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Colin O’Donnell: My Amazing Summer Internship in the Florida Keys

For the 2018 summer months, I was fortunate enough to receive an internship working with Dr. Robert Nowicki at Mote’s International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration in Summerland Key, Florida. While there, I was able to learn from a wide variety of experiences, such as fieldwork, lab work, literature reviews, R data visualization, and recreational diving.

Upon first arriving at Mote, my advisor Robert Nowicki had started a preliminary project analyzing whether seagrass beds had the potential to act as a filter for coral pathogens since there has been an outbreak of an unknown disease affecting the majority of the reef. For data collection, we sampled the water column right above eight seagrass beds and eight adjacent sand habitats. Back at the lab, we pipetted 150 microliters of the water sample onto TCBS plates and then used plating beads for colonies. After 48 hours of letting them sit at room temperature, we counted the number of colonies — specifically, it was broken up into yellow colonies and all other colonies seen. With that data, we imported it into R. Unfortunately, we did not find a strong correlation for seagrass beds reducing Vibrio abundance. In the future, Dr. Nowicki is waiting on a permit that will allow him to place coral directly along the seagrass beds so he can see if there is a more direct filtering response.

Dr. Nowicki also is working to create a long-term database of shark populations in the lower Florida Keys. To assist his research, I was able to tag a shark and collect data on it! To catch them, we set out 10 drum lines with bait attached, waited for a couple hours and then visited the lines again to see if a shark was on the hook. In the handful of times I was able to go out on Dr. Nowicki’s research boat, we were able to catch two 7ft nurse sharks, one 6ft lemon, and a 7ft lemon shark. Once the shark was captured, we proceeded to collect data on the shark’s length, sex, location, species, girth, and any notes of the animal’s health.

A third project I was able to work on was his ongoing assessment of much damage Hurricane Irma caused to seagrass beds. For this, we conducted a literature review to gather information from other papers about past seagrass bed damage caused by hurricanes. Finding out the resiliency of seagrass beds during hurricanes was a major point of the review. Another point he wanted us to look at was if human impacts caused more of a destruction then a hurricane alone. Our findings were that seagrass beds unaffected by human impact were resilient enough to withstand a hurricane with minimal loss. But when seagrass beds had a large disturbance by humans, a hurricane was very destructive and almost caused the majority of the seagrass to be lost.

The most recent project I was working on for Dr. Nowicki is a nurse shark bycatch problem by lobster traps in the Dutch Caribbean. For this project, we housed and cared for 18 spiny lobsters and recreated the lobster traps used in the Dutch Caribbean. In the future, Dr. Nowicki should receive the nurse sharks so that he can start an experiment looking at the ways lobsters and sharks both enter the trap, the interaction between the two animals, and determine possible designs that could eliminate the nurse sharks from not being able to exit.

Overall, this was an incredible experience as an undergraduate student. I interned along side other students from across the U.S. and as far away as Australia. It solidified my desire to further my marine sciences education and seek out additional research opportunities next summer.



Ran Tong Elephant Rescue

Our talented students are traveling the world for conservation! Amanda Macías ventured to Thailand this summer to volunteer at the Ran Tong Elephant Rescue. Here’s what she wanted to share about the experience.

“Wildlife conservation has always been of great interest to me. I want to be part of the efforts to give some relief to disappearing species/habitats caused by human interference. I had a taste of conservation work through a program called EcoTeach where we traveled though Costa Rica to areas where restoration projects were underway. It was a great experience that helped raise my interest in a career in conservation. This past summer I was also able to travel to Thailand with International Student Volunteer. I spent a few weeks working at Ran Tong Elephant Rescue with other volunteers from around the world. Working with elephants was an incredible experience which only strengthened my desire to study conservation.”

Culture Sculptures

I’m always attracted to art and sometimes that art is inspired by microorganisms. The colorful and psychedelic patterns created by Paenibacillus dendritiformis and P. vortex are among the most well known examples. I recently found inspiration in the sculptures of artist Rogan Brown. A recent NPR article entitled Is This Snowy Wonderland Or The World Inside A Petri Dish? showcased the artist’s micro-inspired paper sculptures. The level of intricacy and detail is astounding and more reminiscent of a scanning electron micrograph. I’m especially fond of the following quote from the interview. “We live in a world dominated by science,” Brown says. “Art needs to work hard to keep up or use the language and imagery of science for its own ends.”


Sheila Rogers: Oceans of Plastic

The intent of Sheila Rogers’ captivating and colorful artwork is to raise awareness of one of the most pressing consumer and environmental issues that we face today – plastic pollution, particularly in our oceans. The 3-D pieces are made from debris she has collected along our area waterfronts. Motivated by her desire to educate and motivate the public, Sheila advocates for a reduction of single-use plastics by encouraging small lifestyle changes that will lessen the amount of waste we are putting into our environment.

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A Beguiling Aesthetic: Shelia Rogers and Her Oceans of Plastic

The ocean lures us to play, provokes us to awe, and makes us wary of its force. These colossal waters demand our reverence. And yet humans have become most intimately connected to this geography by way of our trash, by way of our thoughtless use of the ocean as an oversized garbage disposal.

