Students present research at Prince William Sound College’s first annual Environmental Sciences Symposium

by Vicki Heisser and Keenan James Britt  |   

Prince William Sound College students Hannah Bogden, Sarah Kearns and Celeste Vena testing water parameters on a skiff in Valdez Harbor
(From left to right) Prince William Sound College students Hannah Bogden, Sarah Kearns and Celeste Vena testing water parameters to monitor how temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, ammonium, nitrate/nitrite and KH varies with depth and location in Port Valdez. This provided baseline data to Valdez Native Tribe as one of the sites was near their experimental and educational oyster farm site. (Photo courtesy of Don Bickley)

Under the guidance of Amanda Glazier, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and environmental science at Prince William Sound College (PWSC), four students — Audrey Bulow, Sarah Kearns, Emily Griffin and Celeste Vena — presented their research projects at the first annual Prince William Sound College Environmental Sciences Symposium. Funding for the students’ independent research projects was provided by Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council (PWSRCAC). The symposium, which was held May 2, provided a rare opportunity for freshman and sophomore undergraduate students to present their research.

Audrey Bulow

Audrey Bulow made great strides in marine research and conservation in Southcentral Alaska for the past two years. As a PWSRCAC intern from May to October 2022, Bulow conducted monthly research and sampling, using traps to monitor green crabs and settlement plates to measure marine invertebrate tunicates. By collecting and analyzing data on tunicate growth and green crab populations, researchers will gain valuable insights into the health of local ecosystems and develop strategies for their conservation and management. Besides her fieldwork, Bulow actively engaged in outreach activities to educate the community about invasive species monitoring.

During the past year, Bulow conducted sampling work for the Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute, including water sampling to monitor phytoplankton blooms that can make shellfish toxic. During her NASA Space Grant Apprenticeship from May 2022 to April 2023, she also made significant contributions, studying how the freshwater lens influences the benthic settlement community in Valdez Harbor with an added emphasis on science communication.

Sarah Kearns

Sarah Kearns conducted an independent research project funded by PWSRCAC during the spring 2023 semester. Her research involves measuring baseline water chemistry at the Valdez Native Tribe (VNT) experimental oyster farm and two other comparative sites, with measurements taken at two different depths at each location every three weeks to track changes over the season.

Thanks to transportation provided by the City of Valdez, Kearns was able to travel by skiff to the sampling sites, where she took diligent notes and measurements on board. Her data was later entered into a spreadsheet for analysis. While out on the skiff, Kearns recalled that “we did see a bit of wildlife,” including cormorants that would land on the oyster farms.

This research project she developed provided Kearns with invaluable experience and represents a significant collaboration between the college, the city and VNT. The findings will inform VNT about the environment surrounding their experimental plot and how it compares to similar sites around the port.

Speaking at the symposium, Kearns noted  the long-term goal of the collaboration is to “create larger kelp and oyster farms in Jack Bay” near Valdez. “It’ll be exciting to see how mariculture develops in Valdez because it's the future and it's exciting,” said Kearns.

Celeste Vena

Celeste Vena is researching kelp and sustainability in Prince William Sound. Vena set up a mesocosm in which kelp is maintained in the PWSC Environmental Sciences lab. This provides a space for experiments into ecosystem health, water quality, climate change impacts, resource management and ecological restoration. While developing and maintaining the mesocosm, Vena monitored and adjusted to changes in water parameters and associated kelp health. She provided the initiation of lab-based experiments of this sort, which can be carried out by future research students and environmental sciences classes.

Vena stated during her presentation that she’s interested in seeing “how ocean temperature may affect the growth of kelp.” Her research has implications for mariculture projects in the Sound, as rising global sea surface temperatures and additional stressors associated with climate change can limit the range in which kelp can grow.

Emily Griffin

After completing her Natural Resources Technician OEC coursework, Emily Griffin has continued her academic journey at PWSC, working toward obtaining an associate degree. Griffin wants a career in environmental science and conservation.

Last semester, Griffin pursued an independent research project funded by PWSRCAC. Her project involves sampling silver salmon at the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery to study the microbiomes of live and dead fish. Griffin and her mentor Dr. Glazier collected sterile swab samples from the scales of three live and three dead salmon. They sent them to the AIMS lab at UAA for DNA extraction and data processing. The data was sent back to Griffin for analysis and interpretation.

Griffin’s study identified different kinds of bacteria, including members of the family Enterobacteriaceae and the family Yersiniaceae. Speaking at the symposium, Griffin explained that these bacteria do not pose a risk for fish, but are associated with infections in humans and “that’s why it's important for hatcheries to safely handle fish.”

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