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Student Awards

Impact Awards from the Graduate Education Advancement Board at UNC- Chapel Hill:

*Photos and information courtesy of the Graduate School at UNC-CH

2021: Sarah Donaher

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2020: Kelsey Jesser

New Way to Identify Harmful Bacteria Affecting Shellfish, Protect Consumers

“Kelsey’s dissertation research makes it now possible for us to design and commercialize molecular diagnostic tools specifically for protection of the consumer, through cost-effective testing of raw shellfish products prior to sale,” said adviser Rachel Noble, Ph.D.

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North Carolina has thriving tourism and shellfish industries, both of which can be negatively impacted by Vibrio bacteria, natural and sometimes disease-causing members of coastal bacterial communities. Strains of two Vibrio species, V. parahaemolyticus and V. vulnificus, are responsible for nearly all Vibrio-related illnesses in the United States, and both species have distinctive and complex ecological requirements with regard to salinity, temperature, nutrient availability and other environmental factors. Also, although certain strains of potentially harmful Vibrio species represent serious human health risks, others are thought to be nonthreatening to human health.

Understanding Vibrio ecology and the differences between strains that are capable of causing disease versus those that are strictly environmental is key to accurately estimating disease risk. I developed and applied a novel DNA sequencing approach to investigate Vibrio communities in the Neuse River Estuary, N.C., revealing complex seasonal and storm-related dynamics. I also used a novel method called protein motif fingerprinting to differentiate clinical strains and identify DNA-based markers for pathogenic V. parahaemolyticus, and used a new statistical method to probe V. vulnificus genomes for markers associated with disease-causing strains.

Through innovative applications of DNA sequencing technology, I discovered key traits to better identify harmful bacteria in coastal waters. The outcomes of my dissertation have and will continue to contribute to the development of new diagnostics and the advancement of the study of Vibrio in both environmental and clinical contexts in North Carolina and worldwide.

2016: Justin Ridge

Using GPS, Laser Technology to Calculate Where Oyster Reefs Will Thrive

“Justin presents centimeter-scale digital elevation models that show exactly where different parts of the reef grow or erode through time across areas with different tidal regimes. No other research group is collecting these types of data,” said adviser Antonio B. Rodriguez, Ph.D.

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North Carolina has experienced a dramatic loss of oyster populations during the past century, prompting the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) to direct massive efforts toward restoring a multi-million dollar fishery. Unfortunately, this initiative has had trouble producing prolific oyster reefs.

Previously, oyster-reef growth has only been measured in terms of oyster density or shape, height and complexity. Doctoral student Justin Ridge developed a model for measuring fine-scale growth by examining a selection of reefs with a terrestrial laser scanner. The laser scanner maps surfaces at centimeter scale, creating a digital model of a reef at a given point in time. He also surveyed the tops of additional reefs, creating GPS-informed digital maps for comparison at different times, and measured oyster density at different elevations of constructed and natural reefs.

By using these methods, Ridge determined that in the lower parts of estuaries that have high salinity, oyster reefs grow best under a specific range of tidal exposures and fail in settings that are always submerged. Essentially, this defines the areas along the N.C. coast where oyster reefs will form or persist. In related work, he determined that armoring marshes with oyster reefs is effective in preventing shoreline erosion that has been naturally occurring since the mid-1800s. The conclusions from his research are already being incorporated in several oyster restoration efforts, including a DMF project in southeastern North Carolina.

2016: Luke Dodd

Assessing Potential Threats, Benefits for Oyster Reefs

“Luke’s graduate work has already yielded both high-impact scientific contributions and information that is critically important to coastal decision-making,” said adviser Michael Piehler, Ph.D.

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Oyster reefs are a critical ecological, economic and cultural resource for North Carolina—the estimated monetary value of an unharvested oyster reef, alone, is tens of thousands of dollars per acre annually.

