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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Grant Provides Opportunity for Biology Students to Explore International Research

By Tiffany Whitfield

Associate Professor David Gauthier of Biological Sciences at Old Dominion University and Associate Professor Chris Bird of Life Sciences at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, were recently awarded a three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation International Research Experiences for Students (NSF-IRES).

The collaborative Philippines International Research Experience for Students project (Ph-IRES) is related to the current NSF-PIRE grant (PI: Kent Carpenter, ODU professor of biological sciences) "Centennial Genetic and Species Transformations in the Epicenter of Marine Biodiversity" and will provide international research experiences at Silliman University in the Philippines. Fifteen undergraduates will receive $5,000 stipends to study biodiversity in the archipelago.

"This experience will prepare students for future international collaborative work in research and other settings and will also provide them with unique perspectives on the diversity of research methods and environments," Gauthier said.

Students will publish and present their work, increasing their competitiveness and setting them up for success in graduate or professional programs. The Philippines has the most marine species per unit area on Earth and includes an epicenter of biodiversity in the central region of the archipelago. The Philippines also ranks highest globally for threats to marine biodiversity and is a hotspot of fisheries overexploitation.

"There are numerous threats to the biodiversity of coral reefs and other marine habitats in the Philippines from habitat destruction and climate change," Gauthier said. "However, as in other parts of the ocean, overexploitation is the most prominent threat to marine fishes."

Society relies upon marine resources for food security, and the research performed by Ph-IRES students will contribute to sustainable fish harvesting by helping to understand how human activities affect their evolution.Marine populations in the Philippines have been severely impacted by intense fisheries exploitation and habitat degradation in the past century, providing an excellent system to test for relationships between anthropogenicactivities and biodiversity of fishes, fish population connectivity, marine fish evolution and fish health.

Ph-IRES students plan travel to the Philippines in late May and spend the eight weeks working in the laboratories of marine scientists at Silliman University. Projects will include molecular barcoding of marine reef species, examination of how exploitation affects fish growth and maturity, effects of microplastics on fish health and how human activities affect marine reef fishes. To promote collaboration, there will opportunities to exchange feedback with students in the sister PIRE REU program. Students will also participate in a one-week intensive bioinformatics workshop, working alongside graduate and undergraduate students from Silliman University.

After returning from the Philippines, Ph-IRES students will travel to the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) National Diversity in STEM conference to present their work and will receive continuing mentorship with the goal of publishing their summer research.

The hope is that the Philippines, which is closed to foreign visitors due to COVID-19, will be able to reopen by May.

"We are working on several contingency plans right now," Gauthier said, "including a remote option where students work at ODU or Texas A&M, Corpus Christi, under remote guidance from Filipino mentors, or even pushing the program to next summer."

Undergraduate students from ODU, Texas A&M, Corpus-Christi, Arizona State or Rutgers University (PIRE institutions) can apply to the NSF PIRE program here https://sites.wp.odu.edu/phires/.

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