A new method to forecast marine life vulnerability to climate change


By taking the surface temperature and measuring against the health of marine life and ecosystems, Associate Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences Randall Hughes has found a novel approach to tracking ecosystems and marine life health.

When it comes to scientific experimentation, there’s a nearly universal recipe: To increase difficulty, just add water.

For a coastal ecologist like Professor Randall Hughes, the difficult nature of underwater studies can at times translate to incomplete data sets and a murky picture of ocean health. As our climate changes and the oceans warm, researchers want to know how marine life will react, and how our picture of the oceans may change.

Hughes, a Northeastern associate professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences, was determined to provide clarity for marine life after her land-based colleagues came asking for the same type of testing they had, called Common Garden experiments. “They kept asking me, ‘what do we know?’… and I was like, I don’t know what we know. Nobody has looked across all these different experiments,” she said.

Her lab focused on gathering data from laboratory experiments, combing through the literature that demonstrated how marine life responded to increased temperature. Using this data, she wanted to predict the health of marine life in varying temperatures.

The hypothetical example above demonstrates a marine populations growth across a spectrum of mean annual temperatures (MAT). There is a natural incline below MAT, a peak at ideal temperatures (diamond), and a significant decline in above MAT. Graphic provided by Randall Hughes

The hypothetical example above demonstrates a marine populations growth across a spectrum of mean annual temperatures (MAT). There is a natural incline below MAT, a peak at ideal temperatures (diamond), and a significant decline in above MAT. Graphic provided by Randall Hughes

But there was one key problem: due to the difficult nature of underwater temperature studies, only a subset of the existing data could provide one of the most valued metrics, one that is common in terrestrial experiments. Known as the Thermal Optimum, the measurement predicts the temperature where a species will grow the biggest, survive more stress, and have more offspring.

Gathering the data required for a Thermal Optimum can be a grueling process on land, let alone underwater. There are, therefore, far more temperature experiments that have simpler setups than a true Thermal Optimum. Rather than discard these less specific results, Hughes and her colleagues found a way to get a best guess at the Thermal Optimum, simplifying the science from months of measurement to hours.

The study, called “Predicting the sensitivity of marine populations to rising temperatures,” was co-authored by MSC Postdoctoral Research Associate Torrie Hanley, MSC Alumni PhD Graduates Althea Moore, Robyn Zerebecki, and Christine Newton and published in Frontier in Ecology and the Environment. It centers on a new metric, named the Mean Annual Temperature (MAT), which represented the average temperature over a year in an organism’s environment.

By supposing that plants and animals generally live in environments they are suited for, Hughes and her team were able to essentially approximate the Thermal Optimum. “What we were looking for was a simple but informative metric that could let us make some predictions about which populations were going to be more vulnerable” said Hughes.

Once Hughes had all the data together, she could see that MAT was an excellent substitute for the Thermal Optimum, and by extension, a simple way to how an organism fares in warming waters. “We were really surprised, to be quite honest, at how clear the split was,” she noted.

The MAT divided temperature cleanly into above and below. If the environmental temperature was colder than an organism’s MAT, warming would generally help it succeed in growth, survival, and reproduction. But if the temperature passed the MAT threshold, survival would plummet.

“If we know when and where warming is occurring, it allows us to predict which populations are going to be more vulnerable to that warming than others,” she said.

With the new technique, scientists can now more accurately predict which species are at greater risk. Hughes hopes this work will lead to a broader understanding of ocean health in the face of a changing climate and help build new methods for protecting and restoring marine populations.

“One of the things that’s really hard is knowing, for any kind of management, which species or populations are most vulnerable to that, how should we prioritize our efforts, and try to conserve or restore or protect some of these populations,” she said.

One of the next steps Hughes hopes researchers will take is to dive into how to use this information to restore and manage populations. One way may be to use hardier populations as “sources” for restoration efforts, since they could help bolster susceptible populations against the rise in temperature.

Today, Hughes is working solving this new problem, looking for ways to find a species’ best hope to put forward into a new, warmer world.

This story was originally published on 3/27/2019 by Northeastern College of Science.

The science (and co-ops) behind Boston Beer

Elizabeth Curtis pulls a sample from a batch of beer mid-brew to test its consistency with other batches.

Elizabeth Curtis pulls a sample from a batch of beer mid-brew to test its consistency with other batches.

