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potential projects

REU students will receive hands-on scientific training from one of several Auburn faculty mentors, who are experts in many subdisciplines of warm-water aquatic ecology.  Moreover, the students will have opportunities to conduct their research in diverse ecosystems located throughout Alabama.  Students will be encouraged to develop an independent research project with their mentor following acceptance into the program.  Examples of potential REU projects can be found below.

Geospatial technologies for water quality monitoring 

Mentor: Dr. Stephanie Rogers

Geospatial technologies such as satellite remote sensing, unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs), and geographic information systems (GIS) are critical for understanding patterns across space.  The dynamic nature of water makes it the perfect target for geospatial analyses.  Why do we have water quality issues in some locations and not others?  What factors lead to decreased water quality? How can we leverage existing geospatial technologies in the water quality realm?  The REU student will work with Stephanie and her team to collect and analyze geospatial datasets and correlate them with in-situ water samples to better understand the spatial patterns of water quality issues.  This project will combine field and laboratory techniques.


Drones for harmful algal bloom monitoring and modeling

Mentor: Edna Fernandez-Figueroa (graduate student in Dr. Alan Wilson's lab)

This project will employ drones for monitoring the distribution and abundance of algae and cyanobacteria in Alabama aquaculture ponds.  Students will apply field sampling techniques to collect aerial imagery of our systems, as well as a variety of water quality parameters.  Water samples will then be processed in the lab, where the student will learn how to measure algal and cyanobacterial abundance using standard methods such as pigment extractions and cell counts.  Aerial images will then be processed using GIS and correlated with algal abundance to create predictive models for monitoring harmful algal blooms in our systems. 


Understanding the impacts of urbanization on tidal creek and salt marsh ecosystem structure and function

Mentor: Sam Bickley (graduate student in Dr. Chris Anderson's lab)

Tidal creeks and fringing salt marshes are vital aquatic habitat for many fish species along the northern Gulf of Mexico (GoM) yet are increasingly threatened as population in this region continues to grow.  As urbanization along the northern GoM coast increases, it is important to understand how land-use changes will impact these important ecosystems.  The REU student will have the opportunity to collect salt marsh fish in the field and undertake analysis to understand how these communities respond to urbanization.  Water quality sensors have been deployed in the tidal creeks to continuously measure water level, salinity, and dissolved oxygen.  These data will be used to estimate whole-stream metabolism (a measure of gross primary productivity and ecosystem respiration).  The REU student will have the opportunity to analyze these data and understand their relationship to land-cover change.


Ancient Eutrophication: Using the sediment record to reconstruct eutrophication and environmental change through time

Mentor: Dr. Matt Waters

This project will utilize paleolimnological tools to analyze sediment cores from natural lake and reservoir systems.  The student will learn the techniques, interpretation, and application of sediment analysis such as organic matter, nutrients, heavy metals, photosynthetic pigments, and cyanotoxins.  Data will be used to reconstruct how lakes and reservoirs have changed through time with particular focus on the environmental drivers that cause ecosystem change (e.g., land use, climate, hydrological modifications, invasive species).  The project will combine field and laboratory techniques.


Teasing apart the factors related to taste and odor compounds in drinking water and aquaculture reservoirs.

Mentor: Dr. Alan Wilson

Taste and odor compounds, such as geosmin and MIB, negatively affect drinking water and aquaculture-raised fish by causing muddy flavors and odors.  Despite significant research dedicated to removing these compounds from water, relatively little research has examined the abiotic (e.g., climate) and biotic (e.g., food-web interactions) factors responsible for taste-and-odor episodes.  The REU student will work Alan and his graduate students to design and conduct complex lab- and field-based experiments that help explain the complicated interactions driving off-flavor production in diverse aquatic systems. 


Immune response in sea urchin larvae

Mentor: Dr. Katherine Buckley

Research in the Buckley lab is aimed at understanding immune response from an evolutionary perspective.  We use the morphologically simple, experimentally tractable larval stage of the purple sea urchin as a model system to study fundamental aspects of the complex interactions between animal hosts and microbes (both symbiotic and pathogenic).  The REU student will be measuring larval immune responses to a variety of marine microbes using time-lapse imaging to assess cell behavior and by quantifying gene expression.  The student will gain experience in molecular biology, microbiology and microscopy, as well as generating and maintaining cultures of sea urchin larvae. 


Molecular ecology of imperiled freshwater mollusks. 

Mentor: Dr. Nathan Whelan

River impoundments and pollution have caused population fragmentation and decline of many freshwater mussel and snail species in North America. However, a lack of past research hinders conservation efforts. Genetic data, in particular, are needed to understand how remaining populations are connected, to examine genetic consequences of species decline, and to evaluate the success of conservation efforts. The REU student will use genomic techniques to examine how genetic diversity of mollusks varies across riverine landscapes, focusing on species of conservation concern. Potential study species include both mussels and snails. The student will have the opportunity to participate in fieldwork, and they will be trained in genomic data generation and analysis.


