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Plankton, Who Cares? A Deep Dive into Bellarmine’s Marine Chemistry Program

Plankton, Who Cares? A Deep Dive into Bellarmine’s Marine Chemistry Program

Bellarmine's Marine Chemistry program not only elevates our students to collegiate level research and distinguishes their college applications, but also provides opportunities for our students to be part of the solution to environmental issues. Our philosophy is through scientific research, students seek solutions to scientific problems to make the world a better place for all its inhabitants.

For years, our program has used the Titlow Marine Sanctuary as a ‘laboratory’ to study things like water quality, biodiversity and ocean acidification. Freshman students start with an analysis of the water quality of Titlow. Over the course of one school year, students learn what it is like to conduct a study, look at various environmental parameters, and test and analyze their findings. They then take those findings and compare them to years past to determine what, if anything, has changed and whether that change is positive or negative. Students are introduced to this and other general areas of study to help them find their specific interest for developing a research question. 

Having a marine environment in our backyard ties us closely to it and provides opportunities for students to relate to it. Dave DeGroot, Marine Chemistry Director, explains it like this: “It’s hard to have the concern when you just hear about it and you’re not really there being part of it.” Students who scuba dive are also able to physically interact and experience the environment. Through diving, in a sense they become an inhabitant of the water, understanding the environment a bit more, discovering how they can preserve it.

One ongoing study, the effect of creosote-treated wood pilings to the biodiversity of the sanctuary, has led to Bellarmine being selected to design a proposal for their removal and replacement. In partnership with local and national agencies, our students have presented different solutions with the goal of meeting the needs of the organisms inhabiting the area, the desires of different groups that enjoy the sanctuary and educating the public.

Studies our students started in 2003, along with supporting studies of Chambers Bay, concluded that the class of chemicals creosote is made up of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) contain carcinogenic and toxic chemicals that leach out into the water and the sediment the wood pilings are set in. In 2005, Washington State decided to remove all creosote-treated wood pilings throughout the state. Before the piling removal started in Chambers Bay, a before and after study was started on the PAH uptake of blue mussels. Unfortunately, after the removal of the pilings in this location, no mussels were to be found and an after study could not be conducted. The state has agreed Titlow will be one, if not the last, place the pilings will be removed in support of continuing our research and finalizing our design proposal for replacement. 

Determining the right solution to this piling removal is at the heart of the work our students are currently doing, proposing designs that encourage the recruitment of existing organisms and possibly the recruitment of new and different organisms. Recent studies are looking at different types of environmentally friendly materials for replacing the pilings that will encourage the recruitment of organisms. Currently, the dominate animal in the habitat is white-plumed anemone. They appear like a beautiful, “forest surrounding other animals and organisms. It truly is a ‘home’”, says DeGroot, that our students are trying to preserve.

To reduce the human footprint of the sanctuary, our students are looking into a cluster design solution, consisting of three to five new pilings constructed out of steel or reinforced concrete, placed in a circular formation. The big difference between the current pilings and the clusters is that they create a water column in the way they are constructed. The water column provides zones for a rich variety of flora and fauna such as kelps, sea anemone, barnacles, crabs, clams, and sea stars, plus fish are attracted to the vertical relief they provide. Our students are concluding their design research and will make recommendations for both the new piling composition and cluster formation, and suggest the installation of a few clusters before the removal of the current pilings, giving the inhabitants some time to transfer to the new structures. 

They will present their proposal to the Washington Scuba Alliance (WSA) and various government agencies. As a lobbying group, the WSA has successfully secured funding for other underwater preserves and artificial reefs in South and North Puget Sound. Mentorships with individuals of different institutions in the local area enable our students to experience genuine, authentic research. Partnerships with University of Washington Tacoma, Washington State University Puyallup and University of Puget Sound have supported our students in environmentally-based types of research. 

In addition, experience working with many different local and national agencies such as the City of Tacoma, Metro Parks, WSA, Department of Natural Resources, and ESRI, the global leader in Geographic Information Systems, empower our students to develop and present solutions to current environmental challenges.

