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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Investigating local pond algae blooms

URI summer research fellow student assesses Westerly lagoon

URI student Hannah Madison poses in a lab where she conducted studies of algae blooms. (Photo courtesy of Amy Dunkle.)
URI student Hannah Madison poses in a lab where she conducted
studies of algae blooms. (Photo courtesy of Amy Dunkle.)
University of Rhode Island senior Hannah Madison is spending her summer elbow deep in seaweed at the Napatree Point lagoon in Westerly. She’s working to assess the seasonal variability of algae blooms and how it relates to water quality.

It’s a project the Latham, N.Y., resident joined as one of 100 students from colleges throughout Rhode Island who were selected as Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows.

Working in collaboration with URI Professor Carol Thornber and postdoctoral researcher Lindsay Green, Madison spent the last 10 weeks conducting algae surveys, weighing and measuring algae, and counting the marine invertebrates that live among it. 

She also assisted with similar work at a site in Greenwich Bay, conducted experiments to determine at which temperature various species of algae grow best, and compared the growth of native and invasive species.

“It’s an extremely interesting experience,” said Madison, an ocean engineering major. “I learned so many different things that I never would have known without it. And it was definitely fun working at the beach every week. We never did the same thing twice, so it was never boring.”

Madison said that Napatree Point is an excellent location for conducting studies on a wide variety of environmental topics.

“The place has so many rare species to worry about, so it’s important to try to understand and monitor the beach and waters to make sure those species can continue to thrive there,” she said.

During her algae surveys, Madison calculated the ratio of each species of algae at several designated locations in the lagoon and collected water data, including temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen. Back at her lab in Kingston, she dried the algae she collected to determine its biomass.

She found it difficult to draw many conclusions based on just a few weeks of data, but she made a number of interesting observations.

“It was incredible the difference we found in the number of snails from one site to the next,” she said. “It probably had to do with the amount of nutrients at the different sites – those with more nutrients had more algae, and the snails feed on the algae and lay their eggs there.”

Madison also observed a correlation between the total weight of algae and dissolved oxygen in the water.

“When an algae bloom forms, you have a ton of algae growing, and when the algae begin to die and decay, that sucks out the oxygen, so dissolved oxygen levels shoot down,” she said. “But then when I went back the next month, there was virtually no algae at all and dissolved oxygen was very high. It was interesting to see the clarity of those results.”

Funding for Madison’s research fellowship was provided by the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program of the National Science Foundation, which has provided more than $26 million in grants to support scientific research in Rhode Island. She presented the results of her research at a conference at URI on July 29. The EPSCoR program is administered by URI.

With just one more year of school left before graduation, Madison is thinking about her career plans. She had intended to enter the workforce, hopefully for a company involved in renewable energy, but her summer fellowship also got her thinking about enrolling in graduate school.

“I definitely learned from the fellowship that I don’t want to be stuck in a cubicle,” she said. “I want to be out there in the field seeing what needs to be done and doing it. That was the best part of the project. We were never just sitting.”