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UNCW Students in Marine Biology, Marine Science Recognized for Scientific Research, Commitment to Honors Education

Friday, February 20, 2015

Four UNCW students – two undergraduates, a graduate student and a Ph.D. candidate – recently received recognition for their scientific research or their commitment to honors education.

Tiffany Ernst, a marine biology major at UNCW, has been elected as a student member of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) Board of Directors. Tiffany, who will serve a two-year term, was nominated for the role by Kate Bruce, director of the UNCW Honors College. The NCHC’s mission is to support and enhance the community of educational institutions, professionals and students who participate in collegiate honors education. Ernst, a sophomore from Flanders, N.J., said she is “immensely excited” to serve on the national board.

“I am now in the position to inspire students’ national involvement in honors, something I’ve tried to promote here at UNCW,” Ernst said. “The biggest skill I hope to gain from this experience is improved public speaking. My ultimate goal is to become a professor and I think this position will help me get more comfortable speaking in a professional setting and communicating with a large number of different types of people.”

Ciera Ames, a biology and marine biology major, was the runner-up in the student poster presentation category at the Southeast Regional Sea Turtle Meeting (SERSTM) held Feb. 4-7 at Jekyll Island, Ga. Her poster, an honors project, analyzed Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles accidentally captured during recreational hook-and-line fishing expeditions in North Carolina and Virginia. Her work focused on the turtles’ blood biochemistry and how it may have been affected by the experience of being captured and treated for injuries caused by hooks.

“UNCW offers students the opportunity to step outside the lecture hall and do research with real-world implications,” Ames said. “The emphasis on, and encouragement of, undergraduate research empowers students to utilize the skills they have worked so hard to attain and apply them to a topic they can be passionate about.”

She conducted her sea turtle research under the supervision of faculty mentor Amanda Southwood Williard, associate professor of biology and marine biology. Ames, a senior from Fayetteville, N.C., described the conference as “an invaluable experience.”

“I was one of very few undergraduate students presenting research,” she said. “It was a very humbling experience to meet so many people with a passion for sea turtle research and conservation.”

Susan Barco, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in marine biology, won the best student presentation award at SERSTM. She works full-time as the research coordinator and senior scientist at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Va. Like Ames, Barco studied sea turtles under Williard’s guidance. She focused on loggerhead sea turtles from the Chesapeake Bay that have been involved in “strikes” or accidental collisions with vessels.

“Winning this award has made me feel that my dissertation research on sea turtles is accepted by the sea turtle scientific community,” Barco said, “which makes me even more excited to publish the results of my research.”

James Hill, a Wilmington, N.C., resident enrolled in UNCW’s master of marine science program, has received the Tyson Best Student Abstract award from the World Aquaculture Society’s Aquaculture America Conference, scheduled Feb. 19-22 in New Orleans. Tyson Foods will present Hill with $1,775 for winning the award. During the conference, he will compete with students from universities across the nation for an oral presentation award.

The award recognizes the quality and commercial potential of a mixed-protein based feed that Hill developed for use in aquaculture. Traditional feeds typically used at aquaculture farms contain 60 percent fish meal as a protein source, which is expensive and comes from an unsustainable resource, because many of the fish raised for commercial usage are carnivores, according to Wade Watanabe, UNCW Aquaculture Program coordinator.

Hill, working closely with Md. Shah Alam, the program’s fish nutritionist, formulated another diet that replaced the fish meal protein with a mixture made from poultry products, corn gluten and soybean protein. They tested the replacement diet with red porgy and discovered that fish fed this cheaper, mixed protein-based diet grew as well as fish fed a traditional diet. 

“This is very promising because it shows that this species of fish can be raised to market on a diet consisting of locally available protein ingredients” that are cheaper to produce than traditional fish meal, Hill explained.

Hill appreciates both the financial support from Tyson and the opportunity to share his research with other scientists and aquaculture industry leaders. “It's nice to know that all the time and effort I am putting into this project will really mean something to other people once it is done,” he said.

Associate Professor Chris Finelli, chair of the UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology, said: “These honors highlight the quality of students, and the quality of the student experience, at UNCW. Each of these students is participating in activities that further their career skills, advance our understanding of the marine world, and provide leadership in the broader community. I’m very pleased that they are being recognized for their accomplishments.”