At the headquarters of a Boston staple in Jamaica Plain, three College of Science students find themselves surrounded by beer. This is serious work.

They’re on co-op at Boston Beer Company, working at the Research and Development Brewery. Bostonians may be familiar with the BBC brand and the brews they produce, but these students aren’t creating the local flavors consumers are accustomed to. These recipes are more exclusive and are either sold in the on-site taproom, the occasional restaurant, or sent to a limited number of festivals.

That doesn’t mean these ales will never make it into the mainstream. Other breweries will occasionally take on the recipes as their own and distribute them commercially. In fact, every beer in Sam Adam’s history, with the exception of Boston Lager, got its start in Jamaica Plain.

Samples lined up before taste testing by trained employees.

Samples lined up before taste testing by trained employees.

Sometimes in order to succeed, the brews produced here need a measure of luck, which is something Psychology ’20 student Rebecca Conway can relate to. She can’t believe this is her first co-op, and wonders if the next one will even come close to this experience.

“I feel like I might have made a mistake because my next co-op isn’t going to be like this” said Conway on her time at the brewery. Conway had long held an interest in beer, having previously attended bartending school. While it served as a primer to the pour, she felt the course fell short on quenching her thirst for beer knowledge.

“All they talked about in bartending school was ‘yeah, so that’s beer, you pour it at a forty-five degree angle from the tap and that’s all you need to know,’ but that’s not what I want to know about it.” After finding this co-op, Conway knew it would be a natural fit, allowing her to continue her education and journey into the world of beer.

Her interest in beer mixes well with her undergraduate classwork in psychology, where she works in the sensory lab and runs consumer testing sessions. Conway tests many of the flavors that are added to beers, helping to narrow down what each flavor actually tastes like and what feelings they evoke in tasters.

“Say we’re looking for a blueberry reference. You might want baked blueberry, blueberry muffin, or fresh blueberry. I’ll work on narrowing it down in terms of flavor but also in terms of amount,” said Conway.

Her position also gives her the chance to design her own research project. Her favorite beer is Octoberfest, so as a passion project, she’s wanted to analyze consumer behavior to determine if seasons affect demand for seasonal beers. Conway said she wanted to “do something with consumer testing where I can get a view of what people are thinking and their opinions.”

Conway works closely with Biology ’19 Lily Flynn, a fellow sensory lab co-op. Flynn’s interest in food science brought her to Sam Adams, where she runs taste testing with new employees.

Lily Flynn, Biology ’19, works as a sensory lab co-op at the Boston Beer Company.

Lily Flynn, Biology ’19, works as a sensory lab co-op at the Boston Beer Company.

Tasters require six months of training before they’re handed a pint, and it’s for good reason. They’re tasked with comparing the flavors, colors, textures, smells, and appearance of beverages in a room which is sound-proofed and painted white for an objective experience.

Flynn has been able to design her own research project as well. Asking the question of how alcohol content affects shelf life, she transfers the brews from keg to laboratory and cooks the beers with a technique called “abuse testing.” After the treatment, she determines if their alcohol levels helped protect the beer or made it degrade faster.

Having worked together for some time, Flynn can rely on her fellow BBC co-ops to work smart and get things done. She feels that she’s had opportunity to grow and achieve much more than previous jobs she’s held.

Elizabeth Curtis, Biology ’19, found similar independence in her role in the Quality Assurance Lab, where she monitors beers as they move through the brewing process. Using lab skills she learned in classes and new knowledge gained on the job, Curtis has thrived at Boston Beer. She has found the brewery to be a great environment to expand her skills, noting that “it’s a good opportunity to learn from others who are happy to teach you.”

On her previous co-op, where she worked researching bees in Belgium, Curtis was more oriented to field work. “I was out and about, working with someone else, catching bees, running through the fields of Belgium,” she said, expressing how fondly she remembered the research aspects of that job.

Rebeca Conway, Psychology ’20, tests flavors in various beers as part of her co-op in the sensory lab.

Rebeca Conway, Psychology ’20, tests flavors in various beers as part of her co-op in the sensory lab.

Though she’s spending more time in a lab at Boston Beer, she found parts of her work that run parallel to her desire for hands-on research.

For example, one of her daily duties is to collect samples from two-story tall vats. To prevent any impurities and before pulling the beer, Curtis sterilizes the taps with isopropyl alcohol, which is followed by a quick burn from a blowtorch.