Luke Dodd, Ph.D., assessed the impact of ocean acidification and other threats to oyster reefs. In testing shell growth rates for more than 500 juvenile oysters raised in differing levels of ocean acidification, he found good news: In high-salinity areas, oysters grow even in extreme acidity. Additionally, acidification will also disrupt the predatory behavior of mud crabs that feed upon young oysters. His findings indicate that as ocean acidification increases, reef restorations may need to be targeted toward areas of higher salinity such as Core Sound or the mouths of the White Oak and New rivers.

Dodd also studied the state’s stone crab population, which is increasing within the Pamlico Sound. Little is known of this species’ influence on oyster reefs, and Dodd’s work determined how crab size affects their ability to consume oyster prey. Additionally, Dodd discovered that unlike many other bivalves, oysters do not stop filtering when predators are nearby to avoid becoming prey. This means that reefs can be managed as nurseries for valuable fisheries species without reducing their impact on water quality. This new knowledge of oyster reefs can be directly used to enhance the health and prosperity of the state’s coastal ecosystems.

2015: Kellen Lauer

Storms and Water Quality for Beachgoers

“Kellen’s research and interaction with the Town of Wrightsville Beach will have a tangible impact on efforts to increase awareness and improve notification during periods of poor water quality,” said adviser Rachel Noble, Ph.D.

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Wrightsville Beach is surrounded by many pristine beaches. However, deteriorating water quality has been observed after storm events on the sound side of the island in the vicinity of storm drain outfalls. Master’s degree student Kellen Lauer investigated sources of contamination within the water, conducting state-of-the-art tests to examine water for human and animal fecal contamination. She has also studied the impact of stormwater discharge on the water quality of the surrounding beach. Lauer designed a project to provide information on the areas along the beach that are impacted by stormwater contamination during a rainfall event. She designed the study to sample for the bacteria as it left the pipe, and how far from the pipe the heightened bacteria levels would reach.

During one storm event, she found fecal bacteria concentrations along the beach to be above safe levels used by the State of North Carolina to manage beach waters. Lauer has worked closely with the Town of Wrightsville Beach’s stormwater managers for almost two years to understand the fecal contamination issue during storm events. Her study can help officials who will work to eradicate these sources of fecal material from Wrightsville Beach storm drain systems, and protect the health of all future beachgoers.

2015: Ethan Theuerkauf

Sea-Level Anomalies and Beach Erosion

“Ethan’s study was the first to measure beach erosion associated with sea-level anomalies and his results underscore the importance of including them in beach-erosion models and management plans,” said adviser Antonio Rodriguez, Ph.D.

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Coastal hazard risk assessments and beach management plans in North Carolina focus on storms and long-term sea-level rise. They don’t assess risks presented by sea-level spikes, or anomalies, initiated by persistent northeasterly winds or reductions in the speed of the Gulf Stream. North Carolina’s beaches and barrier islands are in close proximity to the Gulf Stream and are particularly vulnerable to these anomalies.

Doctoral student Ethan Theuerkauf measured beach erosion along Onslow Beach, a barrier island in North Carolina, after a year with frequent sea-level anomalies and no hurricanes and compared that erosion to a year with a hurricane and infrequent anomalies. His findings indicate that the magnitude of erosion in a year with frequent sea-level anomalies (2009-2010) was similar to erosion in the year of Hurricane Irene (2011-2012) at some sites along Onslow Beach. At other sites, the erosion associated with frequent anomalies was greater than erosion associated with a hurricane. Theuerkauf’s study is believed to be the first to assess beach and barrier island erosion associated with anomalies. His findings demonstrate the need to include these events in coastal management plans in order to protect lives and property along the state’s coast.

2014: Anna Jalowska

Global Change Impacts in the Lower Roanoke River

“Anna’s research is at the frontier of global change science and what it will tell us about North Carolina and the future of its coastal areas,” said adviser Brent McKee, Ph.D.

