Georgia's only environmental science Ph.D. program is launching. Hear from two of its first students
As the fall semester gets underway this week at Georgia Southern University, eight doctoral students will have the honor of ushering in the school's new Ph.D. program in environmental science — the only such degree offered in Georgia.
GPB spoke with two of the inaugural students — Ellesse Lauer of Richmond Hill, Ga., and Carisa MacPherson of Cleveland, Ohio — to hear their thoughts about the program and what they hope to accomplish.
(Interview excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.)
On what led them to this point in their academic careers
Carisa MacPherson: For as long as I can remember, animals have always come to me for saving. Even as a little girl, I was rescuing squirrels and seagulls and raccoons. All these creatures have come into my life with that need to be helped. Growing up, I volunteered at some nature centers and wild animal rescues. I have my own plethora of scaly and furry creatures that live with me, as well. Also, I've always loved the water; that's been a big part of my life with swimming, with being right by Lake Erie.
So, when I got to thinking about where I could have the most impact during my short time on Earth, it materialized to be supporting and looking at the coral reef environments. Coral reefs support 25% of all of our marine life. So, to lose the coral reefs, we not only lose the beauty of the corals themselves, but also many animals that most people don't think we would lose. They rely on coral reefs as a nursery or shelter or breeding grounds or whatnot.
I have always had a dream of living in the pine tree forests and working in the ocean, and I couldn't believe that Georgia has that. I never come to this area. I came to visit in January, and I was like, "This is amazing! There's so many more pine trees than I could ever imagine!" It's just been a real blessing that this has all worked out.
Ellesse Lauer: I am from the Savannah, Ga., area. I love it now, but when I was a teenager, I was like, "Oh, I hate this place — I just need to move," because everybody says that when they're 15. But now, I've really grown to love this area and I don't want to leave.
I chose this program mostly because of the location. We have a very cool location: We're a two-hour drive from the swamp, the mountains and the beach, essentially, from any point along the Lowcountry. That gives me a variety of questions that I can ask with my research. The biggest thing that I'm interested in with organisms is epigenetics: the way the environment changes how the genotype is expressed in animals.
Evolutionarily, you're not supposed to be able to necessarily deal with change well in a rapid setting. But we keep finding that organisms really do adapt well and they'll change their molecular mechanisms to respond to the things in their environments. And that, to me, is the coolest part of most biology at this point.
On being part of the inaugural class of students
Carisa MacPherson: It's exciting to be a part of a new group because it really paves the way for other people. Science is always built on the backbone of those who came before us. The research that has been done prior — we build upon, we take the next steps. I feel it's the same way with being in this class. I'm excited to lay the groundwork for students that come in after me, who can build upon what I'm doing, who I can help lead, who I can help mentor.
Lauer: I think that this is one of those programs that is broad enough to cover the needs of people who have different interests, and I appreciate that. Some programs that you look at, they're very specific. I think that that can be limiting, as far as research interests for individuals. We do have to branch out and we do have to be interdisciplinary as we move forward with our research. So, I appreciate all of those aspects of our program because we'll be working with chemists and geologists and biologists and physicists. It'll be interesting, and I hope we can all find common words!
On their specific research interests
Carisa MacPherson: We know that the climate is changing, the oceans are warming and the oceans are getting deeper because of ice melting. We're seeing sea levels rise. And how that impacts the corals is we'll have a decrease in light level: as we have more water between the coral and the sun, that's less light that's able to reach the corals and the symbiotic algae that live within them.
With that knowledge, I'm like, "Okay, I can't change the temperature. I can't change how deep the ocean is. But could we look at the acidity of the ocean? Can we give this little Band-Aid somehow to these creatures, to help make their environment a little more hospitable for their chances of survival?’ So, I connected a couple concepts from general chemistry — some reactions about precipitation and disillusion — with some things I learned in plant biology, which is photosynthesis. I realized that we could potentially use photosynthesis from the plants to capture carbon from the water. We can actually alter the seawater chemistry or increase the alkalinity of the water.
Thinking about this, for my honors thesis at Cleveland State University, I took some seagrass from Tampa Bay in Florida and devised an experiment where I could monitor their productivity. So, how much carbon the seagrass captured, and then what would that do to the surrounding water of the seagrass in the tank. It showed a lot of promise, in that the experiment resulted in an overall net productivity. That means that photosynthesis exceeded the plant's respiration. So, the carbon-capturing power of the seagrass was stronger than the oxygen-capturing process of respiration, which led to an increased pH level in the water and an improved saturation state of the calcium carbonate mineral aragonite, which the calcifying organisms use to build their exoskeletons.
Finding out that that was actually a good idea led me to asking, "Okay, we have to figure out if this will really work in the open ocean," which is what led me to the next step in my journey, which is this Ph.D. program.
Ellesse Lauer: I look at a mechanism called DNA methylation, which is just a little carbon with some hydrogens on it that come and sit on top of the DNA. It's totally removable and it can be passed on through reproduction to the next cell line, and then also to offspring of whole organisms. We're still in an early stage of knowing exactly what that means for phenotypes. I do a lot of test tube work and then I put it all into a computer, and that shoots out a lot of A's, C's, T's and G's at me. If it's methylated, it's probably going to be a C or D.
I am really interested in the invasive species problem, where animals get to a new spot or a plant gets to a new spot, and all of a sudden it's rapidly reproducing and filling up a new area. I want to know why that can happen at a molecular level.
I'm probably going to be working with house sparrows. I've also got an idea that I want to work with something local around here, like maybe spartina or some of the lizard species that we've got. Odd fact about me: I'm terrified of lizards! So, I'm not going to be going out and catching them. I'm going to be asking my labmates to do that for me. So, that one might be difficult. But the plants are easy: They don't run away!
Carisa MacPherson: You can't be faint of heart when you're a scientist because you will fail. I had shipment after shipment after shipment of seagrass sent up to me by my buddies in Florida, and it never lived in Cleveland. I tried to do my experiment in a tank. They died probably nine times! And I said, "You know what? Forget it. I'm coming to Florida." So, I hopped on a plane. I went where the seagrass grew, and we made it work down there. You can't give up, because there are always going to be challenges thrown your way in science.
Ellesse Lauer: I did not have the typical four-year experience with my undergrad. I think it ended up taking me seven years to complete because I had kids along the way and other life things come up. But I don't see a problem personally with the fact that I'm probably 10 years older than some of my cohort members. I know that this is something that I've been thinking about for 10 years, and it's something that I've been dreaming about. So here I am, finally doing it.