UConn Ph.D. Student uses scuba diving to study microscopic algae

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Diving divers into the water. Sean Ryan shows up to research microalgae and how they can help against the growing threat of climate change. Ryan hopes his work will help other scientists take action to solve climate change. photo by Pia Bercic

A University of Connecticut Marine Sciences Ph.D. Student uses Avery Point’s diving program to research the adaptability of microalgae to climate change.

Microalgae are phytoplankton that are found in freshwater and marine ecosystems and live in water and sediments. They are unicellular, invisible to the naked eye, and the basis of many aquatic food webs as they tend to swim in the upper levels of the ocean where they feed on sunlight. The two main species are dinoflagellates, which have a whip-like tail and complex shell, and diatoms, which move on ocean currents in the water and have a rigid, interlocking shell.

Sean Ryan, a Ph.D. Student, holds a BA in Biology from SUNY Binghamton and has a background in freshwater system ecology. He has been studying marine systems since arriving at UConn. Ryan explores how climate change affects these habitat-forming microalgae and how it affects the makeup and functions of communities.

“I think it’s really important to understand how the species that provide habitat for everything around them are affected by ocean warming,” said Ryan.

The main aspect of his research is using data loggers to record how environmental factors such as temperature vary between time and space in order to understand how kelp populations function in Long Island Sound. He investigated sites near Avery Point and collected data on species density and biomass for the sugar kelp (Saccharina latissim) and horsetail (Laminaria digitata). In the future, Ryan will conduct growth experiments in the field and in the laboratory.

Kelp is essential to Ryan’s research as it provides food and habitats for other species within the group of algae. As climate change warms the world’s oceans, the number of cold-water adapted seaweed is decreasing, which Ryan’s research suggests has an impact on the health of Connecticut’s waters.

Ryan received his Scientific Diver certification from Jeff Godfrey, the dive safety officer for Avery Point’s diving program.

He has always loved water and grew up trying to get as close to it as possible. Even during his studies he was fascinated by research and found it even more rewarding to focus on the ocean.

“Diving underwater is a therapeutic experience for me. I can hide the rest of the world, including my to-do list, and just explore. Overall, my favorite memory was a dive with fellow UConn students in Stonington, CT, ”said Ryan. “The sun set while we were diving, and when we swam back to the surface, bioluminescent dinoflagellates glowed light blue when our fins kicked.”

The diving program at Avery Point enables students and researchers to understand the complex and mysterious world of the ocean by keeping their eyes and brain directly underwater. Peter Auster, emeritus research professor in the marine sciences department, has been with UConn for over 40 years and sees the diving program as an excellent opportunity.

“It is very gratifying to see that after working in my lab or class, the students have learned something new and switched gears and see how they are doing this work or working towards future conservation goals.”

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An underwater perspective can be critical to informing the public and policy makers.

“What drives me most is documenting what is happening so that I can share that knowledge with people who live nearby and are likely to care. I really believe that science that isn’t well communicated will always be bad science, ”said Ryan.

Scientific diving is a professional diving branch regulated by the government. There is a diving control committee, the majority of which are active scientific divers. There is a safety manual created by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. These elements set a standard that facilitates reciprocity between institutions as they all follow the same rules and guidelines.

Auster’s work on the political and management side begins on the beach and works its way into the deep sea. His recent work included a project to develop habitats and define seabed communities in Long Island Sound with camera and diving work.

“We have a lot of problems that we have to try and solve. Working in the underwater landscape gives a unique perspective to what people do with the ocean and what we could do to preserve and use our natural heritage in a sustainable manner, ”said Auster.


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