Next Generation: Michael Kalinowski on reducing the environmental impacts of oyster aquaculture

April 7, 2023

Advisor: Sairah Malkin, UMCES’ Horn Point Laboratory

What is the focus of your research?
My research focuses on building and testing tools to place below oyster aquaculture cages to help prevent environmental damage to the sediment. Oysters release organic matter including biodeposits that settle on to the bay floor below the cages. This accumulation drives microbial decomposition that creates a toxic compound called sulfide, which is stressful to important ecosystem organisms such as clams and worms. 

I am testing two tools. One is a benthic microbial fuel cell that consists of carbon felt pads connected by titanium wire. The device is placed at the bottom of the water column and generates electricity from the chemical reactions performed by existing bacteria in the sediment. In this reaction, toxic sulfide is converted into harmless sulfate. The second tool is an electrochemical snorkel, a graphite rod as thick as a pencil, placed vertically in sediment. The snorkel functions as a conductive rod that can assist bacteria to perform their chemical reactions along the snorkel’s entire length in the sediment and water column. Both tools have been shown to remove sulfide in previous laboratory experiments, but have not yet been tested in association with oyster aquaculture.

How will it make a difference?
These tools could make a difference if they are placed in locations where aquaculture sediment is noticeably black with minimal presence of worms or clams — an indication that the sediment is becoming inhospitable and with time, the bacteria will interact with the fuel cell and perform their chemical reactions.

The intended outcome will be that the tools remediate sulfide accumulation underneath oyster aquaculture cages. Visual indications that the fuel cell is working, where less sulfide is accumulating, will be the sediment color is becoming brown with a higher presence of worms and clams.

What influenced your career path in science?
My parents and trusting my gut. I wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t for my parents listening to and advising me on a career change for over a year. I knew I had an interest in the marine sciences, but I buried those instincts for an engineering career path, something I was not fully passionate about. I re-evaluated my career and re-oriented it back to where my passion lay.

I came into this program to find something I was passionate about and wanted to pursue.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
The most noteworthy experience would have to be Horn Point Laboratory’s Open House. Having the ability to interact and share science with the next generation of scientists was very impactful to me. Seeing kids’ smiles and reactions to our demonstration that mimicked a fuel cell at work by lighting an LED bulb connected to playdough and a battery was priceless.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
I think it’s important to understand what you can control in helping the environment. I know I can’t change events happening halfway around the world, but I can change who I vote for and how I commute, eat, or recycle. 

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed with the difficulty of STEM classes. Just remember to take the assignments a step at a time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from parents, siblings, teachers, or classmates. It won’t be easy at times, but if you struggle, reach out to your community to help you along the path. You’re not alone, and people will be willing to help you persevere through it.

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?
Maryland Sea Grant gave me a grant that gave me ability to conduct research and support myself through my studies

What are your future plans?
My goal is to finish my master’s program in spring 2024. Hopefully, that will allow me to apply my new knowledge with my engineering background to enter a government research facility at NOAA or elsewhere.