Next Generation: Shannon Hood on controlling biofouling in aquaculture

November 3, 2020

Name: Shannon Hood
Advisor: Louis Plough, Horn Point Laboratory

What is the focus of your research?
My research focuses on advancing the oyster aquaculture industry through improved production practices that can streamline the efficiency of these operations. My primary research focus is on using exposure to air to control biofouling on cultured oysters. Biofouling, or plants and animals which attach to the oysters and/or cages, can be thought of akin to weeds in a cornfield. They can detract from the growing conditions available to the crop of interest, the oysters. I’m interested in finding an environmentally friendly method to control biofouling and improve efficiency of aquaculture operations.

How will it make a difference?
Oysters serve important roles, from ecosystem services to cultural values to economic stimulation in small coastal communities. They also provide an important food source, allowing farmers to feed a growing population with minimal environmental impact. For this industry to grow in earnest, a number of obstacles must be addressed, and facilitating smooth, efficient operations is critically important. Oyster growers spend enormous time and effort controlling biofouling, the accumulation of microorganisms, plants, algae, or small animals on surfaces. Providing a clear method to control biofouling that does not require external energy inputs will aid the industry’s efficiency, and further reduce the environmental footprint of this already green industry.

What influenced your career path in science?
My dad and I always had a big vegetable garden when I was growing up. I loved nurturing the young plants and watching them grow and develop, though I wasn’t a vegetable eater at all (much to my mom’s chagrin!). I just liked seeing things grow. My dad was always careful about what kinds of amendments we used in the garden because we had to take care of the soil. This early understanding of the importance of stewardship was a big influence in my view of the world.

Later, I had a great environmental science teacher in high school. I remember growing plugs of native marsh grasses, and then planting them as a component of an ongoing restoration project of a highly deteriorated marsh area. The project left a big impression on me. As humans we have enormous influence over our natural environment. We can choose to care for and live in harmony with our natural environment, or we can exploit it. It was both incredibly humbling and empowering. I saw environmental science as a way to hone my understanding of the natural world and to understand how we can be good stewards while living rewarding lives.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES?
I chose to study at UMCES because I had already begun working at UMCES and was struck by the excellent academic opportunities. In defining my Ph.D. work and committee, I was thrilled to find Dr. Louis Plough as an advisor because of his valuable mentorship and our combined skillset. He is patient and an excellent scientist. I am strong in the field but need his support in robust analysis and lab techniques. Together, we’re a great partnership and I’m thankful for his leadership.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
I have been afforded so many opportunities during my time at UMCES that it’s difficult to pick just one. I’ve been permitted to meet and talk with elected officials, to present my research to a myriad of stakeholders and groups, and I’ve been given every opportunity to dream big.

My favorite experience has been the development of our demonstration oyster farm. In 2016, UMCES’ Horn Point Laboratory decided to install an oyster farm to serve as an area for aquaculture research and a place where current and prospective oyster growers could come and learn new techniques. I’ve been leading that endeavor since 2016. It has brought a sense of community and opened many doors for me in my academic and professional endeavors. It has been a lot of work, with more than ample reward.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
The most important thing people can do to help the environment is to be deliberate in our choices and actions. Our choices matter and seemingly small adjustments to everyday choices can make a big difference. The environmental challenges facing the world can seem crushing and insurmountable. However, if we break it down and think about those challenges, we can make real change with slight alterations to our norm.

We all eat, but where do we get our food from, and how much energy does that food require? Opting to buy local food or to limit resource intensive foods from our diets are great options. We all have to travel, but how do we get from point A to point B? Public transportation, biking and carpooling can be rewarding and efficient options.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are all governed, but who is in charge and what do they stand for? When we go to the polls, we can make the environment a priority and elect officials who will implement policies that protect our environment while promoting health, prosperity and justice in our communities.

We’re all different, so I don’t think there’s a prescriptive answer for what each person should do to be a strong environmental steward. Our communities and situations are different, and it’s up to each of us to make deliberate choices that promote environmental integrity. If we can all embrace seemingly small changes, we can collectively make a big difference.

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
My advice is go for it! If you’re curious about something, look into it. Even if other people aren’t talking about it, or you don’t see others in that field who look like you, you matter, you’re smart and we need you. Find a teacher, mentor, or friend who shares similar interests, and talk to them. Ask for help; people want to help you do well. If something fails or doesn’t go as planned, it’s ok – just make sure you’ve learned something from that experience. Stay in school, dream big, and focus on your goals.

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?
I have been the recipient of multiple grants during my time as a student and those grants have opened many doors for me. They have funded my dissertation research and have allowed me to travel to meetings and conferences where I’ve been able to present my research and engage with other scientists from around the world. Having the bulk of my research funded by a single grant was enormously helpful, in that it allowed me to focus on my research and worry less about how the research would be paid for.

My original role with UMCES was not that of a student, but that of an intern. Through a donation by a private philanthropic group, an aquaculture internship was funded. It was through this internship that I started with UMCES and cemented my fascination with oysters. This opportunity exposed me to research, industry and policy. Were it not for that original opportunity as an intern, I’m not sure I would have gone on to pursue a Ph.D. and hone my skills as an aquaculture researcher.

When do you anticipate earning your degree?
I hope to finish in 2021 or 2022.

What are your future plans?
In the future, I hope to continue working in the space at the intersection of the environment, industry, policy and society. I like the challenge of bringing my scientific knowledge to the table with other fields and working together to develop meaningful solutions to pressing challenges.