Next Generation: Lauren Rodriguez on Using Environmental DNA in the Chesapeake Bay

February 27, 2022

Advisor: Dr. Helen Bailey (Chesapeake Biological Laboratory), who works on a myriad of projects involving protected species such as bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES?
I was a part of Maryland SeaGrant’s Research Experience for Undergraduates fellowship, which allows undergraduate students to be mentored by a marine scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. I was paired with Dr. Helen Bailey in summer 2019 and had the most incredible experience - I wouldn’t trade that summer for the world! 

During the fellowship, I worked with data from Dr. Bailey’s Chesapeake DolphinWatch volunteer science research program to assess when and where bottlenose dolphins were occurring across the Chesapeake Bay. This project turned into my first published paper and established my relationship with Dr. Bailey, which then turned into her advising me as a master’s student.

What is the focus of your UMCES thesis?
My current research focuses on monitoring biodiversity patterns in the Chesapeake Bay using noninvasive environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling. I like to call it “environmental forensics.” By sampling the water around the Bay, then sequencing it genomically, I can tell which species have been in that environment. Genetic material from scales, hair, fecal matter and other sources degrades rapidly (within about 24-48 hours) in the Bay’s salty, cloudy waters. Therefore, if I can detect the species’ eDNA that means they have been in the environment relatively recently. 

Once I have the information from these eDNA samples, I can conduct various analyses to identify which species are overlapping in space and time. This work can tell us a lot about which animals may be interacting and can help me draw conclusions about potential predator-prey interactions. For example, if dolphin eDNA is detected in the same place as menhaden eDNA, it might imply a relationship between the two species.

How will your research make a difference? 
Often, to track an animal’s movements in oceans and bays, scientists use methods that are time and labor intensive, and which could also impact the animal; following a dolphin by boat might impact where it goes, attaching a tag to a dolphin may cause the animal stress, etc.  Using noninvasive methods to monitor biodiversity - especially large, charismatic animals like bottlenose dolphins (thanks Chesapeake DolphinWatch!) - is the most humane way to be a marine biologist. Developing new techniques that help us find out when and where animals come into the Chesapeake Bay without actually interacting with them helps preserve their natural behavior - and their safety!

What influenced your career path in science?
I’ve always been in love with animals and curious about everything in general. Growing up in Michigan I was fascinated by the ocean and marine life, but never thought that I’d be able to make a career out of it. Then, in my junior year of high school, I participated in a summer research program at the University of Miami where I was taught tropical marine biology by two amazing scientists, Dr. Gary Hitchcock and Dr. Liza Merly. This experience established my interest in pursuing marine biology seriously.

I returned to the University of Miami for my freshman year of college to study marine biology, but finished my degree at Michigan State University, where I received a B.S. in Zoology (focusing on animal behavior) with a minor in Geographic Information Science

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
Working with incredibly inspiring women scientists. Helen Bailey, Jamie Testa, Amber Fandel, Kirsten Silva, Nicole Barbour - my team is full of them, as is CBL! 

I’m the current president of the American Association for University Women at CBL. Through this group, I have gotten to do some very rewarding things, such as work with the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum on this year’s Black History Month exhibit.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
Educate yourself and others about local scientific projects! Environmental stewardship starts at the source.

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
Take any opportunity that comes your way! I started my journey in laboratory science working for an agricultural group at Michigan State. During this job, I collected, sorted, and processed soil for most of the day. Even though that wasn’t work I was passionate about, I gained invaluable laboratory and analytical skills that have stuck with me to this day!

Have you received a scholarship, grant, travel award, or gift from a donor? What did it allow you to do and why was that important?
Yes! I received the Solomons House Fellowship from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory’s Graduate Education Committee, which fully funds my master’s degree (tuition and all). Without receiving that scholarship, there’s no way I could afford my degree. I am so grateful!

Also, the Jes Avanti Foundation has provided extraordinary support for my research projects! Special mention to Liz Sanders, who is a delight to work with. My research has also received funding from the Maryland Sea Grant, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce under award number SA75281850-X (R/Rp/FISH-363).

When do you anticipate earning your degree?
I will defend my master’s thesis at the end of this year (December 2022) or towards the end of the spring semester next year (April/May 2023).

What are your future plans or aspirations?
The next step for me is hopefully acquiring a Ph.D. in marine biology, then becoming a research professor. I think it would be fulfilling to have a job advising the future generation of marine scientists and helping to preserve and protect our world’s biodiversity.