Research and studies conducted at the Titlow Marine Sanctuary have had a transformational impact 
on many of our students. When asked based on their experience, “why do you believe it is so important to care for the environment?” here is what two Marine Chemistry graduating seniors had to say: 

“My partner Alex Aversa and I did a study on the pilings at Titlow Beach and their effect on biodiversity. From our work on this project, we are reminded that everything we do has an impact on our surroundings. Installing the pilings at Titlow, for example, had a drastic effect on the organisms in the Titlow ecosystem. This in turn affects the people who use Titlow for educational, recreational and research purposes. I believe it is important to care for our environment because the way we treat the Earth inevitably affects us as well.” -Nicki Añel B’19.

“Spending time at the Titlow Marine Sanctuary as a part of Marine Chemistry has given me a greater appreciation of the environment. I believe it was a privilege for me to be able to witness the workings of the natural environment at such an immersive level. Titlow is a local treasure that we should be proud of; it has a richness that we tend to take for granted. It’s important that we understand that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. There is so much life on our planet and seeing the biodiversity at Titlow for myself made me realize that it is a gift that we should strive to protect. One of the biggest takeaways I had from our Marine Chemistry project was that if we neglected to care for places like Titlow, we would be losing an extraordinary place of education, recreation and habitation.” -Elyse Misola B’19

From their experience in the Marine Chemistry program, several of our alumni have continued the path of research and environmental studies. DeGroot speaks highly of all our Marine Chemistry program graduates and recently shared about the impact the program had on some specific alumni post-secondary and career decisions: 

“Sonya Dyhrman B’90 selected plankton as her [Marine Chemistry] research subject and she continued through college and post-grad, and now she is at Columbia University as one of the top plankton researchers in the world. She has been able to take learning something from here and followed that path. She has also provided advice to several of our students studying plankton.

As part of his Marine Chemistry water quality analysis project, Arthur Trembanis B’94 built a turbidity meter to study and measure the clarity of water. Now, as an Associate Professor at the University of Delaware, Art is directing the Coastal Sediments Hydrodynamics & Engineering Lab, which he explains ‘seeks to understand the morphodynamic processes of coastal systems.’ In January 2019, Art led a team of students that discovered the wreckage of a WWII B-24 Bomber off Bermuda. As part of an upcoming National Geographic documentary on the consequences of atomic weapons testing, Art will be on his way to Bikini Island in June to map the ships that were sunk as part of Operation Crossroads in 1946. The documentary may be scheduled for release sometime this fall.  

Heidi Hirsh B’08 started a plankton study [at Bellarmine] and was able to take that passion and understanding of the plight of those organisms, not just into her undergraduate studies, but graduate school. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Earth System department at Stanford University. According to her bio on the Stanford website, ‘her dissertation research focuses on understanding the short-term impacts of seagrass community metabolism on the seawater carbonate system.’

Sara Welsh B’08 studied the health of Eel Grass beds in the Titlow Marine Sanctuary, and their importance  to the survival of native marine fauna. Her interest in protecting and maintaining ocean habitats continues as part of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. The mission of the society is ‘to explore our global ocean, inspiring and educating people throughout the world to act responsibly for its protection, documenting the critical connection between humanity and nature, and celebrating the ocean’s vital importance to the survival of all life on our planet.’

During her time at Bellarmine, Kayleen McMonigal B’11 conducted a 24-hour dive study on the migration patterns of larval bivalves. Every four or six hours she collected plankton samples, which translated into a passion for environmentally based research. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Miami studying Physical Oceanography, and how ocean circulation fits within our climate system. She is one of four Bellarmine siblings in her family that have conducted environment-related and other science-related studies while at Bellarmine and beyond.

Molly Payne B’14 conducted a study of Cancer Productus, a species of red rock crabs, to determine if the crab population in Titlow was at a healthy level. Molly has since graduated from the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and will be attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks for her master’s degree. She was recently sponsored and awarded the Macaulay Fellowship to conduct research on salmon with field work in Southeast Alaska this summer. She is the first female recipient of the Macaulay Fellowship, which will fully fund her tuition and research in addition to providing her a stipend and health insurance.”

According to DeGroot, “Our students are seeing the impact in what they are doing. Their first look is complicated, but they also start seeing the bigger picture. They will question why there are so many studies pertaining to, for example, Eel Grass or sea stars. Even if they don’t totally understand all the science, they are at least getting exposure and realizing there are important things to study.”