Duke Grad Student Mini-Symposium Recap

This past weekend I headed down to beautiful sunny Beaufort, North Carolina for the semi-biannual (is that even a word?) Duke Grad Student Mini-Symposium.  This event is open to all North Carolina-based universities willing to send grad students to check out other students’ research, develop some collaborations, and of course eat, drink, and be merry (and fish!).  Myself and Dan represented ECU fisheries (hopefully providing better outreach for the university than this guy) and we got to hang out with such swell people as Andrew and Amy from Southern Fried Science and Kevin from Deep Sea News, among others.  Because there was really only one day’s worth of talks, I was able to catch everyone’s, so I’ll try to summarize everyone’s research in a sentence or two.  However, given time/space restraints and my own understanding of the material, I make no promises that I’ll be doing anyone’s research justice, so feel free to elaborate in the comments.

First off, kudos to Wendy Dow Piniak and Yasmin von Dassow for organizing and running a nice symposium.  With drinks, food, and even a field trip provided (which I unfortunately missed) you get a lot of bang for your registration buck at the Duke Mini-Symposium.  Nice work, guys.

Micheal McCarthy (UNC-Greensboro) got things kicked off with a focus on people, discussing the rise of the creative class and its importance in growing the ten “megaregions” (well-connected urban regions, think the Boston-New York-D.C. corridor) economically.  The creative class are basically people who “create” ideas, be they artists, scientists, bloggers, musicians, etc.  Thanks to Micheal’s talk I was actually able to read this article with some extra insight, so I definitely learned something from this one.

Yasmin von Dassow (Duke) switched gears to the biological world, with a talk on egg-consuming sea slugs and snails that would fill any invertebrate fan with glee.  She found that some sort of chemical cue is attracting these predators to egg masses laid by other sea slugs and polychaete worms, and included some awesome gruesome footage showcasing how these critters get through the slime to the delicious embryos.

Andrew Thaler (Duke) showed us that everything we know about using genetic markers for identifying populations is wrong.  Microsatellites, the traditional method used in telling genetic differences between populations, are not sufficient to identify highly-isolated populations.  Back to the drawing board, conservation geneticists…

Meagan Dunphy-Daly (Duke) talked about her badass research (I may be biased due to having ridden along/provided big dumb labor on one of the sampling trips) tracking bull sharks in the Neuse River to see if they’re the reason dolphins are terrified of the deep parts of the estuary.  She’s only tracked one shark so far, but its path seemed to conform to the hypothesis that the sharks stay in the deeper parts of the river while dolphins stick to the shallows and creeks.

Danielle Crain (Duke), who has also been involved in the bulls shark tracking project, showed off her research on the movements of pilot whales as they hunt and dive and generally act like mammalian torpedoes.  She accomplished this by attaching digital acoustic tags (DTags) to the whales, which record direction, pitch, and roll, and allowed her to create awesome-looking 3D tracks of their movements.  This let her identify specific movement behaviors indicative of hunting, pursuing, and consuming prey.  I want to steal this technology for shark stuff.

I’m going to group some people together here because they fit pretty well together thematically.  Michelle Covi (ECU), Amy Freitag (Duke), and Michelle LaRocco (Duke) all dealt with engaging stakeholders (anyone with a potential personal stake in an environmental issue) on issues related to coastal management.  The two Michelles both focused on sea level rise, in North Carolina and Massachusetts, respectively, and found some surprising results (including the fact that only 50% of the public actually understands graphs).  Amy questioned fishermen, managers, and scientists on water quality, finding that each group has a slightly different definition of what, exactly, water quality is and how it should be managed.

Michelle Brodeur (UNC-Chapel Hill) studied the effects of algal mats growing on oyster reefs and whether these clumps of “rock snot” affect oyster health.  Surprisingly, in removal experiments, she found that oyster recruitment was actually worse in plots that had been cleared of algae.  Mmmm… algae…

Rachel Gittman (UNC-Chapel Hill) looked at marsh sills and bulkheads as protection against erosion on shoreline property.  The problems with bulkheading are well-known, chief among them that the marsh below the bulkhead rapidly disappears due to having nowhere to retreat to from erosion.  Marsh sills (rows of rocks, marl, and other material put in the water in front of the marsh zone) actually allow marsh growth and even attract more fish (including some reef-associated species that wouldn’t normally be up in the estuary).  Unfortunately, sills are still the more expensive option.

You probably can already guess what Chuck Bangley (ECU) talked about.  If not, click around this blog.

Dan Zapf (ECU) continued his study of the river herring of the Albemarle Sound, finding that some of the herring in the Chowan River appear to stay resident in the river rather than migrating out to the ocean.  Will this allow the Chowan population to avoid some of the pitfalls associated with anadromy and achieve greater reproductive success than their migratory brothers and sisters?

Meteja Nenadovic (Duke) looked at communication between managers and fishermen and how it influenced the size, shape, and location of a cod area closure in the Gulf of Maine.  This closure appears to have benefited the stock and local ecological knowledge from fishermen played a large role in establishing the boundaries.  Maybe we can learn from this and just start getting along…

Paul Rudershausen (NC State) demonstrated that PIT tags (small magnetic ID tags commonly used in salmon research) can work in salt water by using them to track the movements of mummichogs in North Carolina salt marshes.  Mummies may also be a good model organism for determining how suitable a section of marsh is as general fish habitat.

Heather Heenehan (Duke) and Clare Fiesler (UNC-Chapel Hill) both looked at aspects of science communication and the importance of getting word out about your research.  Heather used her research on Hawaiian spinner dolphin management to show how she connected natural and social sciences and communicated the results to the general public via the power of the internet.  Clare’s presentation was more of a call for all the universities to band together to create a group dedicated to multimedia science communication (Andrew, Amy, and I shared a “we’re a big deal” fist bump when she used the SFS Network as an example of a great communication resource.  Yeah, we’re awesome).  The concept for this group still seems to be gelling, but she did point out sources of funding and some potential equipment resources as starting points.  It’d be neat to see that get off the ground.

There were also two posters that I unfortunately neglected.  Tara Essock-Burns (Duke) showed research on biofilms and barnacles in competition for settling space, and Wendy Dow Piniak determined that hawksbill sea turtles can hear in both air and water, but only in a relatively narrow frequency.  I only know this from reading the abstracts, so apologies to both of them for missing out.

Overall the Duke Grad Student Mini-Symposium had a good cross-section of North Carolina schools and a surprising variety of talks.  Plus, we got to hang out in Beaufort in some borderline perfect weather and dabble in the NC Seafood Fest.  Well-played, Dukies.  I hope to see some of these researchers again when the AFS Tidewater Chapter invades Beaufort in March.