Research Areas

REU program mentors, summer 2019

Dr. Peter Etnoyer: Distribution of deep-sea corals

Dr. Heather Fullerton: Ecology of iron-oxidizing microbes

Dr. Tony Harold: Fish ecology and diversity

Dr. Mike Janech: Proteomics and disease

Dr. Peter Lee: Phytoplankton ecology and oceanography

Dr. Eric McElroy: Performance of head-started terrapins

Dr. Michael P. Napolitano: Lipodomics and environmental health

Dr. Bob Podolsky: Stresses on marine invertebrate larvae

Dr. Erik Sotka: Microevolution and species invasions

Dr. Demitri Spyropoulos: Molecular biology of obesogens 

Dr. Ed Wirth and Dr. Paul Pennington: Bioeffects of chemical contaminants

Mentor lab descriptions

Following are general descriptions of the work done in labs of mentors for this year’s program.  Specific intern projects will be worked out after selection and closer to the time of the program. Institutional and building abbreviations listed for each mentor are explained at the bottom of this page.

Dr. Peter Etnoyer (NOAA/CCEHBR,

Diversity and distribution of deep-sea corals

NOAA’s Deep Coral Ecology Lab is a team of scientists conducting deep-water (> 50 m) benthic surveys using remotely operated vehicles to support mapping, exploration, research, and management objectives in US waters since 2010, with emphasis on sustainable fisheries and US National Marine Sanctuaries. We investigate questions related to the ecology of heterotrophic corals, particularly deep-water octocorals. We seek to discern and mitigate the effects of anthropogenic stressors such as oil pollution, bottom fishing, marine debris, ocean warming, and acidification.

This project will involve a combination of a computer-based video analysis and a laboratory-based microscopy study to help characterize a previously unexplored area of Arguello Canyon off California between 1500-2000 m deep. The project will use video collected by EV Nautilus with ROV Hercules in 2016, as well as deep-sea coral samples collected from various resources. The video survey will characterize the seafloor biota of Arguello Canyon in terms of its community composition, sediment type, and slope of the canyon, analyzing similarity between communities. A small number of coral samples will be prepared for scanning electron microscopy (SEM) by an REU student for a morphometric analysis that will help NOAA researchers delineate species boundaries in the genus Paramuricea. The results will support management efforts by NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries.

Jack - Bowden Lab
                                                                REU intern Kady Palmer studying PFAAs in manatee plasma

Dr. Heather Fullerton (CofC,

Ecology of iron-oxidizing microbes

We focus on the ecology and role of microbes in global biogeochemical cycles. Microbes have an range of metabolic capacities, and as such they can have profound effects on ecosystems. Iron-oxidation has been extensively studied in freshwater and terrestrial environments, but only recently have marine iron-oxidizers been described.  First described at deep-sea hydrothermal vents, these bacteria are now known from estuaries and from the corroding surfaces of steel ships. To better understand this novel group of bacteria, we explore marine environments and bring these organisms into the laboratory for analysis. The REU project will involve collecting microbes from coastal habitats and using a variety of molecular and microbial culturing techniques to further delineate the coastal habitat for marine-oxidizing bacteria.


                                                                    REU intern Jessie Lowry working on sediment microbes

Dr. Tony Harold (CofC/GML,

Early life history and ecology of inshore marine fishes

We will focus on the diversity and abundance of larval and juvenile marine fishes in the Charleston Harbor estuary. Fishes of several families are abundant in shallow water habitats in the estuary. Little is known about patterns of colonization of young fishes with respect to the various benthic habitat types, such as oyster shell, indigenous and invasive algae, and various types of unconsolidated substrate. We will use a fine-meshed beach seine to capture larvae and juveniles, which will then be preserved, identified, staged, and measured. The relative importance of the various habitat types will be determined through use of several types of statistical analysis. The findings of this work will bear on our understanding of the dynamics of estuarine food webs and management of habitats critical for maintenance of local fish populations.


