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Class of a lifetime: Studying coral reef ecosystem in the Bahamas

Last month, our Ecology Field Study class traveled to the Bahamas to examine coral reef ecosystems. There were nine excited students on the learning excursion led by Dr. Tom Bridgeman, professor of environmental sciences, and Dr. John Turner, professor of physiology and pharmacology.

Coconut palms and tropical Abaco pines resembling Dr. Seuss’ truffula trees filled the gaps between the three houses rented for our research team. The cottage I stayed in is everything one might imagine a beach house should be. Conch shells line the sandy path toward the blue water. The beach sits not even 20 feet from the house and stretches for miles in both directions. The soft white sand is finer than any Floridian beach I have ever been to, and there are no other people in sight. The crystal blue water is mesmerizing.

Students in the Ecology Field Study class posed for a photo on the beach on Great Abaco Island. They are, from left, Matthew Bender, Sarah Carter, Wendy Stevens, Bianca Caniglia, Jordan Penkava, Jessica Duez, Katie Condon and Brittany Layden. Dr. Rick Francis, director of research advancement and information systems, also a member of the class, shot photos and video during the trip.

For our first snorkel, Dr. Turner took us to a private beach access point called Mermaid Reef. The water was warm (78 degrees maybe) and does not require the use of wet suits or weights. Mermaid Reef is a calm, clear location ripe with parrotfish (of various species), queen angelfish, and swarms of sergeant majors. We saw a few spiny lobsters hiding beneath the smaller reef shelves. If it weren’t for their long antennae protruding from the rock, we might not have even noticed they were there. Blue tangs (Dory fish), schools of yellowtail snappers, and a few shy squirrel fish swam to try to hide from us along the reef sides. After a few hours, everyone was hungry, and we left the site to stock up on groceries, make lunch, and recharge.

After lunch, we head out to a patch reef just beyond the beachfront cottages we’re staying in. Most of the students swam out in a small school. Some of us paddled out on a small zodiac boat a few hundred yards out into the blue. I am nervous. I don’t like to admit that I am afraid of anything, but I am eager to see my first reef shark, so I scan the horizon looking for any gray triangles breaking the surface. I’ve been fascinated and fearful of sharks for the better part of two decades. However, I know that I have greater odds of dying by a cow tipping over on me or possibly getting struck by lightning. Despite my fears, I plunge into the ocean with the others.

A hawksbill sea turtle hiding on the patch reef was spotted on the first day of the trip.

Enormous purple sea fans, rusty-orange sponges, and sea kelp cover the live rock. The top of the reef is only a foot or two below the surface, and I find myself being pushed and pulled gently by the waves. I am trying — and failing — not to go directly atop the reef. Meanwhile, my fins are killing the tops of my feet. I swim toward the others so I don’t feel exposed or alone. After about 10 minutes, the paranoia subsides. I calmly start to visually scan every nook and cranny I see. There are so many things moving in and out of the little coral reef niches that I have a hard time focusing on any single fan or fish.

Then I see it! A mottled oval with two eyes, but I am unsure. I intently stare at the reef until the outline of a shell and flippers emerge from its camouflage. I burst toward the surface and shout “Sea turtle!” It wasn’t actively swimming, just sitting there patiently waiting for us to leave, I imagine. It wasn’t unusually large or small, but it is hard to gauge size and distance underwater. That hawksbill sea turtle made the first day of our trip very special.

Students snorkeled at Mermaid Reef.

After a late dinner, the whole team gathered to record all the species of fish that we could confirm we saw throughout the day. I think there were close to 20 different fish recorded. We projected some of Dr. Rick Francis’ pictures onto a large white sheet for all to see.

On the second day, Dr. Turner and Dr. Bridgeman coordinated an exciting boat day. We had to organize our gear and leave early in the morning to meet our captain and guide. Tim is an islander whose family originally settled on Great Abaco Island back in the 1600s. He told me he was a professional fisherman who fishes for mahi mahi (dolphin fish), red snapper and spiny lobsters. However, that day he was taking us to some special reef sites: Snake Key, a national Abaco-protected marine reserve, as well as an open-ocean drop with gorgeous reef wall. We boarded around 9 a.m. and motored out a few miles away to the first location, a historical shipping channel.

The shipping channel, otherwise known as Snake Key, has a fast current. The plan was for Tim to drop us off far upstream and allow us to drift to a pickup site farther downstream. The channel wall had some nice corals and a few spiny lobsters, but the quick current made it challenging to photograph. Tim picked us up and then drove us back upstream to do it again. There were some large rays that were seen from the boat — a few outlines and shadows moving under the surface and away from the boat.

Dr. Tom Bridgeman examined a live conch with, from left, daughter Mirabel Bridgeman and students Jordan Penkava, Matthew Bender and Katie Condon.

After that, we trolled along the waters of the key. There were small mangrove islands and many rocky, seemingly uninhabited mini-tree isles all around us. The water was crystal clear and shallow. I saw cushion sea stars (starfish) from the boat and sea turtle shadows darting away from our path. We stopped the boat atop a blue hole, where the shallows disappeared and a deep dark hole (which I chose to avoid) was located. Rick launched his remote-controlled camera drone to get aerial footage of our snorkeling. I think most of us were betting on spotting sea turtles, but instead I mostly saw only sea cucumbers.

