KINGSTON, RIDE – November 3, 2022 – Undergraduate students from Rhode Island colleges and universities headed to the University of Rhode Island last summer using EPSCoR (Established Competitive Research Incentive Program) funds to study various aspects of Narragansett Bay, from drones to nutrients sea water; Students at the Rhode Island School of Design even explored how to communicate scientific research through visuals and design.
The university’s EPSCoR program annually invites undergraduate students from Rhode Island to join this research. Students in the program receive a 10-week introductory research experience, helping them make informed decisions about where their education and career might go. EPSCoR brings in federal and state money, helps build research infrastructure, and trains the next generation of scientists through RI C-AIM (RI Consortium for Coastal Ecology Assessment Innovation & Modeling), an ongoing EPSCoR grant led by URI. In its fifth year, the program has generated $57.7 million for the state, with research focusing on Narragansett Bay and the effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems.
Over the years, a number of students have had the opportunity to contribute to research within the EPSCoR programme. Mason Jacob ’24, a junior interdisciplinary engineering major, is one of them and spoke more about what the EPSCoR research experience is like. “I gained important knowledge about research in general,” he said, “made valuable personal connections, and improved my ability to communicate my work.”
Jacob found the EPSCoR fellowship to be the perfect summer activity for his interests and intellectual curiosity. Jacob joined the Narragansett Bay Observatory Project, which collects real-time data and monitors environmental changes using buoys located in Narragansett Bay. These floating laboratories measure marine conditions in minute detail, sharing information about changing environmental conditions here in the Gulf.
Jacob has been instrumental in efforts to better understand the ecosystem dynamics that contribute to harmful algal blooms that disrupt the shellfish industry and coastal communities. Shellfish fishermen in the bay are concerned for good reason – the bloom produces dangerous neurotoxins that can accumulate in the shellfish’s tissues.
An electrical engineer, Jacob was able to expand his skill base by taking on mechanical engineering and computer science tasks. His work focused on the physical structure of the buoy platforms that send data for analysis to the Narragansett Bay campus. The buoys — currently deployed off Jamestown and in Greenwich Bay — collect high-resolution data to inform predictive algorithms that can predict the likelihood of blooms based on real-time conditions in the bay.
URI engineering had to completely redesign the sensor clamps to improve data collection, which in turn would enable better data management decisions—and hopefully reduce economic impact and human health risks.
Jacob designed and fabricated two types of clamps to mount the four different sensors using CAD software and 3D printing, all completely re-engineering the clamps that were on site. Oceanographic sensors are now better attached to buoys and eliminate the need for tools when servicing sensors by divers. Instead of having to manipulate a 6mm bolt and hex key while staying afloat in the changing ocean, divers can now simply disengage the latch and unscrew the knob. More secure clamps have also put an end to data outages.
“I learned that research is more like engineering than I originally thought,” Jacob said. “‘Problem solving’ is a common denominator.” He is excited that his expertise can contribute to the bay observatory project by solving problems that have prevented the team from collecting the necessary data for the bay and human health.
Jacob was mentored by RI C-AIM postdoctoral fellow Christopher Gomez, and he said he gained a better understanding of what it means to be a successful researcher. “The skills I have acquired will contribute to my development on all fronts – personal, educational and professional,” he said. “I got a lot out of it and would encourage other interested students to apply.”
Joining other student researchers for their presentations was a highlight, Jacob said, noting how good it was to do “academic research with real, local impact” with colleagues from across the state.
EPSCoR at URI
Work at URI through EPSCoR has revealed new insights into Narragansett Bay and brought the university closer to predictive models to predict changes in the bay at all levels, from nanoscale nutrients to the seafood we eat in local restaurants.
The researchers here also note the results of EPSCoR’s prospective studies in the Gulf. EPSCoR is supported by a $19 million state-matched National Science Foundation grant and brings together engineers, scientists, designers, communicators and students from colleges across the state, positioning Rhode Island as a “center of excellence” for Narragansett Bay research . and beyond. Since the program’s inception in 2017, 169 students like Jacob have received hands-on research training through the EPSCoR network.
Dr. Jeffrey Bottun, Principal Investigator and Director of the Rhode Island C-AIM Project, reflected on the award’s final year.
“Our Gulf Observatory has expanded our ability to observe the effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems, enabled the development of new sensors, and offered new opportunities for student learning and stakeholder engagement,” Bottun said. “Most important is the impact we’ve had on the next generation of the STEAM workforce, with more than 300 undergraduate and graduate students ready to contribute to the academic and economic goals of our state and nation.”
URI presented another proposal on behalf of the state to continue supporting advanced research and workforce development activities in Rhode Island; the next area of EPSCoR funding will be research that examines marine plastic pollution and innovative ways to mitigate or prevent the effects.
Applications for research students will open in December. The program is open to any Rhode Island State College student, and all majors are encouraged to apply. Learn more.