Coral Reef Research Takes UTEP Student to Honduras
CHYANNE SMITH | August 23, 2016
Pictured from left to right are Sophia Salazar (UTEP), Daniel Dalagar (MC), Melissa Wood (MC), Dr. Tom Ready (MC) and Greg Larson (MC)
Sophia Salazar, a senior majoring in cellular and molecular biochemistry at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), began diving recreationally at age 16 in Cozumel, Mexico, but had not been diving since returning to El Paso. Recently, however, she got the chance to get back in the ocean as part of a marine research team supported by the UT System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program at the forefront of coral reef conservation research efforts.
LSAMP, which is spearheaded by UTEP, seeks to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through valuable research opportunities.
"I am extremely pleased to have supported this summer research experience abroad," said Benjamin C. Flores, Ph.D., principal investigator and director of the UT System LSAMP program. "It's a great example of how faculty from two Texas institutions, UTEP and Midland College, can collaborate to do fundamental research abroad and train talented undergraduate students like Sophia."
"Traveling to Honduras was spectacular," Salazar said. "I never imagined merging a hobby into a career. This opportunity is directing my research experience into depths that I have only dreamed about."
UTEP Professor of Chemistry Keith Pannell, Ph.D., and Midland College Professor of Chemistry Tom Ready, Ph.D., traveled with Salazar to Roatan, Honduras, in July 2016 to extract and analyze hydrophobic molecules from diseased and healthy corals in the hopes of supporting research efforts for the prevention of declining coral reef ecosystems.
Around the world, coral reefs are being destroyed by stresses arising from human activities such as overfishing, destructible fishing methods, unsustainable tourism, coastal development, pollution and global aquarium trade, as well as climate change and coral disease.
The team utilized two methods of collecting the hydrophobic molecules – nonpolar molecules that repel water molecules – to see whether there was a difference in the compounds present between healthy and diseased coral that could be causing coral sickness.
For their first method, researchers deployed small magnets coated with a silicon substance that absorbs organic hydrophobic molecules within a centimeter of corals for six to eight hours.
While deploying the magnets, researchers also collected water samples from around the diseased and healthy corals to analyze in their hotel room to see if this method would work allow them to collect and study the organic molecules in the water on the same scale as the magnets being deployed.
"If the results of stirring turn out to be similar to those of the magnets, this could open up a lot of research opportunities," Salazar said. "Instead of our team having to go deploy the magnets to collect sample, we could just ask other institutions performing coral reef research to send us water samples, allowing us to do more research from anywhere in the world."
The samples are currently being analyzed via thermal desorption – an environmental remediation technology that uses heat to increase the tendency of a substance to vaporize contaminates so they can be removed – and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) – a method that combines the features of GC and MS to identify different substances in a test sample – at UTEP in the laboratory of Associate Professor of Chemistry Wen-Yee Lee, Ph.D. Researchers hope the results will reveal the unknown organochemical makeup of coral reefs, which will help to further understand the occurrence of coral bleaching and disease to help in efforts to salvage these marine ecosystems.