Once all the students were back on board, we headed out into the blue toward the protected marine preserve. As we navigated toward the site, I became awestruck with how the ocean changed color. Growing up and around Lake Erie for most my life, I have never seen so many shades of blue in a single body of water. It turns from teal to clear, then aquamarine to a deep blue and then back to teal again; it was breathtakingly beautiful.

Dr. Rick Francis took an aerial shot by quadcopter of the patch reef.

As we approached the Pelican Cay marina park, I noticed a couple other boats had snorkelers in the water. Dr. Turner told us where to head once we were in the water. He prefaced our swim with descriptions of large elkhorn and staghorn corals, and Tim reassured us that if we were in any distress to wave to him and he would bring the boat to pick us up. Here the water was nearly true blue, and I definitely could not see the bottom.

When I finally got my mask to seal tight and put my face down, I saw a great expanse of coral and life that I could only describe as an endless reef filled with color and fish everywhere! The fish were so numerous and the mass of reef so long that I became somewhat disoriented underwater as my eyes tried to adjust focus. I don’t remember how long we were in the water here, but I could have stayed much longer.

I was most excited to see my first French angelfish! It was so pretty, its grayish body covered in bright yellow scales. I have yet to see another one, but I don’t think I will ever forget how gracefully it moved below me. I tried to free-dive down for a better look, but I was far too buoyant to get any closer than about 4 feet. Additionally, I saw a chubby porcupine fish (puffer) hovering at the reef’s edge nearer to the bottom. He wasn’t inflated; to me, he seemed kind of adorable, doe-eyed with a big ol’ mouth. But it was the elkhorn coral that took my breath away. I never thought I would get to see a coral reef the way it looks in my dreams. Its color and vastness were overwhelming, spiritually uplifting, and magical. I have to go back there — before it disappears forever.

Various sea fans were seen on the coral reefs.

By the time the last snorkel site of the day, I was exhausted. The open-ocean drop-off was a destination I knew we were going to get to snorkel, but I didn’t realize we were going to see so many locations in a single day. I counted eight snorkel drops in six hours. My back, ankles and arms were sore, and I really did not want to wear my wetsuit any longer, so I removed it thinking I was done. Little did I know that we were about to snorkel the largest wall of coral imaginable.

The first one in the water was Brittany Layden; within minutes, she came to the surface and said, “I just saw a barracuda!” It didn’t take long for everyone else to grab their gear and jump into the dark water. I asked Dr. Turner if we would see another site like this on the trip, he said, “No,” and I realized I had to go in.

Students also saw this spotted trunkfish with a remora hitching a ride.

Putting a wet wetsuit on after it has already been removed is an exhausting task in itself. The tops of my feet were raw from my fins. I decided to take the chance and go in unprotected and with only my mask and snorkel. It was an opportunity that I wasn’t sure I would ever get again, so I went in.

By the time I got in, the barracuda had disappeared into the blue. I swam over to the others and saw an even larger reef wall than in Pelican Cay. It was easily 50 feet tall, and I could see all the way to the bottom. I quickly scanned the water surrounding me for jellyfish because I didn’t want to get stung. I looked down and saw a spotted trunkfish and tried to get the attention of Dr. Bridgeman or Rick who were filming underwater.

Swimming alongside the great wall of coral, we spooked a sea turtle, which quickly darted up and over the reef out of sight. Myself and a few others followed, but without fins I was slower and clumsier in the water. As I continued to try and keep up, I spotted a Nassau grouper 30 feet below me.

Whenever I spotted a new species, I tried to get the other’s attention so they could see it, too. However, trying to talk with a snorkel in your mouth is impossible, and half the time I’d surface and everyone else still had their heads down. I carried on nonetheless. After about 20 minutes, I was done — out of breath, out of the water, and heading back to the dock. This day was going to be impossible to top. A couple other students managed to see the outline of a shark, but they were too far away to make a positive ID. I had hoped to see a shark and yet felt completely satisfied having not seen one. It was a remarkable experience learning in the ocean.

Stevens graduated in May with a bachelor of science degree in environmental science.

Professor, students on team selected to participate in $5 million national solar competition

A University of Toledo physics professor and students are members of a Toledo team awarded $60,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to participate in a $5 million prize competition called the Solar in Your Community Challenge.

The team, which is named Glass City Community Solar, aims to expand solar electricity access to low- and moderate-income residents. It’s comprised of community partners, including UT, Vistula Management Co., the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority and the city of Toledo.

UT senior Evan Nichols was interviewed by NBC 24 about the Solar in Your Community Challenge.

Glass City Community Solar is one of 35 teams nationally to be selected to receive seed funds from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative to support project planning and to raise awareness. All teams will compete for $1 million in prizes, which will be awarded by judges based on each project or program’s innovation, impact and replicability.

Over the next 18 months, Glass City Community Solar will demonstrate innovative financing for commercial solar installations.

“It is extremely exciting for us to be able to have a hand in a project that has so much potential to benefit families by reducing electric bills, as well as educating the Toledo community about the use of renewable energy,” said UT student Blaine Luszcak, who is co-president of the UT student group called Building Ohio’s Sustainable Energy Future.