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The Roanoke River is the largest river entering Albemarle-Pamlico Sound. The floodplains and deltaic environments of the Lower Roanoke are valuable ecosystems that provide N.C. coastal communities with recreation, fisheries and storm protection and play a crucial role in carbon and nutrient cycling. These vulnerable ecosystems are at the nexus between global changes taking place in the watershed and in the coastal ocean.

Doctoral student Anna Jalowska’s research investigates sediment distribution and storage in the Roanoke River channel, floodplains and delta, under changes associated with human impacts (like land clearing and river damming), and climate change factors such as accelerated sea-level rise and possible increased intensity of tropical and extratropical storms.

Jalowska has collected and analyzed samples and cores from different parts of the Roanoke River watershed and combined the results with studies of historical and modern maps and images. Her findings indicate that the role of floodplains and delta in processing materials from the watershed has changed dramatically from its natural state dominated by burial to a human-modified state dominated by erosion.

Jalowska’s research findings will add vital knowledge to the conservation and restoration efforts in the Lower Roanoke watershed.

2013: John Paul Balmonte

Assessing the Impacts of Hurricanes on Water Quality

“While analyzing the microbial ecosystem in the Tar River, John Paul developed new microbial indicators for water quality assessment during hurricane-flood induced environmental perturbation,” said advisor Andreas Teske, Ph.D. “John Paul’s extensive and unusual dataset on hurricane impact on the microbial water quality of North Carolina rivers can be used to help monitor riverine water quality and understand microbial diversity.”

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In recent decades, tropical storms and hurricanes have brought extensive flooding to eastern North Carolina. Devastation is generally assumed to be obvious to the eye, but powerful storms also can have an impact on river and coastal ecosystems that is not obvious.

In 2011, while many residents of eastern North Carolina fled the ravages of Hurricane Irene, master’s degree student John Paul Balmonte traveled to the affected area—specifically, the Tar River—to collect post-storm water samples to generate an extensive dataset on riverine microbial communities. John Paul’s goal was to learn how a natural disaster could bring about drastic changes to the river ecosystem particularly by investigating alterations in microbial community composition and understanding their implications on water quality.

John Paul’s project involved outreach to 13 middle and high schools located near the Tar and Neuse rivers on how to monitor water quality. His efforts are enhancing a field of research aimed at better understanding how extreme weather events affect the health of North Carolina’s agricultural and recreational waterways.

2012: Nate Geraldi

Identifying Best Ways to Maximize Oyster Population Growth

“Nate’s research is done on oyster reef habitat and involves experiments designed to test new ideas about what prevents recovery of oysters from a 99 percent decline extending back over the past century,” said Charles Peterson, Ph.D., Geraldi’s dissertation adviser.

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North Carolina has invested significant resources toward restoring its severely threatened oyster reefs. In the Pamlico Sound region, for example, restoration efforts have included artificial oyster reef sanctuaries created with large mounds of boulder-sized marl (rock containing clay and calcium carbonate). In addition, seed oysters that have been mass-produced in hatcheries have been transplanted to these sanctuaries to accelerate reef creation.

Continued restoration efforts are under way or under discussion—yet what methods are likely to produce the best results? Doctoral student Nate Geraldi studied the effectiveness of deploying hatchery-raised oysters by experimentally manipulating oyster mounds at Gibbs Shoal, Crab Hole and Clam Shoal oyster sanctuaries. The marl mounds at these sanctuaries had five different manipulations: blank marl, unseeded shell, early small seed oysters, late small seed oysters or late large seed oysters. The study team monitored the areas in fall 2010, spring 2011 and fall 2011, examining the size and abundance of oysters at each of the oyster sanctuaries. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Oyster Sanctuary Program provided assistance for this study.

Geraldi’s results indicated no difference in the number of oysters between shell deployed without seed oysters and shell deployed with oysters. Furthermore, the addition of shell, seeded or unseeded, was not associated with increased oyster abundance. Sanctuary location did appear to affect overall oyster abundance. Monitoring of the mounds will continue until spring 2012 to check for any long-term benefit to seeding the mounds.