Applied reproductive biology and early life development of catfish for genetic enhancement  

Mentor: Dr. Ian Butts

Our aquatic biodiversity is declining, as more species are becoming extirpated or extinct at an alarming rate. This will only increase as we see the results of global climate change in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.  While little can be done to bring back lost species, we must work on securing the fate of others that are threatened or endangered, and at minimum have a repository of genetic information available as a safeguard; “buying us the time” necessary to improve aquatic habitats, if applicable. This can be accomplished through gene banking and artificial spawning techniques.   Throughout the 10 weeks, the REU student will develop a genetic repository (i.e. with cells frozen at -196oC) to aid conservation and hatchery programs for catfish (and some oysters).  The student will then track embryonic survival, hatch success, larval morphology, and deformities from offspring created with live and cryopreserved cells.  Skills learned: Spawning techniques, assisted reproduction, fish hatchery principles and practices, cell culture, micro-injection, florescent microscopy, statistical analyses, and experimental design.


Quantifying competitive interactions among different cyanobacterial taxa under contrasting nutrient environments

Mentor: Matt Gladfelter (graduate student in Dr. Alan Wilson's lab)

The REU student will help me examine the competitive relationships that exist among different cyanobacterial taxa.  This will include exposing a mixture of two or more cyanobacterial genera to different dominant forms on nitrogen, concentrations of dissolved organic matter, and/or concentrations of green algae and examining if any patterns arise among the selected organisms.  This project will build off of previous experiments that suggest specialization among cyanobacteria.  Recent studies suggest that in an experiment like this, we should be able to identify generalist and/or opportunistic species.  This project will involve working hands-on with cyanobacterial cultures and learning and mastering several key analytical techniques.


Using ecological principles to engineer a process for stable zooplankton production fed with wastewater algae

Mentor: Dr. Brendan Higgins

With the world population projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, there is an urgent need to increase global protein production.  As highly productive aquatic organisms, algae (phytoplankton) and zooplankton are uniquely positioned to help fill this need for protein. The concept our lab is exploring is growing algae on wastewater and then feeding these algae to the zooplankton Daphnia.  Daphnia are an existing feed source for fish production and can yield high trophic transfer efficiency.  As Biosystems Engineers, we week to capitalize on these natural ecological relationships to design systems that can sustainably feed the world.  This REU project will aim to understand variables such as type of algae feed, oxygen levels, and reactor conditions that can facilitate rapid growth of Daphnia in a controlled environment.  The student will be involved with growth of Daphnia in bioreactors and measurement of Daphnia growth, feed conversion efficiency, and transfer of key nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) from algae to Daphnia.


Freshwater turtle population ecology and evolutionary patterns

Mentor: Maria Joao Janeiro (postdoc in Matt Wolak's lab)

This project will focus on population-wide patterns of survival and reproduction and link these to broader patterns in morphology within- and among-species of freshwater turtles. The REU student will work closely with the mentors to create data driven population models and conduct statistical analyses. The student will also have ample opportunity to participate in ongoing field research on several turtle species found in water bodies around Auburn. The student will develop their quantitative skill set by learning several modeling and statistical analysis techniques, learn how to capture and process freshwater turtles, and gain experience designing analyses based on ecological and evolutionary hypotheses.


Valuating the phenotypic and behavioral responses of marine fishes to elevated CO2 and temperature

Mentor: Dr. Moises Bernal

Research in the Bernal Lab deals with understanding how marine fishes will respond to human-induced changes using a combination of phenotypic and genomic measurements.  The REU student will conduct laboratory experiments testing how pinfishes (Lagodon rhomboides) from different populations of the Gulf of Mexico respond to increased CO2 and temperature.  Experiments include understanding the effects of both stressors individually, evaluating the response to both stressors, and/or keeping one stressor constant while another one is variable.  The student will be responsible for collecting phenotypic variables (oxygen consumption, size, weight) and behavioral observations, as well as tissues for future genomic analysis (livers and brains).  This is a great opportunity to develop skills in fish husbandry and statistical analyses, while gaining valuable insight in experimental design with live animals.  Findings form this study will be allow us to better-understand how marine organisms respond and acclimate to the impending effects of global change.


Integrated methods for controlling toxic algal blooms

Mentor: Riley Buley (graduate student in Dr. Alan Wilson's lab)

The student would research methods to control harmful algal blooms using varying combinations of chemical (e.g., copper sulfate, hydrogen peroxide, peracetic acid) and biological (e.g., zooplankton grazing) controls.  The objective of this research would be to develop a combined control method that effectively reduces bloom outbreaks while using the least amount of chemical possible, thereby developing a control that is "environmentally friendly".  The student will learn how to design and conduct lab and field experiments in addition to field sampling and water quality analyses. 

mentor spotlight

REU mentor - Dennis DeVries

Edna Fernandez-Figueroa