Glass City Community Solar will develop 300- to 750-kilowatt photovoltaic systems on rooftops and vacant lots to serve low- and moderate-income housing across the metro Toledo area. The cost savings will reduce electricity expenses and also support residents interested in pursuing education and training in the solar energy field.

“Our students will benefit tremendously from these real-world photovoltaic projects as they create an extended learning lab that will result in several large, operational photovoltaic power systems,” Dr. Randy Ellingson, UT professor of physics, said.

“We are thrilled that our team was selected to join the challenge,” said John Kiely, president of Vistula Management Co. and the team leader of Glass City Community Solar. “Our projects will benefit the people of Lucas County, and bring The University of Toledo’s leadership and passion for photovoltaic technology to real-world applications that benefit the people in our community that need it most.”

Find more information about the competition at solarinyourcommunity.org.

Eclipse photo by UT alumnus featured on new stamp; ‘Mr. Eclipse’ to give talk June 15

March 7, 1970, was on Fred Espenak’s radar for years.

“I was an amateur astronomer as a teenager, and I thought wow, it’s not that often a total eclipse crosses some part of the United States, so this may be my chance of a lifetime to see one,” the UT alumnus recalled.

Fred Espenak took the solar eclipse photo featured on the new Forever stamp in Jalu, Libya, March 29, 2006.

At 16, he convinced his parents to let him borrow the family car and drove 600 miles from his home in Staten Island, N.Y., to Windsor, N.C.

“When the eclipse took place, I thought I was prepared because I had read magazine articles and books about it. I had my telescope set up to take some pictures,” Espenak said. “But when that shadow of the moon hit and we were plunged into this eerie twilight, it was so phenomenal and all-encompassing that when it was over, I thought: Oh, this can’t be once-in-a-lifetime; that went way too quickly; I’ve got to see another one.

“And the next one was in Canada two years later. That was the start of my very long career of chasing eclipses around the world.”

Planes, trains and automobiles have taken Espenak to 27 total eclipses on seven continents.

“The one in 1995 in India was unique. It was a short eclipse; it was only about 40 seconds long,” he said.

Yet it was momentous.

“It happened to be the eclipse trip that I met my wife on. She was on the trip to see her first total eclipse,” Espenak said. “It turns out, back in the States, Patricia lived about a six-hour drive from me, but we had to travel halfway around the world to run into each other.”

Fred Espenak’s photos are featured on the U.S. Postal Service’s stamp to commemorate the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse. It is the first U.S. stamp that uses thermochromic ink; with the touch of a finger, the image changes from the total solar eclipse to the full moon.

Together, the retired astrophysicist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the retired chemistry teacher operate the Bifrost Astronomical Observatory in Portal, Ariz., and continue their quest to experience total eclipses.

Next up: The Great American Total Eclipse Monday, Aug. 21. The sensational sky show that stars the moon passing between the sun and Earth will be visible in the contiguous United States for the first time since 1979 — weather permitting.

“The track of the moon’s shadow will cut diagonally across the nation from Oregon to South Carolina through 14 states. Inside the 70-mile-wide path of totality, the moon will completely cover the sun as the landscape is plunged into an unsettling twilight, and the sun’s glorious corona is revealed for more than two minutes,” Espenak explained.

He may be in Casper, Wyo., to watch the awe-inspiring event.

“There’s a big astronomy conference there called AstroCon 2017, and they invited me to speak four years ago. I think that’s the longest lead time I’ve had for a speaking invitation,” Espenak said. “Casper is right in the eclipse path.

“But I don’t know where I’m going to be on eclipse day because it depends on what the forecast is one or two days before the eclipse. If the forecast is good for Casper, I’ll stay there. But if it’s not promising, I’m going to drive Sunday because I can get 600 or 800 miles east or west of Casper on the day before the eclipse.”

No passing fancy, but a passing obsession with astronomical objects led to Espenak’s nickname: Mr. Eclipse.

Fred Espenak operates the Bifrost Astronomical Observatory in Portal, Ariz.

That memorable moniker and his international reputation as an eclipse expert helped land an ultra-cool gig with the U.S. Postal Service. While working on two books, “Eclipse Bulletin: Total Solar Eclipse 2017” and “Road Atlas for the Total Solar Eclipse 2017,” his phone rang.

“I got a call over a year ago that they were considering a commemorative stamp for the eclipse, and they wanted to know if I would act as a consultant on the technical information for the map on the back of the sheet and a description of the eclipse path,” Espenak said. “They also said they were looking for some photographs to possibly use as the stamp, and I said I would submit some images.”

Millions have seen his work; Espenak’s photos have been published in National Geographic, Nature and Newsweek. Check out mreclipse.com.

“It turned out the U.S. Postal Service decided to use two of my images for this new stamp with thermochromic ink. Other countries have used this technology, but it’s the first time in the United States. When you rub the stamp, a second image appears from the warmth of your finger. You’ll see the total eclipse of the sun and, with the touch of your finger, you’ll see the full moon,” he said.

To commemorate the Aug. 21 event, the Total Eclipse of the Sun Forever stamp will be released Tuesday, June 20, during a ceremony at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Espenak and his wife will be there.

