Research Areas

REU program mentors, summer 2020

Dr. Barbara Beckingham: Contaminant fate and exposure science

Dr. Jody Beers: Environmental physiology of marine organisms

Dr. Chris FreemanCoral reef and sponge ecology

Dr. Tony Harold: Early life history and ecology of inshore marine fishes

Dr. Michael Kendrick: Habitat requirements of benthic invertebrates

Dr. Peter Lee: Phytoplankton ecology and microbial oceanography

Dr. Craig Plante: Community assembly processes for benthic microalgae

Dr. Bob Podolsky: Stresses on marine invertebrate larvae

Dr. Erik Sotka: Adaptation of introduced species

Dr. Allison Welch: Salinity stress and amphibian developmental ecology

Dr. Ed Wirth: Bioeffects of Chemical Contaminants and other Stressors

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. Barbara Beckingham (CofC-Geology, beckinghamba’at’

Contaminant fate and exposure science

My lab specializes in exposure science and the fate and transport of organic contaminants in environmental and human-engineered systems. Studies aim to understand movement of contaminants and their bioavailability to organisms that come into contact with contaminant-laden media. This work integrates across physical transport, physico-chemical, and biological processes – for instance, understanding the properties of particles like microplastics and chemicals associated with plastics, natural organic and black carbons in various environmental compartments (i.e. water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, soil and air) in order to inform ecological risks. Recent collaborative work has measured exposure of zooplankton, fish and stranded bottlenose dolphins to microplastic and studied the bioavailability of toxicants from tire wear particles – this summer’s REU will have the opportunity to lead a project related to one of these areas. Depending on the project, students are trained in sampling and sample handling procedures that are both field and laboratory-based, operation of specialized equipment and instrumentation (e.g. sensors, spectroscopy, gas & liquid chromatography, microscopy) and analysis of quantitative results.

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

Dr. Jody Beers (CofC, beersjm’at’

Environmental physiology of marine organisms
In aquatic habitats across the planet, climate change is driving shifts in abiotic factors that will impact the physiology and success of individual organisms, dynamics of populations, and the structure and functions of entire ecosystems.  Among these factors, increasing temperature and decreasing dissolved oxygen, in particular, will have significant effects on the physiology of marine animals.  Clarifying how environmentally driven changes in physiology scale up to drive individual behavior and success is key to understanding how climate change will influence species, populations, and ecosystems in the future.  Thus, in my laboratory we utilize integrative methods to examine abiotic and biotic stressor effects on organismal function and behavior as a vital step to the physiological ecology approach.  Our current projects are focused on studying the effects of environmental stressors on the function of several important South Carolina species, including fish (spotted seatrout) and invertebrates (crustaceans). 


                                                                    REU intern Jessie Lowry working on sediment microbes

Dr. Chris Freeman (CofC, freemancj’at’

Coral reef and sponge ecology

Sponges are dominant members of coral reefs in the Caribbean, where their biomass and diversity exceeds that of reef-building corals. In addition to being prolific filter feeders on suspended organic matter, many sponges host abundant and diverse communities of microbial symbionts. These symbiont communities likely play important roles in host sponge ecology by providing access to novel sources of food. To better understand sponge-microbe interactions, we are investigating how host sponge physiology and microbial symbiont community composition influence sponge resource use. We also have other ongoing projects investigating the critical role that sponges are playing on Caribbean reefs as both foundational species and sources of nutrients to other organisms. The REU project will be focused broadly on Caribbean sponge ecology and will ultimately depend on student interests.

Dr. Tony Harold (CofC, harolda’at’

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. Michael Kendrick (SC-DNR, kendrickM’at’

Habitat requirements of benthic invertebrates

The Crustacean Research and Monitoring Section of SCDNR investigates the population status and ecology of crustaceans and other invertebrates that are commercially and/or recreationally important in the state of South Carolina. Both horseshoe crabs and blue crabs, for instance, support important commercial industries but are also of significant ecological importance. Projects for incoming REU students will involve a combination of field work and lab work aimed at better understanding the ecological role and habitat preference of either blue crab or horseshoe crab.


