There are not many places in Illinois or Pennsylvania where you can study the effects of heat on coral reefs, so this summer Jack Howard, a third-year Penn State biology undergraduate from Wilmette, Illinois, and a Schreyer Honors Scholar, packed his bags and headed to Florida.
While Florida is a popular vacation spot, relaxing wasn’t the purpose of Howard’s trip. Howard had the opportunity to participate in coastal biology research for Florida International University, fully funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU).
Thanks to his BIO220M professor, Huck Distinguished Chair in Plant Biology and Evolutionary Genomics Claude dePamphilis, pointing him in the direction of REU programs and his credentials at Penn State, Howard was selected to do hands-on epigenetics research in a highly competitive program. He spent the 10-week program analyzing coral reef bleaching patterns.
“Epigenetics is a field that studies how the environment interacts with our physical development,” Howard said. “The reason I got so interested in specifically epigenetics is that I always thought it was the coolest concept that, as a human being, your literal instructions can be re-written.”
Howard, along with other researchers in the program, studied various bleaching patterns of Caribbean corals from Bonaire, an island off the coast of Venezuela, and analyzed them in a lab. They were looking at the bleaching of corals that occurs when the corals experience environmental stressors. Corals release the chlorophyll inside them that then turns them white.
Bleaching is “a problem that is directly affecting the corals in the Caribbean,” Howard said. Corals are a huge part of the underwater ecosystem as they house roughly 25% of the world’s marine population. When the temperature heats up and bleaches corals, the impact can cause severe damage, kill them, and potentially wipe out entire ecosystems.
In the lab, Howard analyzed the collected corals in two ways: image analysis, using a free online software, and lab procedures that measured chlorophyll retention, which can indicate resistance to bleaching. The goal was to obtain the same results with two techniques.
Howard said that the difference between the two procedures was their cost. The photo analysis is essentially free while the chlorophyll retention equipment is expensive.
“My biggest goal as the end of the day is to be a scientist that reduces those barrier costs for research and that’s the biggest goal in marine science,” he said.
The researchers were able to prove the same results using two different techniques, but one of those techniques cost hundreds of dollars less.
“I was working in a lab, putting in my hours and having an in-person experience which not a lot of other people get to have, especially now because of COVID,” Howard said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging for many students to get a grasp on what their education will look like applied in the real world. This research opportunity expanded on Howard’s love for biology and genetics, and he gained a deeper understanding of global climate issues, he said.
“Every Friday we went on different field trips around South Florida, learning from water reclamation districts and the Everglades Foundation,” Howard said. “We went to Key West and snorkeled and saw the coral reefs there.”
While Howard was far from his home and Penn State, he felt a sense of community being surrounded by like-minded individuals from all around the world studying the impact that their research has on the globe.
“I connected with other passionate biologists from across the country,” he said. “My roommate was from a small town in South Dakota. The girl across the hall was from Ohio State, an oceanographer was from Texas, there were fish modelers from Georgia ... nothing beats that experience. You don’t get that with Zoom.”