Biology department earns $768K grant for Laguna Madre research
Posted: 09/01/2009
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The impact of arsenic on the Laguna Madre ecosystem will be the focus of undergraduate research at The University of Texas-Pan American this coming year thanks to a grant of $768,552 by the National Science Foundation's Undergraduate Research and Mentoring (URM) in the Biological Sciences program.

"This research award is important to the biology department and the new environmental science program because it gives students opportunities to do meaningful research on the Laguna Madre environment," Dr. Edwin LeMaster, College of Science and Engineering dean, said. "The grant will provide salary support for the student researchers and get them deeply involved in field studies that will motivate them to further their studies."

The project, titled "URM: Undergraduate Research and Mentoring at a Hispanic Serving Institution Investigating a Rare Ecosystem," is under the direction of Dr. Kristine L. Lowe, assistant professor at the UTPA Department of Biology and Dr. Christopher G. Rensing, associate professor for the Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona.

Lowe said the National Science Foundation funded only eight to 12 URM grants nationwide for this coming year. Contributing to the writing of the grant from the UTPA Department of Biology were Dr. Michael Persans and former faculty members Dr. Anita Davelos Baines and Dr. Robert Zarnowski. Also instrumental in the grant were faculty from the University of Arizona, Purdue University, and Georgia Tech.

"Specifically, we want to assess the impact of arsenic, a contaminant issue along the U.S.-Mexico border, on the Laguna Madre ecosystem and how the living organisms in the Laguna Madre overcome arsenic's toxic effects. There are several biological mechanisms that can influence the form, abundance, and toxicity of environmental pollutants like arsenic," said Lowe.

A rare ecosystem, the Laguna Madre is considered to be a hypersaline estuary, which means it is an ecosystem where freshwater from land meets and mixes with ocean salt water Lowe said. Because of the mixing of fresh and salt water, estuaries usually have a salt content much less than the ocean, however hypersaline estuaries have a salt concentration that is usually greater than seawater.

"There are only five hypersaline estuaries in the world. Isn't it amazing that we live 80 miles from one of them? The Laguna Madre is an important waterway for fishing, recreational boating, and commercial shipping. It is home to several threatened and endangered species of sea turtles, migrating ducks, and other species. Thus, pollution, like arsenic, can be a potential threat to this ecosystem and all who rely on it," Lowe said.

"What we hope to uncover is which mechanisms are being used by Laguna Madre organisms when they interact with arsenic. What effect does this have on the arsenic and the organisms? How does this impact the ecosystem as a whole? In addition, very little is known about the microbiology of the Laguna Madre so this information will add new knowledge about this ecosystem," she added.

The award, effective Sept. 1, 2009 through Aug. 31, 2013, will fund seven undergraduate research students per year for four years and pay them up to $12,000 each in wages. Students will be expected to do their research and take certain biology classes as a group. In addition, the undergraduate researchers will be able to spend the summer at one of three partner institutions with UTPA, which include Georgia Tech, Purdue University or the University of Arizona, to conduct research at those institutions that is associated with their Laguna Madre research.

The role of the partner institutions, Lowe said, is to give students the opportunity to do research they cannot do at UTPA, expose the students to new people, places, and ideas, and give the students a taste of what graduate school is like.

"The mentors at the partner institutions are all exceptional scientists and are happy and eager to help new students and young researchers. We hope that some of the URM students will apply to graduate school at the partner institutions; thus, UTPA may become a pipeline to these institutions who offer Ph.D.'s in biology," Lowe said.

Lowe would like for students who participate in the program to walk away with a greater appreciation for what researchers do she said.

"We hope that students will be interested in pursuing research that is 'in their own backyard,' so to speak. This should make the research more interesting because it will directly benefit their community. Students will also gain skills in laboratory and field techniques, learn how to communicate scientifically, and hopefully have some fun. These skills will make them more marketable in the workforce. Ultimately, we would like students to consider going to graduate school and pursuing a career that involves research," she said.

The first group of students selected for the program will begin in January 2010. Sophomores or first-semester juniors will be targeted for the URM program. To apply, students should have a minimum grade point average of 3.0, and submit two recommendation letters, a written statement describing their career goals and why they believe the URM program would benefit them, and a copy of their transcripts.

To learn more about the URM program, contact the Department of Biology at 956/381-3537.