                                                                         Student interns headed to collect field samples

Dr. Peter Lee (CofC, leep’at’

Phytoplankton Ecology and Microbial Oceanography

In general, we examine the interplay between marine microbial communities and the biogeochemical cycling of dissolved gases (e.g. N2, O2 and CO2) and 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 mass spectrometry techniques are used to analyze changes in the dissolved gas and VOC concentrations.  Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) result from the rapid growth of certain photosynthetic microbes when favorable conditions exist, typically the presence of excessive nutrients.  These blooms can produce toxins that are deleterious to higher trophic level organisms or can cause the removal of oxygen once the bloom dies and is consumed by bacteria.  HABs can occur in freshwater, in the sea and in estuaries where freshwater enters the ocean.  It is anticipated that rising global temperatures will result in the more frequent occurrence of HABs. An emerging technology to combat HABs is the use of ozone nanobubbles to “disinfect” the impacted water body.  Since both the presence of HABs and the injection of ozone into the water body have dramatic effects on dissolved gas and VOC dynamics, understanding how changes in those dynamics affect phytoplankton ecology is critical to understanding the long-term ecological impact of ozone-based HAB mitigation strategies.  Potential student projects include examining the fate of dissolved gases and VOCs from ozone disinfected laboratory “blooms” or the ability of model phytoplankton species to rebloom after ozone injection.


                                                                       REU intern Jack McAlhany analyzing lipid samples

Dr. Craig Plante (CofC, plantec’at’

Community assembly processes for benthic microalgae

Marine and estuarine benthic microalgae (BMA) are promising bioindicators. However, better understanding of BMA ecology and biogeography is needed first, which is the current focus of our lab. The likely REU project will involve experimental manipulation of environmental factors (nutrients and/or temperature) in estuarine mudflats to determine the roles of these factors in community assembly.  In addition to field work, the project will involve analysis of the microbial community structure using molecular and bioinformatics techniques.



                                                                            REU interns on Otter Island, South Carolin                                                                              

Dr. Bob Podolsky (CofC, podolskyr’at’

Stresses on marine invertebrate larvae

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, sotkae’at’

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. Allison Welch (CofC, welcha’at’

Salinity stress and amphibian developmental ecology

Salinization of freshwater ecosystems is an emerging environmental concern.  In coastal areas, freshwater habitats can be at risk of rapid and potentially dramatic fluctuations in salinity associated with storm surge events.  Such fluctuations in habitat salinity may be intensified by climate change, due to sea level rise and an increase in extreme weather events.  Elevated salinity can increase the demands of osmoregulation in freshwater organisms, and amphibians are especially vulnerable due to their permeable skin and relatively poor osmoregulatory abilities particularly during early stages of development.  Tadpoles exposed to elevated salinity have been observed to show suppressed growth and delayed development.  However, if the salinity exposure is transient, tadpoles may be able to compensate for these impacts by accelerating growth and/or development after the salinity stress is alleviated.  We are interested in how the timing of salinity exposure during developmental influences these responses.  The REU student project may include examining tadpole growth and development rates during and after salinity exposure at different points during development.  In addition, because exploratory and foraging behavior are linked with food intake and thus growth, these behaviors may also be examined during and after salinity exposures.  Ultimately, this research will help us better understand amphibian developmental plasticity in response to fluctuating environmental stress as well as the potential impacts of climate change on coastal amphibian populations.

Melissa - Spyropolous lab

                                                          REU intern Melissa Rex studying the effects of endocrine disruptors


Dr. Ed Wirth (NOAA, edwirth’at’

Ecotoxicology of chemical contaminants

The project this summer will focus on the toxicity of compounds (short-chained PFAAs and fluorotelomer-based surfactants) that are found in aqueous film forming foams (AFFFs) that are used in the suppression of fuel-based fires.  These compounds replaced the fluorinated compounds (PFOS and PFOA) that were used historically in fuel fire suppression, but which were banned in the early 2000s.  The persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity of these substitute compounds, which are released as a consequence of fire suppression in marine waters, remain an environmental concern.  The REU student will be involved in acute testing of marine species that may include algae, crustaceans, or fish.  This work supports a larger project focused on fluorine-free AFFFs where the chemical analysis of each treatment concentration is required.  Exposure to analytical methods for determining AFFF concentrations from each toxicity test may also be a part of this REU effort.


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)