Next Generation: Juan Alvarez

May 1, 2018
Juan Alvarez is a Ph.D. student at Horn Point Laboratory who is working to understand the ecological drivers of bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico, where he grew up.
Juan Alvarez studies the water in Laguna Grande, one of Puerto Rico's bioluminescent bays. He measures water temperature and salinity and collects samples to analyze, including looking for Pyrodinium bahamense.

Hometown: Orocovis, Puerto Rico
Advisors: Jamie Pierson, Horn Point Laboratory; Lora Harris, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory

What are you researching? My research is about understanding the ecological drivers of bioluminescent lagoons. These coastal lagoons are predominantly dominated by a dinoflagellate called Pyrodinium bahamense. I try to understand what are the bottom-up and top-down factors that influence the abundance of this dinoflagellate.

Why does it make a difference? These coastal lagoons that we call bioluminescent lagoons are really important for the people of Puerto Rico because they represent a source of income and also it’s part of their cultural identity. We need to develop better tools to manage these systems. With the type of research we’re conducting, we can provide useful and updated information on how to develop those management plans and hopefully put in place better actions of conservation toward the lagoons.

How did you get interested in environmental science? When I was growing up, I had a daily interaction with nature. My grandpa was a farmer, so I used to work on the lands picking coffee and root vegetables. I always had that connection, and it sparked my curiosity. In college, I had the amazing opportunity of meeting my undergraduate advisor Ruby Montoya. She introduced me to aquaculture and oceanography, and everything became more clear by then.

Juan Alvarez works with Soely Luyando, a student at Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico, to analyze the water samples collected from bioluminescent bays.

Why choose the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science? I came to UMCES in 2014, and part of the reason I came to our institution is because I had the opportunity to meet Lora Harris and Jamie Pierson back in 2012 in Puerto Rico. I had the chance to learn about the type of research they were doing and also to get to know them on a personal level. I thought it was a good fit for the things that I wanted to pursue in terms of research. Thanks to a fellowship I was granted by the National Science Foundation, I was able to end up at UMCES and continue my graduate studies.

Share an experience that stands out most about your time with UMCES. Besides the fact that I get to interact with cool and smart colleagues that are doing research here in the United States and around the world is when we had the Marine-Estuarine Environmental Sciences (MEES) Colloquium, something we hosted last year at Horn Point Laboratory. I had the chance to see the wide spectrum of research that other students are conducting.

What’s the most important thing people can do to help the environment? Becoming aware of how the environment works, what takes place in the environment, and how, not only us, but other species out there benefit from having an environment that exhibits good health. From there, we can think about concrete actions that we can engage on, but it’s really important for people to understand what’s happening out there in the environment.

When do you anticipate to earn your degree and what are your future plans? Hopefully, I’ll get my degree within the next two years. In the future, I want to go back home to Puerto Rico and engage there in the continuity of research in the bioluminescent lagoons and also help with informing the management actions toward the systems and other natural resources we have in the coastal zone.