Meghan Savona, University of North Carolina Wilmington, and Todd Morrison, Woods Hole Group
Since the founding of the Phytoplankton Club at First Flight High School (FFHS) in 2005, students have been independently analyzing phytoplankton samples from the coast of the Outer Banks, NC. With the help of the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society (OES), the program has developed into something much greater than initially expected; it has now become a program that allows students to create a hypothesis, professionally research a topic, conduct experiments, and write and present their findings at an international conference. Through the financial and mentoring support of OES, students have been able to articulate their research on phytoplankton into tangible, meaningful research.
Most recently, student members of the FFHS Phytoplankton Club, the Phyto-Finders, traveled to Charleston, SC, for the OCEANS 2018 Charleston conference to discuss the results of their research. Presenters included FFHS seniors Benjamin Tran, Thomas Mahler, Julia Bachman, and Charlotte Tyson, and Meghan Savona, a recent graduate of FFHS who is now a freshman at UNC Wilmington (UNCW). Their papers, which were subjected to the full OCEANS review process, were accepted for publication in the Proceedings of OCEANS 2018 Charleston. As all OCEANS authors are required to do, the students presented their work in a very well received technical session at the conference.
Tran and Bachman presented their research in a talk called “The Bagel: Development of a Stable Towing Frame and Consistent Procedures for Sampling Phytoplankton,” detailing the process of improving phytoplankton collection methods. During the summer of 2016, Phyto-Finders visited the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) as part of a trip sponsored by OES. During their time there, they collaborated with Dr. Todd Morrison, Senior Ocean Engineer at Woods Hole Group, to improve the stability and behavior of the tow frame. After researching potential problems and developing responsive solutions, they constructed a tow frame and tested it in the tow tank at WHOI. When they returned home to the Outer Banks, they were able to implement an improved design, based on their testing, that is now used for all tows, yielding consistent and reliable samples. Developing new features is an ongoing process for club members.
Savona presented a paper she co-authored with renowned molecular biologist, Dr. Hilary Morrison of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), who has been instrumental in the success of the Phytoplankton Club. The Morrisons helped OES become aware of the program’s research, which in turn led to the allocation of funding that has significantly advanced the capabilities and impact of the club. Both Hilary and Todd have become mentors to many students over the years, helping them to gain experience in professional research fields. Savona’s presentation was made possible through Hilary’s guidance; Hilary taught Phytoplankton Club members how to extract, analyze, and sequence phytoplankton DNA in order to more accurately detect and quantify the different species present in samples collected off the Outer Banks.
Although primarily an engineering conference, the microbiology-based presentation that Savona gave, titled “Extraction and Analysis of DNA from Phytoplankton Samples Acquired Offshore the Outer Banks of North Carolina (2016–2018),” was well received by the OCEANS 2018 community. In order to assess whether or not there are shifts in phytoplankton or microbial species relative abundance preceding or following a bloom, students begin by sampling water along a spatial and temporal gradient and attaching metadata. They then extract all DNA from the organisms in a sample, amplify a small part of the rRNA gene, sequence this DNA, and match the sequence to a reference database to determine the distribution of different phytoplankton and bacterial species in a sample. This method of analysis is revolutionary for the club, allowing them to quantifiably identify phytoplankton and microbial populations.
In a third paper, Mahler and Tyson presented the newly created and still developing method of documentation for the Phyto-Finders in a presentation titled “Development of Phytoplankton Web-Based Database Application.” This talk detailed the importance of an online database in which samples can be recorded. Previously, the Phytoplankton Club had been documenting samples, both metadata and species concentrations, on paper forms that were subsequently sent to NOAA. By developing an online database in which sample information could be recorded and backed-up, the Phytoplankton Club greatly reduced the likelihood of lost data, something that had previously happened. The online database creates the opportunity for these data to be shared and distributed seamlessly, allowing for the potential synthesis of information worldwide. And, for the Phytoplankton Club, their data will finally be searchable.
Because of the opportunities that OES has provided to the Phytoplankton Club through funding and mentoring, the students have been able to excel academically and professionally. By presenting at OCEANS, they have gained academic experience and been able to make professional connections rarely afforded to young people. Over the past decade, enabled by OES funding, hundreds of students have been able to participate in the Phytoplankton Club. All of them have gone on to college, approximately 95% in STEM subjects. Nine papers with approximately twenty student co-authors have been presented at three OCEANS Conferences and published in the Proceedings. And more than a dozen students have been able to travel to Woods Hole, MA, to learn more at MBL and WHOI.
Based on the continuing performance of the student authors and their fellow Phyto-Finders, OES has elected to continue annual funding and mentoring support for the program, with more papers expected at OCEANS 2022 in Virginia Beach.