His results indicate that natural oyster recruitment is not limiting oyster reef creation and that deploying hatchery-raised oysters does not accelerate oyster reef creation. “The results to date indicate that larval supply in the Pamlico Sound is more than adequate to create oyster reefs, and restoration resources should be devoted to deploying hard substrate for oysters to settle on,” Geraldi said.

2012: Ashley Smyth

Assessing Water Quality Enhancement Through Oyster Reef Restoration

“This work is timely and exciting, being both a novel contribution to basic science and having tremendous value for decision-making. Ashley’s research has already been of value to coastal decision makers in North Carolina,” said Michael Piehler, Ph.D., Smyth’s dissertation adviser.

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Coastal development has increased inputs of sediment, nitrogen and other pollutants into sensitive ecosystems. Additional nitrogen causes algal blooms that consume oxygen from the water, causing fish kills. Oysters efficiently filter water, and this process suppresses algal blooms and enhances microbial removal of nitrogen—yet their populations in North Carolina have dramatically decreased over the last century.

Doctoral student Ashley Smyth led a series of experiments assessing oysters’ ability to improve ecosystem health. A state-of-the-art instrument located at the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences allowed Smyth to quantify nitrogen removal attributable to oyster presence.

One experiment showed that oysters remove 18 percent of nitrogen inputs that would otherwise contribute to ecosystem degradation. Additional research compared nitrogen removal in oyster reef sediments with non-oyster sediments over the course of two years. Findings showed that oyster reef sediments removed, on average, five times more nitrogen than non-oyster sediments. To assess the effectiveness of oyster restoration strategies for improving water quality, Smyth compared three stages of oyster reef restoration using: live oysters to represent fully restored reefs, oyster shell as newly restored reefs and mud flats without reefs. Study findings demonstrated a 61 percent increase from live oysters and a 24 percent increase from oyster shell, as compared to the mud flat. Furthermore, water quality was shown to improve just two weeks after reef construction.

“Enhanced nitrogen removal and improved water quality have long been considered a benefit of oyster restoration; however, until now we have lacked quantitative measurements that are needed to include the water quality benefits of oyster restoration in economic evaluations and nutrient management plans,” Smyth said.

2011: Gregory Dusek

Using Nearshore Observations to Improve Our Ability to Forecast Rip Currents

“Greg’s research may significantly improve the warning system for this potentially dangerous flow condition (rip currents) along North Carolina beaches, as well as at beaches worldwide,” said Harvey Seim, Ph.D., Dusek’s dissertation adviser.

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Rip currents pose a significant safety risk to beachgoers and are currently the number-one cause of drownings and rescues at North Carolina beaches. There is still a lack of research on how rip currents vary over large spatial and time scales and what physical factors most influence this variability. This research void has contributed to the limitations of the present rip current forecast system employed by the National Weather Service.The present system, although providing some information to beachgoers, is limited in its accuracy, consistency and functionality. Gregory Dusek, a doctoral student, conducted an observational study at the town of Kill Devil Hills, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. His study includes observations of rip currents, waves, and the beach and nearshore bottom made between 2001 and 2009.

Dusek’s observations provide the basis for an improved rip current forecast system using the statistical likelihood of hazardous rip current occurrence. An improved forecast system has the potential to benefit both lifeguards and beachgoers throughout North Carolina and reduce the large number of rip current-related rescues and drownings.

2011: Emily Elliott

Skinny Beaches: Understanding Barrier Development and Erosion in North Carolina

“Emily’s research not only addresses the coastal response to increased storminess, an important issue facing the Outer Banks and any barrier-island community, but also warns against the coastalmanagement practice of ‘shoreline stabilization,’” said Antonio Rodriguez, Ph.D., Elliott’s dissertation adviser.

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The barrier island system of North Carolina’s Outer Banks is one of the most important resources in our state, providing means for economic growth as well as protection against the impact of storms. Barriers globally are experiencing high rates of erosion and narrowing as a result of sea-level rise, climate variation, sediment

supply and human influence. Doctoral student Emily Elliott used Bogue Banks, N.C., to research how barriers develop and transition through time as a result of these various forcing mechanisms.

