projects for the 2021 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 (www.gtmnerr.org) 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 called “Refining techniques for high-frequency monitoring of chlorophyll a in the NERRS”. 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 System-Wide Monitoring Program. While sensor measurements are related to extracted measurements, there are variations in the environment that cause inconsistencies. and no tested relationships currently exist for the EXO sensors. The REU student will assist GTMNERR staff in 1) assessing this sensor via comparisons with extracted chlorophyll, 2) running experiments to identify sources of interference and develop corrections, and 3) developing standard protocols for the NERRS. 

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. 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. Eric Johnson, Fisheries Ecology

Dr. Johnson is a fisheries biologist that integrates basic ecology with fisheries science to address important research questions related to commercial and recreational fisheries, predominantly along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. Students working with Dr. Johnson have in the past, and will potentially investigate: 1) ecology of the invasive lionfish in Florida, or 2) population dynamics of blue crabs in the St. Johns River.

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. Adam Rosenblatt, Environmental changes and the impact on food webs and ecosystems

Dr. Rosenblatt's research program focuses on the effects of environmental change on food webs and ecosystems. REU students working with Dr. Rosenblatt will have the opportunity to conduct research on a topic of their choice. Potential options include: blue crab abundance and feeding patterns within the intracoastal waterway, the roles of spiders in coastal marsh food webs, the effects of climate change on alligator sex ratios, and alligator behavior and physiology within the St. Johns River.

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.