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Flagler students' work on oyster reefs featured in academic journal

July 11, 2017 4:11 PM
Natural Sciences

For Flagler students in the college’s Natural Sciences department, the classroom is as much the marsh, wetlands or any other coastal habitat surrounding St. Augustine as it is the lab on campus. Their studies in the field often yield valuable research and play a significant role in better understanding the area’s ecosystems.

The work of three students — Charles Adams, Kristy Payne and Elizabeth Scarlett — focused on the impact of oyster reefs on surrounding sediments was published in the Journal of Coastal Zone Management this spring. They have since graduated from Flagler.

“This opportunity turned out to be the single most formative experience of my academic career,” said Scarlett, ’15, one of the student researchers. “It taught me to create and implement my own experimental design, gain experience working in the field and the lab, and most importantly to become more confident in myself as a budding researcher.”

Elizabeth Scarlett

As part of her research project, she focused on benthic invertebrates (organisms that live in or on the bottom sediments) living behind restored oyster reefs at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR), a wildlife reserve located in the northern part of the county. She specifically looked at those organism’s relationship with “chlorophyll a,” a type of chlorophyll used in oxygenic photosynthesis.

“This research was valuable, if only to rule out possible drivers of nutrient fluxes, but more personally I found it incredibly valuable in illustrating the complex dynamics between flora and fauna in an estuarine ecosystem,” she said.

Flagler’s Dr. Melissa Southwell, along with Dr. Jessica Veenstra, led the research projects that were ultimately published in the academic journal. Southwell also emphasized the significance of the research.

“Our results show that placing oysters along the coast rapidly and dramatically altered the sediment in ways that affected the cycling of carbon and nutrients, and the suite of organisms that inhabit the sediment,” the associate professor of Natural Sciences said. “This work is important because the underlying sediment can exert a strong influence on water quality, especially in shallow coastal areas.  Our current research attempts to better quantify these changes, and addresses their implications.”

Southwell, Veenstra and their team of student assistants observed significant changes in sediment characteristics within one year of oyster reef installation at a the GTMNERR restoration site. Whether or not these changes are desirable depends upon the goals of the restoration project and the local environment. But now the data exists as a baseline of study for future projects.

All three students, Southwell said, were critical players in conducting the oyster reef research.

“Dr. Veenstra and I spent many hours with them, digging out sediment cores while covered in mud, or troubleshooting laboratory analyses,” Southwell said. “The work is often smelly, hot, and exhausting. Throughout the project they all exhibited terrific attitudes, and a certain tenacity in obtaining good quality data. This tenacity explains how they produced research of high enough quality to include in a publication.”

Scarlett was more than elated to participate in the project and is ecstatic with the project’s results.

“This project opened up to me a whole new side of estuary research and helped me to understand the habitat as a whole, describing physical as well as biotic processes and how these two things are interrelated in healthy ecosystems,” she said. “(The project presented) a dynamic I do not believe I would have understood half as well if learned solely in a classroom setting. It is these kinds of opportunities and experiences that made attending Flagler College such an amazing and transformative experience for me, an experience I do not believe I would have gotten had I attended a larger and more impersonal university.”

Since graduating, Scarlett has worked as a research assistant at Florida Atlantic University on wading bird conservation in the Everglades and is currently an intern at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo.

To read the full article in the Journal of Coastal Zone Management, visit here.