UTRGV graduate student gets her feet wet with blue carbon research, during NOAA internship

UTRGV biology graduate student Leticia Contreras was able to combine her love of field work and research in the lab during an October internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research.

By Cheryl Taylor

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – JAN. 27, 2016 – Leticia Contreras, a biology graduate student at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, loves field work – even if it means spending hours outdoors, generally in heat and humidity and surrounded by brackish water.

As an intern with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (CCFHR), she got valuable experience last October collecting sediment samples for research – wading through estuarine reserves in Beaufort, N.C.

“It was a busy and productive month,” Contreras said. “One of my responsibilities was to assist scientists and technicians at the CCFHR with an ongoing study of salt marsh carbon sequestration rates.”

Her NOAA mentor, Dr. Carolyn Currin, and Currin’s team of scientists trained her to use some of their equipment, including a Greenhouse Gas Analyzer (GGA) to measure CO2 evolution in decomposing black mangrove litter.

“This experience enhanced my understanding and supports my master’s thesis – testing several hypotheses about factors influencing the rate of mangrove leaf litter decomposition,” she said. “The common denominator of these studies is ‘blue carbon,’ the carbon sequestered in organic forms within aquatic systems.”

When she graduated from The University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College in May 2014, Contreras accepted a scholarship funded by NOAA to continue her studies at UTRGV.

UTRGV is one of six partners in NOAA’s Environmental Cooperative Science Center (ECSC), along with Creighton University in Nebraska, Delaware State University, Florida A&M University, Jackson State University in Mississippi, and Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi.

“As an ECSC partner university, UTRGV has had about 15 graduate and undergraduate students receive support and participate in the ECSC research training activities” said Dr. Alejandro Fierro Cabo, assistant professor of Marine and Coastal Sciences. “As did those before her, Leticia is benefitting greatly from this partnership.”

Graduate ECSC students receive tuition, a stipend, research experience and paid travel to conferences, workshops and trainings, where they learn field sampling and data collection techniques and become exposed to new coastal habitats and management issues.

Contreras has participated in all available ECSC activities, including the last field campaign of “ground truthing” in May 2015 at Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, located on the shoreline close to the Mississippi/Alabama border. Ground truth refers to the information yielded by direct observation, as opposed to information obtained by inference.

“These week-long field activities are another important training opportunity for ECSC undergraduate and graduate students and they support research in the ecosystem characterization and ecological processes focus areas,” Fierro said.

Field activities at Grand Bay included water quality sampling at 20 sites, marsh characterization at 90 sites, collection of ground-based Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) remote sensing and Real Time Kinematic (RTK) satellite navigation data, and sampling in support of several student projects.

Partner universities take turns conducting field work activities. Recently, members of the UTRGV Marine and Coastal Sciences unit participated in a center-wide core competency course for all ECSC students in Port Aransas.

On the home stretch of her master’s thesis research, Contreras continues to collect leaves from mangrove trees in the Lower Laguna Madre. In the laboratory, she compares the leaves’ decomposition process under varying salinity, temperature, nitrogen availability and water turbulence.

“I work on my thesis research in Dr. Fierro’s laboratory, and I also assist him with several of his research projects,” Contreras said. “I am learning so much. Dr. Fierro’s guidance is invaluable.”

Contreras also continues to receive mentoring and support from Currin, her NOAA mentor.

“Dr. Currin is very supportive and is a member of Leticia’s thesis committee,” Fierro said. “This is just another advantage of being an ECSC partner, linking graduate students with NOAAscientists conducting compatible research.”

Contreras hopes her time spent at the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research will help open a door to employment with NOAA after completing her master’s degree in December 2016.

“This is the work I want to do,” she said. “With my area of interest and research, I see myself living and working along the southeastern Atlantic Coast or the Gulf Coast.”

For more information on UTRGV’s Marine and Coastal Sciences program, contact Dr. David Hicks at 956-882-5040 or david.hicks@utrgv.edu.

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