Patricia Totten Espenak and Fred Espenak

“I’m honored to have my photographs on a stamp. But more importantly, the stamp will spread the news about America’s Great Eclipse to many more people,” he said. “And what a fantastic opportunity. For a lot of people, this is the chance of a lifetime to see a total eclipse.”

Meanwhile, he is giving talks around the country to preview the celestial spectacle.

Espenak will return to his alma mater to speak Thursday, June 15, at 6:30 p.m. in Memorial Field House Room 2100.

“Fred Espenak is another great example of a ‘rocket scientist’ who has really lived up to that name,” said Dr. Karen Bjorkman, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics; Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy; and Helen Luedtke Brooks Endowed Professor of Astronomy. “He has made solid contributions to NASA science missions for many years, and is also doing a wonderful job of sharing his passion for and knowledge of eclipses with the public both on national and international stages. We’re really proud that he is an alumnus of The University of Toledo’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.”

During the free, public talk funded by the Helen Luedtke Brooks Endowed Professorship in Astronomy, the 1976 UT graduate who received a master of science degree in physics will discuss eclipses and share his eyewitness accounts around the globe through video and photos.

And he’ll offer two words of advice: road trip.

“I’m going to show people what they can expect to see in Toledo and how to watch it using safe eye protection, but I’m also going to encourage people to start making plans for a car trip to the eclipse path of totality because that’s where you have to be to see the total phase of the eclipse, and it’s worth the drive.

“It’s something you remember your entire life because it’s so unusual from anything you’ve seen before,” Espenak said. “The bright sun is completely gone in the sky, and you see this very strange-looking black disc, which is the unilluminated side of the moon, and it’s surrounded by this gossamer, feathery halo that’s the sun’s corona, which is two million degrees. It’s the only time you can see something that’s two million degrees with the naked eye. It’s such a stunning, overwhelming experience: The temperature drops probably 10 degrees as you go into totality, so you feel a chill in the air; animals react strangely; birds quiet down as if they’re going to roost at night.

“And it’s only for a few minutes. When it’s over, you really have a desire to see it again.”

UT scientist named Top 40 Under 40 by Greenhouse Product News

When asked how she first became interested in plants and nature, Dr. Jennifer Boldt attributed her passion to her family.

“For most of my life, my parents owned and operated a greenhouse and garden center in Florida. I have literally grown up surrounded by plants. My sister and I would help out in the afternoons after school and during the summers. I have fond memories of helping my parents and grandparents transplant seedlings,” she recalled.

Dr. Jennifer Boldt, adjunct research assistant professor of environmental sciences, was named one of the Top 40 Under 40 by Greenhouse Product News.

“My sister and I thought it was great because we got to spend time with [family] and nobody minded that we got dirty. As we got older, we assumed more and more responsibility in both the production and retail aspects of the business. We saw all the hard work, dedication and passion that our parents had for growing beautiful plants, helping customers find the right plants for their gardens and landscapes, and providing a sense of community for their employees and customers,” Boldt continued. “My dad was a very patient teacher and cultivated our interest in learning how plants grow. As I got older, I decided that this could be a career path for me, too.

“I studied horticulture and business administration as an undergraduate, and had planned to one day take over the family business. However, I discovered research and have taken a slightly different career path, but I am still very much involved in the horticulture industry and enjoy it immensely.”

Boldt was recently named one of the Top 40 Under 40 by Greenhouse Product News. She is a research horticulturalist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, housed in Wolfe Hall. She and her colleagues utilize space in the Wolfe Hall greenhouse and at the Toledo Botanical Garden. The Wolfe Hall greenhouse also is utilized by members of the departments of Biological Sciences and Environmental Sciences.

In addition, Boldt is as an adjunct research assistant professor in environmental sciences at UT.

Listed among Boldt’s accomplishments in Greenhouse Product News was her research program that studied how different factors and practices influenced the growth and development of greenhouse crops.

“The Agricultural Research Service is the chief in-house scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It has more than 90 research locations and 690 research projects, but our group is the only one whose project is focused specifically on the production of greenhouse-grown ornamentals. This includes primarily flowering plants, like what you would plant in a home garden or in container planters, but also vegetables and culinary herbs. Our research looks at how light, temperature, carbon dioxide concentration, fertilizers, and the growing medium influence how quickly a plant grows, how quickly it flowers, how it looks (its architecture), and/or how well it is able to tolerate stress,” Boldt explained.

“For instance, one project looks at what growing conditions optimize a plant’s photosynthetic rate. We have developed models and incorporated them into a software tool that growers can use to see how adding supplemental lighting or increasing and/or decreasing the greenhouse temperature will affect plant growth. They can compare the predicted change in plant growth to the costs associated with changing the greenhouse environment and determine if it is worthwhile from an economic perspective. We want to provide information and recommendations to growers that can help increase their productivity and profitability, while at the same time reduce the quantity of inputs — water, fertilizer, energy, etc. — required to successfully grow plants in greenhouses and other controlled environments.”

Though her work may seem complicated to outsiders, Boldt enjoys her day-to-day research.