                                                                        Students sampling the surf zone for juvenile fishes

Dr. Mike Janech (CofC/HML,

Proteomics and disease in marine mammals

Proteins are commonly used as biomarkers (a molecule that can be measured and provides information about the status of an organism) of disease or exposure in humans. Many of these same proteins exist in wildlife, but whether or not they serve as biomarkers for disease or exposure has yet to be determined. In my laboratory, we utilize wildlife samples (e.g. sea lion urine, dolphin serum) to identify as many proteins as possible by mass spectrometry and computational search engines. Taken together, this workflow is referred to as Proteomics. Using this strategy, we can quantify proteins in a sample and compare to other samples in an effort to determine whether or not a specific protein can successfully classify an animal with disease.  Protein biomarkers for wildlife can then be utilized to monitor environmental impacts, disease-state, or a relevant outcome that is of concern to veterinarians and monitoring agencies to gain a clearer picture of wildlife health.  Currently, we are working towards identifying serum and urine biomarkers in bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions.


                                                                         Student interns headed to collect field samples

Dr. Peter Lee (CofC/HML,

Phytoplankton Ecology and Microbial Oceanography

We examine links between marine microbial communities and the biogeochemical cycling of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have an impact on climate change.  To study these links, a variety of omics techniques are used to study the cellular-level stress response of an organism and the formation of VOCs.  Two student projects are possible:

1)      Examining the role of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in phytoplankton.  In mammals, GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, and the urea cycle is a mechanism for the excretion of excess nitrogen through urine.  Conversely, the role of both GABA and the urea cycle are unknown and largely unexplored in phytoplankton.  Evidence from plant research suggests that GABA accumulates as a stress response and may act as a signal molecule that links nitrogen cycling in the urea cycle, carbon cycling in the Krebs (or TCA) cycle and the formation of sulfur-based osmolytes that are the precursor of climatically-active dimethylsulfide (DMS).

2)      Examining the formation of sulfur-based VOCs.  Species within the genus Shewanella are facultative anaerobes.  These cosmopolitan aquatic bacteria are metabolically versatile;  when oxygen is absent, Shewanella can switch to diverse electron acceptors.  Furthermore, Shewanella is capable of both oxidizing and reducing manganese depending on the redox conditions of its environment.  Recent findings suggest that Shewanella produces several sulfur-based VOCs, including DMS, methanethiol and dimethylsulfoxide.  In addition to their role in climate chemistry on Earth, the presence of these multiple VOCs may also provide a fingerprint (or biosignature) for the detection of life on other planets.


                                                                       REU intern Jack McAlhany analyzing lipid samples

Dr. Eric McElroy (CofC/GML),

Performance of head-started terrapins

This project will focus on testing performance measures of head-started diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin). Head-starting programs attempt to increase population size by releasing large numbers of captive-reared juveniles.  Yet, little is known about the ability of these juveniles to survive once released into the wild.  We will experimentally manipulate the rearing environment of head-started terrapins and measure its effect on the ontogeny of morphology and performance capacity (i.e. physical abilities) of juveniles.

Dr. Michael P. Napolitano (NOAA/HML,

Lipidomics for the Evaluation of Marine Organisms and Environmental Health

Lipids encompass a large variety of biologically critical molecules that are responsible for cellular structure, energy storage, and intercellular signaling.  A new method for lipid detection, developed at HML in collaboration with the University of Florida, effectively combines aspects of traditional methods, to identify both relative quantitation and with unprecedented specificity a vast array of many types of lipids serving different biological purposes across the entire “lipidome”.  We are applying this new state-of-the-art, mass spectrometry-based “lipidomics” method to diverse areas, such as: the assessment of marine aquacultural experiments of red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), evaluation of dietary changes on the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) as an impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, determination of the lipidome of Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), and several optimization, data mining, and processing experiments.  The REU student will be involved in reviewing scientific literature, preparing biological samples for analysis through chemical extraction, setting up analytical instrumentation, and processing data to complete the expectations of the program.


