“A Beautiful Way to Give Back to North Carolina”

Drew Davey and Mariko Polk conduct research designed to protect the state’s coastline and its people

By Kristin S. Hanson

Water has long loomed large in Drew Davey’s life. He grew up along North Carolina’s Outer and Inner Banks. In high school he restored a sailboat, then started living on it.

“I got an up-close look at coastal morphology [how the beach changes over time] and the consequences hurricanes are having on our coast,” Davey says. “That’s what got me interested in coastal engineering.”

That interest led him – like many others – to UNC Wilmington, where a unique blend of expertise, infrastructure and location provide a perfect launch pad for research and careers in marine science. For Mariko Polk ’15M, the potential to make discoveries that can help protect and preserve our coastal resources brought her to UNCW not once, but twice. She received her M.S. in environmental studies in 2015 and returned in 2018 to study coastal ecology with Professor Martin Posey and Assistant Professor Devon Eulie.

If a passion for the sea is a common thread that brought Davey and Polk to UNCW, so too is a resource that has helped keep them here: scholarship support. Davey received the LS3P Scholarship in Coastal Engineering, and Polk received the Francis Peter Fensel Sr. Memorial Scholarship Endowment. Increasing scholarships and other student support resources is a top priority of Like No Other: The Campaign for UNCW.

Scholarships provide students – both undergraduate and graduate – financial relief that allows them to focus on big-picture questions they want to answer through experiences and research.

“I can say from my own experience and other students I’ve talked to in my field, we’re asking these questions because we’re passionate about marine science,” Polk says. “We’re going to make a difference with the research we’re doing.” Polk’s dissertation centers on how shoreline management strategies protect coastal communities and how they affect the delicate ecosystems where the water meets the land.

The capabilities of living shorelines – which can involve native vegetation and, sometimes, a variety of sustainable materials constructed by humans but do less damage to the intertidal habitat – are fairly unexplored, and that’s where Polk hopes to provide a contribution through her dissertation.

“We recently discovered that living shorelines have less lateral erosion, or even experience growth, during storm events” when compared with natural, unaltered shorelines, she says. “Next we’re exploring how living shorelines affect the ecosystem services salt marshes provide, and we are exploring how past coastal management decisions affected the level of damage caused by Hurricane Florence.”

Once her dissertation is complete, Polk hopes the research can help empower coastal managers, marine contractors and homeowners in shoreline management decision-making that benefits both coastal communities and ecosystems. Davey has similar aims for the research he’s been conducting with Ryan Mieras, an assistant professor and the first full-time, tenure-track faculty member hired for UNCW’s new B.S. in coastal engineering program. Last year, Davey joined Mieras’ team in work supported by a Summer Undergraduate Research and Creativity Awards grant to test a new tool, CCP+, that can help observe and quantify geomorphic changes in coastal environments.

“We don’t have a good understanding of sediment transport in the swash zone (the sand moving in between each wave). The CCP+ allows us to study that,” Davey says. He’s also helping Mieras test a low-cost Light Imaging Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) device that can be deployed during storms to quantify the rapid changes that happen on the beach during those events.

“After Florence and many other recent hurricanes, we’re in desperate need of more accurate predictions of geomorphic change so we can improve response and recovery to storms on our barrier islands,” he says. “Devices like the CCP+ and LIDAR can provide data to guide policy advice about coastal construction and protection measures.”

Davey plans to continue research on the project next summer during an internship with the Naval Research Laboratory, an opportunity he wouldn’t be able to take advantage of without the support of his scholarship. Down the road, he looks forward to paying back that support by establishing a career in service to the place he grew up.

“I live in Edenton on the Albemarle Sound, and it’s a relatively poor area,” he says. “I thought this would be a beautiful way to give back to North Carolina, by getting into coastal engineering, and being able to help protect them from the impacts of hurricanes.”

Visit uncw.edu/give to learn more about how you can support students like no other through scholarships at UNCW.

Drew Davey  

Drew Davey; photo courtesy of the Coastal Sediments and Hydrodynamics Laboratory.

Mariko Polk

Mariko Polk; photo courtesy of Mariko Polk and Mackenzie Taggart.


Read more in the Winter 2021 issue of UNCW Magazine