“There never is a typical day, which keeps things interesting. Most of my time is spent in the office, planning upcoming research, analyzing data from experiments, writing manuscripts, reviewing manuscripts, and checking in with our fabulous greenhouse and lab technicians to see how plant care, data collection and laboratory analyses are going. I have ongoing research collaborations with a few Agricultural Research Service and university researchers, so there are planning and update meetings that occur. When we have ongoing plant trials, I routinely check in on the plants — like a doctor making rounds at a hospital — to see how they are growing.

“I do enjoy the days when I get to spend some time in the greenhouse; we lease greenhouse space at the Toledo Botanical Garden and conduct many of our research trials there,” she said.

As for her colleagues, Boldt said, “I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great team of scientists, postdocs, technicians and undergraduate students that work daily to accomplish the research goals of our group. Current members include Mona-Lisa Banks, Douglas Sturtz, Cindy Carnicom and Mitchell Caris. We also had two terrific UT undergraduate students in spring semester — Amy Towell and Maithili Kulkarni.”

There was another member of the horticulture industry that Boldt was especially pleased to be recognized alongside: her twin sister, Jessica Boldt.

“It was a wonderful surprise. We are very close and have very similar interests. Our undergraduate degrees are the same, and we even had the same adviser for our master’s degrees. We have cheered on each other’s accomplishments, and so it’s very special to be nominated by different individuals and selected for this recognition together in the same year,” Boldt said. “We found out that we both had been selected when someone emailed me instead of Jessica to congratulate her. We had a good laugh, since we get mistaken for the other all the time, even though we now live in different states.

“In case you can’t tell, I’m very proud of Jessica,” she said and then laughed.

The two share the same passion for horticulture and the large role that it plays in society.

“On a basic level, plants are a source of food, fiber and fuel. They provide vitamins and nutrients. Many contain compounds that have medicinal uses. Plants improve the air quality. Trees, shrubs and green roofs lower the energy costs of homes and buildings. Exposure to plants and nature reduces our stress levels. Gardening is therapeutic and provides a way to stay active. There are so many benefits that plants provide that positively impact our well-being,” Boldt explained.

“Have you seen how someone’s face lights up when you give her or him a basket of fresh-picked strawberries or a bouquet of beautiful flowers? There is joy in planting bulbs in the fall and watching them emerge from the ground the following spring. Without waxing poetic too much, we need to feed and nourish the body, mind and soul, and horticulture allows us to do that. Also, career opportunities abound in horticulture — plant breeding, greenhouse flower and vegetable production, public garden management, teaching, research, education, and marketing, to name a few.”

She beamed as she looked at the pink petunias lined up in the greenhouse at Toledo Botanical Garden.

“From my little corner of horticulture, it’s very satisfying to not just advance our understanding of plants, but also provide practical recommendations to growers so that they can continue to be successful.”

Fellows selected for new conference leadership initiative

Three UT faculty members have been named fellows to participate in the new Mid-American Conference Academic Leadership Development Program.

The program was created to foster preparation and advancement of future academic leaders through working with MAC administrators and colleagues.

Dr. Andrew Hsu, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said, “The University of Toledo is excited to join the Mid-American Conference Academic Leadership Development Program, and we are happy to announce the fellows from our institution who will benefit from this tremendous opportunity.”

Fellows for the 2017-18 academic year are:

• Dr. Patrick Lawrence, professor of geography and planning, and associate dean of social and behavioral sciences in the College of Arts and Letters;

• Holly Monsos, professor of theatre and associate dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts in the College of Arts and Letters; and

• Dr. Amy Thompson, professor of public health in the School of Population Health in the College of Health and Human Services; faculty fellow in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs; and 2017-18 president of Faculty Senate.

All tenured faculty with experience in administrative leadership and service were eligible to apply for the MAC Academic Leadership Development Program. Candidates needed to submit a letter of support from their dean, as well as an application and curriculum vitae for consideration.

“Our fellows will participate in a development program with UT leaders to gain valuable insight and experience,” Hsu said. “In addition, they will work with MAC school administrators and peers to better understand how universities operate.”

All MAC Academic Leadership Development Program fellows will attend one three-day workshop each semester. Topics to be addressed include conflict resolution, budgeting, accreditation and accountability.

“Thanks to this program, our fellows will see firsthand the challenges and rewards of institutional service as they prepare for potential leadership positions,” Hsu said.

Read more about the MAC Academic Leadership Development Program at utoledo.edu/offices/provost/MAC-ALDP.html.

Scientist studies effect of algal blooms on turtles

When the tap water of more than 500,000 northwest Ohioans was declared unsafe in August 2014, the three-day crisis caused global concern. Most was focused on how high levels of microcystin in citizens’ Lake Erie-fed tap water could affect those using it to drink, cook and bathe.

There was scant discussion regarding how the toxin, which is caused by certain freshwater cyanobacteria found in algal blooms, affects wildlife in and around freshwater lakes such as Lake Erie because little research existed.

This painted turtle from the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor, Ohio, was trapped and released by Dr. Jeanine Refsnider and her assistants after they took measurements to assess the effects of algal blooms on the reptile.

Dr. Jeanine Refsnider, assistant professor of ecology in UT’s Department of Environmental Sciences, is among the first to study how the harmful effects of algal blooms influence the health of Lake Erie wildlife, particularly turtles.

