UConn Ph.D. student uses scuba diving to research microscopic algae

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Scuba diver diving into water. Sean Ryan scuba dives to research micro algae and find out how they can help with the growing threat of climate change. Ryan hopes his work will help other scientists take action towards solving climate change. Photo by Pia Bercic

A University of Connecticut Marine Sciences Ph.D. student is utilizing Avery Point’s diving program to research microalgae’s adaptability to climate change.  

Microalgae are phytoplankton, found in freshwater and marine ecosystems, that live in water and sediment. They are unicellular, invisible to the naked eye and the base of many aquatic food webs as they tend to float in the upper levels of the ocean where they feed off of sunlight. The two main types are Dinoflagellates, which have a whip-like tail and complex shell, and Diatoms, which rely on ocean currents to move in the water and have a rigid, interlocking shell.  

Sean Ryan, a fourth-year Ph.D. student, completed his bachelor’s degree in Biology at SUNY Binghamton and has a background in the ecology of freshwater systems. Since his arrival at UConn, he has been studying marine systems. Ryan is researching how climate change is impacting these habitat-forming microalgae and how the composition and functions of communities will be affected.  

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

The main facet of his research is deploying data loggers to record how environmental factors, like temperature, vary between time and space to understand how kelp populations in the Long Island Sound perform. He surveyed sites near Avery Point, gathering species density and biomass data for the sugar kelp (Saccharina latissim) and the horsetail kelp (Laminaria digitata). In the future, Ryan will conduct growth experiments in the field and lab. 

Kelp is essential to Ryan’s research because within the group of seaweeds, it provides food and habitats for other species. As climate change warms Earth’s oceans, the cold-water adapted kelp’s numbers are falling, affecting the health of Connecticut’s waters, according to Ryan’s research.  

Ryan received his Scientific Diver certification with Jeff Godfrey, the Diving Safety Officer for Avery Point’s diving program. 

He’s always loved the water and grew up trying to be as near it as possible. He became hooked on research as an undergraduate and has found it even more rewarding to focus it on the ocean. 

“Diving under the water is a therapeutic experience for me. I get to block out the rest of the world, including my to-do list, and just explore. My favorite memory overall was a dive with other UConn students in Stonington, CT,” Ryan said. “The sun set while we were diving and as we swam back on the surface there were bioluminescent dinoflagellates lighting up a bright blue color as our fins kicked.” 

The diving program at Avery Point allows students and researchers to understand the complex and mysterious world of the ocean by putting their eyes and brains directly underwater. Peter Auster, a research professor emeritus in the marine sciences department, has been at UConn for over 40 years and believes the diving program to be an outstanding opportunity.  

“It’s very rewarding to see that students, after working in my lab or my class, have learned something new and changed gears and see themselves doing this work or working towards future conservation goals”

Auster

Having an underwater perspective can be essential for informing the public and policy makers. 

“What drives me the most is documenting what is happening so I can share this knowledge with people who live around it and will likely care about it. I truly believe science that is not communicated well will always be bad science,” Ryan said.  

Scientific diving is a professional branch of diving, regulated by the government. There is a diving control board, with the majority of members active scientific divers. There is a safety manual created by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. Those elements set a standard allowing for easier reciprocity between institutions because they all follow the same rules and guides.  

Auster’s work on the policy and management side starts at the beach and works its way out to the deep ocean. His recent work has included a project developing habitats and defining the sea-floor communities in Long Island Sound, using camera and scuba work.  

“We have lots of issues to try and deal with. Working in the underwater landscape adds a unique perspective to what humans do to the ocean and what we might do to conserve and sustainably use our natural heritage,” Auster said.

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