Curtis will take the samples from these vats to make sure they are consistent across each brew. Like Flynn, she’s found attention to detail to be key.

“As the beer moves through different stages of the process, you have to get it at each stage,” said Curtis. “Obviously we brew quite a lot of beer so [you have to] make sure you don’t miss something as it changes.”

One thing that all of the co-ops enjoy is a strong Northeastern family tree at Boston Beer. Many alumnae and former co-ops now work full time there, and it’s one of the main reasons these students have had such a great experience.

Learn more about Boston Beer Company.

Magma blebs and volcano behavior on co-op at Woods Hole


At the end of a long hallway in the Geology and Geophysics department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Alexandra Castillejo pushes her way through large double doors. They swing wide open to reveal a shadowy, cavernous room filled with shelves that reach up into dark heights. Several rows up and Alexandra takes a left, flicking on a light as she pulls a stepladder up to a specific shelf, pulling out a drawer. In the drawer sits a box filled with tiny rocks. That’s what she’s here for.

The rocks have made a long trek to get to this store room. They come from below, beneath the crust, in the mantle where hot magma stirs and circulates. We know that’s where the rock came from, and Alexandra is working on figuring out what happened next.

Studying volcanic behavior

Alexandra is on co-op at WHOI studying how volcanic eruptions form, teasing out the specifics of volcano behavior. How can a volcano behave, you may ask? There’s more nuance to it than the tantrums we see on the news, and a lot of that has to do with the type of magma coming up from the mantle.

“We think of these huge eruptions, and that’s the stereotypical notion, an explosive eruption. That’s the result of a different type of magma than an effusive eruption, which would involve more flowing of magma,” according to Alexandra.

Different kinds of magma change the type of eruption and also lead to different ascent rates, or the speed with which magma rises from the mantle to bursting onto the earth’s surface.

Timing the rise and fall of a volcanic eruption is not an easy feat, considering the mantle starts at many kilometers below the Earth’s surface. Rather than measure an eruption as it happens, Alexandra’s research focuses on clues from past events.

As the magma that forms a brand-new eruption rises up from the hot depths of the mantle, it begins to cool, on its way to becoming rock. Inside the still liquid magma, small crystals form, resulting in a mixture of liquid magma, melt, and shards of rock, crystals.

"When these particular crystals form, at some point in formation… they trap part of the melt inside the crystal… which forms this kind of glassy bubble.”

Like amber preserving prehistoric insects, crystalline lockboxes called blebs squirrel tiny samples of the magma away. “It’s a sample of the magma composition and conditions at a certain time in history,” Alexandra explains. These melt inclusions, as they’re also called, give us little windows into the past, and the researchers can use blebs to learn more about volcano behavior.


Magma becomes lava when it breaks the surface of the Earth. The open air exposes the rock to wind, rain, and dust, all of which aren’t friendly with samples. To avoid the grinding forces of the environment, many of the rocks Alexandra studies come from volcanoes in a desert environment, but it’s not a desert you may have guessed: Antarctica.

Though it has a reputation for some of the harshest weather on the planet, rock samples fare well in Antarctica. First of all, rocks don’t get cold, they’re as solid as they’re ever going to get. Second, Antarctica has very low precipitation.

“One of the principal causes of weathering is chemical weathering, in which water plays a significant role,” says Alexandra.

Low precipitation means very little water gets to these rocks, keeping them in pristine condition. In the area the researchers look at, there are 5 main volcanic edifices, one of which, Mount Erebus, has an open lava lake.

Because these melt inclusions form throughout the entire eruption process, researchers use it as a sort of fossil record, with snapshots giving a time lapse portrait of a rising eruption. The different chemistries of the inclusions show change as the magma rises, which Alexandra and her colleagues think happens on a scale of hours to days.

Finding Geology

Alexandra’s previous co-ops paved the way for her to end up at Woods Hole. In her first co-op, she worked at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center where she managed wind energy projects. Her second co-op took her to Spain, where she worked at the US embassy in Madrid in the Economic Section.

“One of the things that I really missed when I was at the Embassy was science. There was one point when I went to a talk hosted by the Spanish government after COP23. I remember going and there was a scientist that spoke and I thought, ‘I miss science so much.”

After Spain, Alexandra pursued her desire for science on a study abroad to New Zealand. There, she discovered her passion for geology.

“One of my classes in NZ was mineralogy and I loved it. I liked looking down microscopes and looking at rocks, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I would spend extra time in lab. Lab would be over and I would still be in lab looking down the microscope while all the other kids were gone.”