“Turtles are quite robust,” Refsnider said. “For a lot of species of vertebrates, what you see is when they’re stressed, their immune function is depressed, just like you find in humans. For turtles, preliminarily, we don’t really see that. [Their] immune system doesn’t seem to get weaker when they’re under stress.”

Refsnider and her team have been trapping turtles at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor, Ohio, since mid-May and will continue through next month. In the field, they take baseline measurements, such as weight and size; determine the genders; check females for eggs; count the number of leeches clinging to shells; and photograph the shells.

Dr. Jeanine Refsnider set up a trap to catch turtles at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor, Ohio. The turtles are not harmed by the tests performed in the lab or field, she said.

“Turtles that aren’t able to bask as much as they should tend to have more leeches and more algae growing on their shells, and we think that’s an indicator of worse health,” Refsnider noted.

The team also will take blood samples from each turtle’s tail for various assays to be examined in Refsnider’s lab.

“We’re looking for baseline levels of physiological stress,” she said. “When an organism is exposed to a longer-term stressor, the ratio of different types of white blood cells changes. It takes a few days, but you can actually get an estimate of their stress level by counting the number of white blood cells and looking at this ratio.

“We’re expecting that turtles during an algal bloom will have higher stress levels and lower immune functioning than turtles that are not exposed to an algal bloom, or turtles from different years when there isn’t any exposure to algae.”

Jessica Garcia, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in biology, walked a painted turtle to the water at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor, Ohio.

Refsnider’s research, funded in part by a $10,000 Ohio Sea Grant, will continue through 2018. This year, turtles will be trapped and analyzed in May and June, then again in August. In 2018, Refsnider’s team will repeat a spring catch, when algal blooms are absent from Lake Erie, and again in August, when warmer lake temperatures, increased rainfall and other factors contribute to the formation of algal blooms.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, spring measurements and rainfall projections indicate that the formation of harmful algal blooms this summer will be in the “middle of the pack” — neither severe nor insignificant.

Since Lake Erie is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, it is most susceptible to algal bloom formation.

Jessica Garcia returned a painted turtle to the water at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.

Refsnider said this year she’d like to sample about 80 turtles, including painted turtles, which are the most common to be seen basking on rocks and other structures; map turtles, which live closer to streams and rivers; snapping turtles; and red-eared slider turtles, which are not indigenous to Lake Erie, but are bought in pet stores and sometimes released into the wild.

Map turtles will be subject to an additional assay that takes place during 48 hours in Refsnider’s lab.

“We inject a skin irritant in the webbing between their toes that causes their body to think it’s infected, so the skin swells a little bit,” Refsnider said. “It is similar to the response to a bacterial infection. We can measure how much their skin swells in response to that irritant. It usually peaks at about six hours, then goes back to normal within the next 36 hours.”

Jessica Garcia checked a net for turtles at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor, Ohio.

She said her team measures the injected area every six hours.

None of the turtles, she added, are harmed by tests performed in the field or the lab.

Refsnider expects turtle research to be a precursor for further studies among Lake Erie’s wildlife, including water snakes, frogs and water birds.

“Since turtles are pretty tough, you can expose them to new climates and it doesn’t seem to affect them too much,” Refsnider, who has conducted research on turtles previously, said. “But a toxin in their water might be a substantially bigger problem; we’re just not sure. It could be that it doesn’t affect turtles, but it affects snakes or birds.”

She said water snakes at the Ottawa refuge are similar to the indigenous Lake Erie water snakes found only around the limestone islands scattered near the Catawba/Marblehead peninsula in Catawba Island, Ohio.

“The snake we’ll be studying is closely related to the Lake Erie water snake, and there are two rare turtle species that live along Lake Erie,” Refsnider said. “Whatever impact algal blooms have on these common species, they’re going to have on the rare species because both are closely related, so this will have implications on the endangered species.”

At UT since 2015, Refsnider was drawn by the opportunity to study how organisms respond to rapid environmental change. The ecological climate surrounding Lake Erie seemed an ideal laboratory.

“The ecology here is really interesting,” Refsnider said. “For the Midwest, Ohio has a really diverse community of reptiles and amphibians, which is what I work on. This is a great fit for me.”

She hopes research that begins with 80 turtles will have broader applications as scientists grapple with the effects of unprecedented climate change.

“If we can tell that algal blooms have a severe impact on these populations, maybe we can think about how to protect certain habitat areas from any kind of water exchange with Lake Erie so they have a refuge,” Refsnider noted. “Understanding the role algal blooms play in the decline of a local species will give us a better idea of how to protect these species against some human-caused threats.”

Researchers study red-headed woodpeckers to solve mysteries of charismatic, declining species

The red-headed woodpecker’s feisty, loud personality fits the reputation of crimson-maned creatures, but the student researcher gently holding the bird bucked the trend.

University of Toledo graduate student Kyle Pagel was calm, steady and methodical as he banded the woodpecker’s legs with tiny, colorful identifying rings and looped a miniature backpack armed with a light-level geolocator and pinpoint-GPS around its legs.

UT graduate student Kyle Pagel held a red-headed woodpecker at Oak Openings Metropark in Swanton, Ohio. He is helping to conduct research on the bird to discover migration routes and why the species is in decline.