Using core data, radiometric and optical dating techniques and geophysical data, Elliott constructed a chronological history of development for the barrier. Her research demonstrates the importance of back-barrier erosion in island narrowing and transition, and furthers understanding of barrier island response to sea-level rise and climate change.

The goal of Elliott’s research is to better comprehend and manage the coastline by furthering understanding of this vital, previously overlooked area of shoreline erosion. Ultimately, this study may promote better detection and management techniques to prevent further erosion and retreat under similar barrier conditions in North Carolina and around the world.

2011: Curtis H. Stumpf

Rapid and Accurate Determination of Fecal Pathogens in N.C. Coastal Waters

“Curtis truly has conducted research that is revolutionizing the field of stormwater quality and the assessment of human impact. He has developed a range of novel approaches for the application of this biosensor technology in the state,” said dissertation adviser Rachel T. Noble, Ph.D.

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The coastal waters of North Carolina are important recreational areas for swimming, fishing and shellfish harvesting. However, much of these coastal waters are contaminated with pathogens of fecal origin from improperly functioning septic systems, sewage infrastructure failures and stormwater runoff. Use of polluted coastal waters for swimming or shellfish harvesting can result in human illness and even death. Current methods for detection are slow, and current indicators of pollution are often inaccurate and non-source specific, increasing risk to water users.

Little is known about transport or source of contamination (human vs. wildlife) of these fecal indicators in many parts of North Carolina. Doctoral student Curtis H. Stumpf conducted research on storm and non-stormwaters in the New River Estuary to better understand how these microbes are transported within a coastal system. New human-specific bacterial indicators were used to differentiate between human and wildlife sources. In addition, he developed methods to assist with emerging detection technologies (i.e., biosensors).

Stumpf’s research has the potential to advance the approaches and technologies used to manage recreational and shellfish harvesting waters of North Carolina, as well as the field of water quality testing for indicators of pathogenic contamination.

2006: May Ling Becker, River-Estuary Water Flow Dynamics in the Cape Fear River Estuary, North Carolina

Dissertation Completion Fellowships from the Graduate School

2016: JP Balmonte; Natalie Cohen; Linghan Dong

2015: Emily Elliott

2013: Anna Jalowska; Lisa Nigro; Tingting Yang

2012: Ashley Smyth

2011: Greg Dusek

Graduate School Fellowships for Incoming Students

2015: Rob Lampe,  Doctoral Merit Assistantship

2012: Clancy Brown, Royster Society of Fellows 5-year Fellowship


2009: John Gunnell, 1-year Doctoral Merit Assistantship

Other Awards/Fellowships:

  • Jill Arriola, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program; NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students
  • John Paul Balmonte, Deep Carbon Observatory Diversity Award
  • Elaine Monbureau, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellowship
  • Carter Smith, NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students
  • Natalie Cohen, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society, Inductee
  • Justin Baumann, Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF) Award for Poster Presentation; Department of Defense National Defense Science and Engineering Grant; Rufford Foundation Booster Grant
  • Ian Kroll, Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship

Undergraduate Awards:

2016: Logan Buie, SURF Fellowship

Postdoctoral Awards for Research Excellence:

2013: Jennifer Prairie, Brian White Lab, Department of Marine Sciences

2011: Karl D. Castillo, Justin Ries Lab, Department of Marine Sciences

2009: Kai Ziervogel, Arnosti/Teske Lab, Department of Marine Sciences

2006: Anthony Yannarell, Institute of Marine Sciences

2005: Melanie Bishop, Institute of Marine Sciences


Outside Post-Doc Awards/Fellowships

2015: Pierre-Yves Passaggia, 2016 APS/DFD Milton van Dyke Award Winners (Poster)

2014: Pierre-Yves Passaggia, APS Gallery of Fluid Motion 2015: Milton Van Dyke Award