                                                                            REU interns on Otter Island, South Carolin                                                                              

Dr. Bob Podolsky (CofC/GML,

Environmental biology and ecology of early life stages of marine invertebrates

My laboratory asks questions about the effects of environmental conditions and stressors on early life-history stages (gametes, embryos and larvae) of marine invertebrates.  Invertebrates show enormous diversity in larval form and development mode, and their larvae play critical roles in marine food webs and the coupling of benthic and pelagic habitats.  In order to assess risks for early stages, it is critical to understand which life-history stages are most sensitive to environmental stressors.   We typically use echinoderm (sea urchin or sand dollar) gametes and larvae or mollusc (snail or nudibranch) embryos to address questions about free-swimming or encapsulated development, respectively.  Recent REU projects in my lab have focused on the effects of ocean acidification, warming, and pollutants on fertilization success, larval growth and development, larval physiology, and encapsulated embryonic growth and shell formation.  This summer’s project will follow-up on the findings in one of these areas and will depend on student interests.

Emily - Podolsky lab 

                                                             REU intern Emily Hall rearing sea urchin larvae in the laboratory

Dr. Erik Sotka (CofC/GML,

Adaptation of introduced species

Microevolutionary processes likely facilitate biological invasions, but we have less empirical support for their importance than for demographic and ecological processes. This gap is particularly acute for introduced marine species, which are accelerating in number and impacts but whose microevolution is rarely documented. This project focuses on genetic adaptation during and after the invasion of the red seaweed Gracilaria vermiculophylla in North America. Previous work found that the spread of this species was facilitated by the rapid evolution of stress tolerance.  Rapid eco-evolutionary dynamics during and after establishment likely play a role that may be as important as biotic interactions, propagule pressure, and intrinsic biological traits in determining the invasion success of marine species. This project will focus on testing for local adaptation among South Carolina estuaries and assessing differences between populations in tolerance for heat, cold and salinity stress. To do this, the REU student will perform field transplant experiments across multiple South Carolina estuaries, and couple this with laboratory-based assessment of stress tolerance.



                                                                       Dr. Moshe Rhodes attending to a hypersaline pool

Dr. Demitri Spyropoulos (MUSC/HML,

Molecular biology of obesogens and snail imposex

Our lab’s focus is on environmental exposure to ‘obesogens,’ which include natural and anthropogenic compounds that disrupt metabolism and cell-fate decisions.  These changes lead to metabolic conditions (in some cases related to obesity) in vertebrates and to imposex (female-to-male conversion) in gastropods. Massive increases in the industrial production and use of chemicals closely parallel these health issues. For example, we have found two obesogens in COREXIT, an oil dispersant used in the clean-up of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.  Our sentinel models range from rodents to marine vertebrates and salt marsh snails; work this summer will focus on snails.  Our preliminary field studies have verified that known contaminated sites show snail imposex. The REU project would involve field work to measure imposex rates and to collect environmental samples, and laboratory analysis of gene expression.  We aim to provide methods to test novel dispersants, food additives, etc. to investigate sublethal long-term influences on organismal and ecological health.

Melissa - Spyropolous lab

                                                          REU intern Melissa Rex studying the effects of endocrine disruptors


Dr. Ed Wirth and Dr. Paul Pennington (NOAA/HML,

Bioeffects of Chemical Contaminants and other Stressors

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are synthetic chemical mixtures that were manufactured in the U.S. for use as conductors in a variety of industrial applications.  PCBs were banned in the late 1970’s due to evidence of significant human and environmental health risks; however they remain as persistent environmental contaminants. To inform management of contaminated sites, it is necessary to establish effects thresholds for aquatic organisms and relate those to levels of PCBs in sediments.

An equilibrium partitioning approach will be used to predict PCB sediment effect concentrations based on aqueous toxicity. The project this summer will assess the aqueous toxicity of a representative PCB mixture, Aroclor 1254, in several marine invertebrate species. We will determine acute mortality thresholds, as well as sublethal responses using cellular biomarkers. The data will then be used to support sediment dose-response modeling. The student will learn and apply principles of environmental toxicology and analytical chemistry.


CofC = College of Charleston (housed in part at GML = Grice Marine Lab)

MUSC = Medical University of South Carolina

NIST = National Institute of Standards and Technology

NOAA = National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (housed in part at CCEHBR = Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research)

SCDNR = Department of Natural Resources (housed in part at MRRI = Marine Resources Research Institute)

HML = Hollings Marine Lab (houses members of all 5 partner institutions)