“The woodpecker is wearing it like a climbing harness,” said Pagel, who is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental sciences at UT. “The backpack is so thin and light that it doesn’t inhibit flight or movement.”

The bird that flies freely once again from tree to tree isn’t the scarlet-mohawked woodpecker regularly spotted in backyards. The red-headed woodpecker is about the size of a robin or 10 times larger than a warbler.

This 70-gram, boldly patterned “flying checkerboard” is the seventh bird of its kind in a week that the UT team has examined at Oak Openings Metropark, taken a blood sample from, and outfitted with tracking technology to identify migration routes.

A photographer with the media took a photo of a red-headed woodpecker held by UT graduate student Kyle Pagel at Oak Openings Metropark.

“This is such as photogenic, popular species, it’s surprising how little is known about them,” Pagel said. “It’s fascinating to work with such a charismatic bird.”

Pagel, along with Dr. Henry Streby, UT assistant professor of environmental sciences and ornithologist, launched a study this month of red-headed woodpeckers that could last up to 10 years and solve many mysteries about the species.

For the next several weeks, the birding team’s office will be located throughout the Oak Openings region, including sites along Girdham Road and Jeffers Road at Oak Openings Metropark in Swanton, Ohio. They expect this year to put tracking technology on 20 adult red-headed woodpeckers in Ohio and 20 in Minnesota, and on another 25 juveniles in each of those states.

At Oak Openings Metropark, Dr. Henry Streby set up a mist net used to gently collect red-headed woodpeckers so more can be learned about the vanishing species.

“They’re in extreme decline, especially in the Midwest and Great Lakes area, maybe because of habitat loss and changes in their food supply,” Streby said. “We’re lucky to have Oak Openings just west of Toledo because it’s a place where red-headed woodpeckers seem to be doing relatively well. We want to figure out what’s working here and see if we can offer recommendations for habitat management elsewhere.”

Every morning the team sets up mist nets and uses recorded calls, drums and decoy birds to attract the woodpeckers.

Researchers are using blood samples to analyze DNA and hormones, as well as measure stress, immune system condition and aging.

The miniature backpack weighs about two grams and uses a light-level geolocator to gather data about when the birds go in and out of tree cavities each day. Pinpoint GPS, like on a cell phone, will tell the researchers where the birds traveled.

“Red-headed woodpeckers are inconsistent,” Streby said. “Some years they migrate for the winter, some years they don’t. We want to know why. We also want to know where they go when they’re not here on their breeding grounds. It could only be as far south as Kentucky or Tennessee. That is what we will learn for the first time when we recover the backpacks from the birds.”

Food availability, specifically acorns, is one of the factors being observed at Oak Openings this season, as well as reproductive success and genetics.

“We’re studying all of this without knowing whether these woodpeckers are going to leave or not,” Streby said. “It’ll take several breeding seasons to be able to analyze their habits and help us know what needs to be done to conserve the species, especially in places where the populations are shrinking.”

Streby also has been studying golden-winged warblers for five years using light-level geolocators that weigh less than half a paper clip to track migration patterns. The songbirds, which are about the size of a ping-pong ball, travel thousands of miles once they leave their spring and summer nesting grounds.

UT faculty, students to present diverse water quality research at Great Lakes conference in Detroit

An ongoing study on the height of the annual algal bloom in the water near the Toledo Water Intake in Lake Erie is one of 34 University of Toledo research projects being presented this week at the annual conference of the International Association of Great Lakes Research.

The study, which measures the algal bloom over 24 hours in rough and calm waters, is entering its second year. The goal is to make recommendations to water plant operators on the best time to pump water and reduce intake exposure to microcystin.

Last year, Ken Gibbons pulled up a water sample using a long, white tube that reaches the lake bottom. The water was emptied into the orange bucket held by Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, UT algae researcher and professor of ecology.

“This has the possibility to provide a practical way to protect the public drinking water,” Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, UT algae researcher and professor of ecology, said. “We want to develop a model that tells the water utilities where to expect the algae to be and when to pump more or less to avoid it.”

Graduate student researcher Eva Kramer will present the research, which is titled “Avoiding Harmful Algal Blooms at Toledo’s Drinking Water Intake by Observing Vertical Distribution and Migration,” during poster presentations Wednesday, May 17.

“It’s inspiring to be surrounded by hundreds of people working to understand, protect and restore the Great Lakes from a broad range of backgrounds,” said Kramer, who is pursuing a master’s degree in ecology. “I look forward to hearing their stories and learning from their successes and struggles.”

UT researchers take regular samples near the Toledo Water Intake in Lake Erie.

The annual conference of the International Association of Great Lakes Research is taking place from Monday, May 15, through Friday, May 19, at the Cobo Center in Detroit.

UT researchers will present from diverse areas of study, including economics; engineering; environmental sciences; chemistry and biochemistry; geography and planning; and medical microbiology and immunology.

A full list of the UT researchers and their projects can be found at utoledo.edu/nsm/lec/news/abstracts.html.

