Next Generation: Melanie Jackson

August 3, 2015
Melanie Jackson, a Ph.D. student at Horn Point Laboratory, talks about her efforts to understand how much nitrogen and pollution oysters remove from the water and what benefits that filtering has for us.

Hometown: Westfield, New Jersey
Adviser: Jeffrey Cornwell, Horn Point Laboratory

What are you researching? The Chesapeake Bay has too much nitrogen pollution from fertilizer runoff, sewage effluent, etc., which fuels algae blooms and results in dead zones. My research determines how much nitrogen pollution can be removed by oyster restoration and aquaculture. Oysters remove nitrogen by eating algae and storing the nitrogen in their tissues or mud below them, but my research focuses on a different way that oysters remove nitrogen. Oysters create the ideal environment for bacteria to convert nitrogen pollution to a non-harmful gas that goes into the atmosphere, which eliminates the nitrogen from the water completely. 

Why does it make a difference? I'm uncovering information that will help decision-makers determine whether oyster restoration and aquaculture can be applied as a best-management practice to remove nitrogen pollution and improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

How did you get interested in environmental science? I became interested in environmental science going to the beach and hearing vibrant snorkeling stories from my grandfather. Admittedly, I entered my undergraduate program yearning to someday jump off of Shamu's nose at SeaWorld. My broad scientific background has resulted in my interests shifting from charismatic megafauna to an organism that acts not only as a source of food, but also cleans the water.

When did you come to UMCES and what made you decide to come here? After my undergraduate career, I served as an AmeriCorps watershed ambassador around some of New Jersey’s most polluted waters. The experience clarified the environmental issues that I wanted to delve into, setting me on an obvious path for graduate school at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). I started my master's degree at UMCES in 2013 to study algae blooms and how they respond to different types of nitrogen pollution. In 2016, I learned that oysters could help remove nitrogen pollution and I decided to stay at Horn Point Laboratory to work towards my Ph.D.

It was a beautiful and calm day, which meant that when I was snorkeling and swam down to the oyster reef, the water went from murky to clear just about a foot above the reef. The oysters were filtering particles from the water and were clearing up the water!

 

Share an experience that stands out most about your time with UMCES. One of my best days at Horn Point was also one of my most physically demanding days. I went to Harris Creek, one of the largest oyster restoration sites in the world, to collect oysters for my first set of experiments in the laboratory.

It was a beautiful and calm day, which meant that when I was snorkeling and swam down to the oyster reef, the water went from murky to clear just about a foot above the reef. The oysters were filtering particles from the water and were clearing up the water!

It was amazing to see the oyster reef structure that I've read about in textbooks, along with the reef's resident crabs, mussels, and fish; however, jellyfish, the stinging sea nettle, were out in swarms. Even though I had a wetsuit on to cover my arms and legs, the stinging tentacles would wrap around my face as soon as I dove down to the bottom. On my first dive, I made the novice mistake of not wearing gloves and scratched up my hands on the oyster shells. Despite the cuts and the red lines on my face, I got back on the boat with my samples and a sense of wonder and awe for the productive reef below the boat.

What’s the most important thing people can do to help the environment? Something that I urge my family to do on a regular basis is to reduce waste. This can be as simple as using a reusable coffee mug, water bottle, and grocery bag.

When do you anticipate to earn your degree and what are your future plans? My goal is to earn my degree during the spring of 2019. I am passionate about developing research applicable to environmental management, and my ultimate career goal is to create and communicate coastal resource policy.