My research is currently supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program and we are required to submit annual reports on our accomplishments. I hope to elaborate on the things mentioned here a bit more in additional blog posts as the semester calms down... This annual report also aims to increase transparency in federally funded research and should be written for public access. Here is my submitted report for August '21- April '22:
During the first year of my fellowship, I began my dissertation research, completed the required coursework for my Ph.D. in Biology at Lehigh University, prepared for my qualifying exam, and established relationships within my University in order to organize community outreach events that will begin this Summer.
At the start of this reporting period, I participated in a research cruise to recover 36 Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) that have been accumulating benthic marine invertebrates- things like corals, sponges, crabs, tube worms, etc. and will form the bulk of my Ph.D. dissertation. This was part of the NOAA-funded project, Connectivity of Coral Ecosystems (CYCLE) in the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico, led by Lehigh University in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The goal of this project is to understand connectivity and environmental drivers of biodiversity within the recently expanded Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS). ARMS are a stack of PVC plates that mimics complex structures of reefs for marine animals to settle and live on and is a globally standardized method to measure reef biodiversity and thus the health of reefs around the world. My Ph.D. research will focus on using ARMS to assess biodiversity and connectivity of mesophotic reefs across multiple banks within the sanctuary. Once the ARMS were recovered, they were processed onboard where we photographed, sorted, and identified all organisms that resided in them over the past two years. We then scraped all the invertebrates that had attached themselves to the ARMS plates into a blender and blended into a uniform mixture and preserved them for genetic analysis. I have spent the majority of this reporting period extracting DNA from all ARMS samples and they will be soon sent out to be sequenced. I will use DNA metabarcoding to identify all organisms that were in each blended sample. Metabarcoding results will be combined with environmental data, such as depth and temperature, which will allow us to compare the biological community composition across banks within FGBNMS, and understand what environmental factors support diverse communities. Since ARMS are a globally standardized method, we can also compare biodiversity from mesophotic reefs to other reefs around the world and repeat methods in the future to monitor changes in biodiversity over time.
During the ARMS recovery cruise, I also collected and preserved a variety of octocorals for histology imaging in order to gain a better understanding of the reproductive biology of mesophotic and deep-sea corals. I am also involved in collaborative research involving the geochemistry and biology of hydrothermal vents. This past year I helped describe the biological community of a newly discovered active off-axis hydrothermal vent, these findings are included in a manuscript that is under review in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
In addition to my research at Lehigh, I was elected into an officer position for the graduate student organization within Lehigh’s biology department, the Biological Organization of Graduate Students. While in this role, I have helped organize events for student professional development, advocated for students, and planned community outreach events. I have worked with a local brewery in downtown Bethlehem to host a monthly Science on Tap seminar series. The goal of this recurring event is to give graduate students and faculty from various Lehigh STEM departments a chance to present a brief and informal presentation on a research topic to the public in a welcoming environment. As a way to familiarize the public with what research expeditions and being a graduate student in science entails, I have created and maintained a personal blog that is written for the public (nicolepittoors.com/blog).
Lehigh University's research magazine, ACUMEN, also published an article about the research that will be supported by my NSF fellowship. You can view the web version here and the printed version here (page 22-23)