I recently moved to the town of Corpus Christi, Texas, which sits directly on Corpus Christi Bay, a short reach from the Gulf of Mexico—the beloved Third Coast. Every day the locals breathe air from this water, finding sweet relief from the heat compliments of the steady breeze that rolls off the water. There is a consciousness here regarding the marine environment that can only arise from a nearness to the coast. The beaches and the Corpus Christi Bay function as the front-yard view to a home, a daily destination for recreation, a faithful landscape during the commute, a research center, or a storm tracker. There is even a university—Texas A&M-Corpus Christi—that sits on its own island, surrounded by both Corpus Christi and Oso Bays. Now that I have become a local, I can confirm that the sea is always present here, always on our minds.

Yet one glance along the bottom of the seawall steps or across the lengths of the sandy beaches and one can’t miss the filth and trash that accumulates from the sheer mindless practices of locals and tourists alike. Plastic grocery bags and other single-use plastic containers, fast-food Styrofoam drink trays, and an unbelievable mass assemblage of other material gather in these places. Some of the trash comes from daily use and discard, some is washed into the bay during rains, and some washes ashore from other cities—or from deep at sea—after tropical storms. It is a terrible cycle of pollution in an environment that desperately needs conservation, but even still, many local grocery chains insist on offering multiple plastic bags for the purchase of one gallon of milk.

An artist who I met early in my time here, Shelia Rogers, calls Corpus Christi her hometown and finds these circumstances intolerable. A self-proclaimed beachcomber, she began collecting, cleaning, and then organizing the trash she found into her art practice. In an effort to highlight the considerable ecological harm that we are perpetuating on our coastlines, she turned these fragments into an entire exhibition, entitled Oceans of Plastic, which she recently presented at the Art Museum of South Texas.

From a distance, the pieces in Rogers’s show take on a life that’s beyond their source material. They appear innocently vibrant and joyful, like a child’s playground. One cannot keep from admiring the aesthetic candy presented at every turn, as each and every contribution sparkles under the gallery lights. Rogers exploits the colorful potency found within her plastic art objects as a seductive device by which to entice us closer and closer to her work.

So come closer.

Ensconced inside the plexiglass displays are the countless pieces of plastic Rogers beachcombed for over several years—fragments of single-use containers or bottles that will never decompose naturally. At the other end of the room are additional display cases, exhibiting plastic soda bottles with gaping holes made by the marine life who cannot differentiate the bottles from an actual food source—many of these animals die from starvation because the plastic fills their stomachs and they are then unable to receive nutrition from normal food. Finally, hanging from the ceiling is an entrancing cotton candyesque sculpture made entirely of monofilament fishing line that has been cut and left to float in the water. Rogers found every piece of this beautiful, horrifying detritus.

Close-up, this is haunting. There is an aesthetic appeal to this trash that can make a heart break, and by displaying this beguiling aesthetic, Rogers pulls back the curtain on a deeper reality of our situation: plastic is made pretty so that we will use it. And we will. We do. All of the time.

Considering the effortlessness with which this one dedicated artist finds plastic remnants on the beaches of Corpus Christi, it is easy to see how problematic our trash consumption and disposal is on a global scale. Rogers is one of many artists who are working in an activist vein to raise our awareness to this dire situation through the presentation of organized material. I find the hope of her exhibit is that she is not working in a vacuum.

Rogers has offered a visual witness to the significant work of local conservation teams and researchers, who are attempting to understand and restore the health of local marine life and who are pushing for changes, such as a plastic bag ban. By partnering with the Harte Research Institute Gulf of Mexico Studies of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, this dialogue has expanded among academics, conservationists, artists, museumgoers, and the supportive public alike. Together these individuals are laboring to safeguard the beauty of the place whose name is the Third Coast. This is an incredible conversation to have moved into and an incredible art exhibit to start my journey in South Texas. Thank you, Shelia Rogers—I feel the possibility of refreshing change just as I feel the breeze off of Corpus Christi Bay.

Editor’s Note: For further information regarding local conservation efforts within Corpus Christi, Texas, visit these resources:  Coastal Bend Bays FoundationCoastal Bend Bays and Estuaries ProgramCoastal Conservation Association, Corpus Christi ChapterHarte Research Institute Gulf of Mexico Studies; and Surfrider Foundation.

Jen Grabarczyk-Turner
Jen Grabarczyk is a contemporary artist who works in abstract drawing, painting, installation, and film. She holds an MFA from Claremont Graduate University and an MA in theology and culture from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. She is also art editor for The Other Journal.

Shelia Rogers
Shelia Rogers is a contemporary artist who lives and works in Corpus Christi, Texas. She completed her postgraduate work at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. She has shown her work extensively within her local region of South Texas and has received several awards from the Art Museum of South Texas. Her most recent exhibition, Oceans of Plastic, received notable press and was displayed at the Art Museum of South Texas, the Historic Brownsville Museum, and the Texas State Aquarium. More information about Shelia Rogers can be found on her website:

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