Dr. Carol Stepien, Distinguished University Professor of Ecology, and Dr. Kevin Czajkowski, professor and director of the UT Center for Geographic Information Sciences and Applied Geographics, organized a special session titled “Pathways for Invasions Into the Great Lakes: Detection, Monitoring and New Technology” that will run from 8 a.m. to noon Wednesday, May 17. Stepien and Czajkowski work with bait shops and fishermen for invasive species prevention.

PhD student researcher Alison Brandel, who works in the lab of Dr. Jason Huntley, associate professor of medical microbiology and immunology, will present a talk titled “Isolation and Characterization of Lake Erie Bacteria That Degrade the Microcystin Toxin MC-LR” Friday, May 19, at 10:40 a.m. during the session titled “Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiatives: Field to Faucet and Beyond.”

During that same session, Dr. Kevin Egan, associate professor of economics, will present “Benefit-Cost Analysis for Policy Options (e.g. Fertilizer Fee, Wetlands) to Reduce Nutrient Runoff” Friday, May 19, at 8 a.m.

Water quality is a major research focus at the University. With $12.5 million in active grants underway, UT is studying algal blooms, invasive species such as Asian carp, and pollutants, and looking for pathways to restore the greatest natural resource for future generations to ensure communities continue to have access to safe drinking water.

Researchers and students help to protect the public drinking water supply for the greater Toledo area throughout summer algal bloom season by conducting water sampling to alert water treatment plant operators of any toxins heading toward the water intake. UT’s 28-foot research vessel enables the University to partner with the city of Toledo and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor the health of the lake and provide real-time data.

The UT Lake Erie Center is a research and educational facility focused on environmental conditions and aquatic resources in Maumee Bay and western Lake Erie as a model for the Great Lakes and aquatic ecosystems worldwide.

Girls in Science Day at UT May 10

More than 140 sophomore high school girls will visit The University of Toledo Wednesday, May 10, when prominent female scientists and engineers across the region will introduce them to the exciting world of science and technology careers through hands-on experiments and demonstrations.

The eighth annual Women in STEMM Day of Meetings, which goes by the acronym WISDOM, will take place from 8 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. on UT’s Main Campus and Health Science Campus.

UT faculty and industrial professionals from Marathon Petroleum Corp. and Spartan Chemical Co. Inc. will help inspire a passion for science careers by exploring the tools of the trade. The visiting high school students also will get to interact with female graduate students in the various areas in science, engineering and the health sciences.

The girls will carry out investigations in a number of areas, including physics and astronomy, chemistry, biology, engineering, pharmacy, and medicine.

Activities for students will include building solar cells; using liquid nitrogen to make objects float in the air; swabbing their cheeks for a DNA sample; building a motor; generating electricity on a bike; making biodiesel fuel; using patient simulators to practice patient interventions; and making lip balm.

During lunch in the Brady Center on the Engineering campus, the students will learn about coding and its importance for future careers in STEMM.

“Girls are just as interested in science and technology as their male peers, but the number of girls that make it to college to pursue a major and get a job in a STEMM field is not growing as we need it to do,” said Edith Kippenhan, senior lecturer in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, director of WISDOM, and past president of the Northwestern Ohio Chapter of the Association for Women in Science. “Women approach problems differently, and they come up with different, equally valid solutions. We need them in the workforce to better design products and solutions for the various problems facing our society and our planet.”

Students from Toledo Public, Washington Local and Oregon Schools, as well as from the Toledo Islamic Academy and Wildwood Environmental Academy, will participate in WISDOM at the University.

“It is our goal to show the students they have a real and doable pathway to their dream career in STEMM,” Kippenhan said. “It is our hope that a visit to UT for events such as WISDOM will inspire them to embrace science and technology, and turn their dreams into reality.”

The event is hosted by the Northwestern Ohio Chapter of the Association for Women in Science. Sponsors include Marathon Petroleum Corp., Columbia Gas, Spartan Chemical Co., the Toledo Section of the American Chemical Society, the Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women, and the UT colleges of Engineering, Medicine and Life Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Students from Ohio, Michigan to present environmental research projects May 3

About 100 students from public schools in Ohio and Michigan will present their science research projects at the SATELLITES Student Conference Wednesday, May 3, in Thompson Student Union Ingman Room and Room 2582.

The students, who represent grades kindergarten through college, will share their research related to the Earth’s environment through poster presentations that will be judged by local scientists and teachers.

The conference will begin at 4:30 p.m. with students presenting their research to the judges from 5 to 6:45 p.m.

Dr. Michael Cushing, associate professor of astronomy and director of UT’s Ritter Planetarium, will give the keynote address at 7 p.m. about the upcoming solar eclipse in August. His address will be followed by the presentation of awards.

The students from districts such as Toledo, Akron and Detroit designed research projects around their own science questions first creating a hypothesis, then collecting data, and analyzing their findings to draw conclusions that will be shared through poster displays at the conference.

Dr. Kevin Czajkowski, UT professor of geography and planning, created the SATELLITES program, which stands for Students And Teachers Exploring Local Landscapes to Interpret The Earth from Space.

Through the SATELLITES program, students have access to GLOBE resources to help answer their research questions. GLOBE is the acronym for Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, which is an international science and education program that connects students, teachers, scientists and citizens from different parts of the world to conduct real, hands-on science about their local environment and put it in a global perspective.