So, when she found this position at WHOI, she knew it was for her. “I knew I wanted to do science, that was my main goal and my backup was consulting. They interviewed me and I was like this is perfect, when can I start?”

Alex will be working at Woods Hole until December. You can learn more about her co-op on the lab’s website here.

Cancer research co-op opens the door to medical school for this student


White fog spills out of the freezer as Brian Cortese opens its lid. He reaches a thickly gloved hand down into the cloudy soup and draws out a stack of samples. He carefully removes one of the trays stacked in a thin container that looks like a miniature skyscraper still under construction. The samples are kept in liquid nitrogen, and Brian uses them to improve imaging techniques for cancer research on his co-op at the Gordon Center for Medical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital. The head of Brian’s lab, Dr. Georges El Fakhri, is the Director of the Gordon Center and Director of the MGH PET Core.

Cortese has spent a lot of time in the lab since he started working there on his first co-op. “I started in January 2017, worked for six months, and basically have been working part or full time since then."

A fourth-year senior, Brian is a Biochemistry major on the pre-med track. When he started looking for co-ops in his sophomore year, he already knew he wanted to do clinical research. While looking through the list of co-ops, he stumbled upon the CaNCURE program, which brings Northeastern undergraduates into cancer nanomedicine research.

“When I looked at CaNCURE, I thought, this was the one. I threw basically all of my eggs in one basket… and it worked out really well.”

CaNCURE, a joint Northeastern and NIH National Cancer Institute funded program, trains undergrads in cancer research by matching co-op students with mentors in heavy-hitting institutions like Dana-Farber, the T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, Mass General Hospital, and more.

Brian is not the only co-op in the El Fakhri lab. Alexandra Jones is a fifth-year Health Science student that works across the bench from him. Both Alexandra and Brian are working in medical imaging, learning how to read and analyze images from PET and CT scanners. Their day-to-day, however, extends far beyond image analysis. Days for Brian often started with work on the biology side of things, culturing cells for experimental trials that he would then run that afternoon, and analyze for a couple days afterwards.


Brian ran down the list, “we do everything from organic synthesis to surface chemistry and then use that nanoparticle we make to put that in cancer cells then use those cancer cells to run fluorescence studies and radioactivity studies and then eventually put those tumors in mice, image the mice and analyze all of it.”

Put more simply, “we do everything, the whole range.”

For Brian, the co-op has meant more than lab experience.

“There's a lot more to it that just learning the bench and the lab skills. It's about how to think, it's about meeting new people, and it's really all about the mentorship that will help you reach your potential long term.”

Through his co-op, Brian met countless people more than willing to help him on his journey, and he's been able to make strides in his career because of them.

“I’ve gotten personal letters of recommendation. I’ve gotten my medical school application reviewed several times by people who have been on admissions committees… I now have several medical school interviews lined up… and I really would attribute it to the fact that I’ve spent so much time invested in this CaNCURE program.”

After his co-op at the Gordon Center ends, Brian hopes the mentorship and connections he gained through his CaNCURE experience will help him continue his education in medical school, where he hopes to pursue a career as a physician scientist.

If you are interested in the CaNCURE program, check out their website here.


Caring for octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish on co-op

Matt Everett and one of the California Two-spot octopuses held in the Marine Biological Laboratory outreach tanks.

Growing up, Marine Biology student Matt Everett always knew he wanted to be a scientist, and he always knew he wanted to break new ground. Discovering something no one had ever known before, paving new ground in science was a driving force behind his career choice.

In his co-op at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), he’s doing just that.

Matt is working as a cephalopod aquarist at MBL in the small coastal town of Woods Hole which holds both MBL and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, some of the biggest names in marine biology. The class Cephalopoda contains octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, and the nautilus, and Matt is working with seven species: the California Two-spot Octopus, the Stumpy Cuttlefish, the Flamboyant Cuttlefish, the Striped Pyjama Squid, and the Hawaiian Bobtail Squid, the Lesser Pacific striped octopus, and the Wonderpus. Hundreds of the animals bob around in tanks in a lab space filled with babbling filters and careful researchers.

As aquarists, Matt and his coworkers raise and care for these marine creatures, which is not an easy task. Cephalods are very choosy tenants. In addition to maintaining water temperature, various water quality parameters, and “Some of the flamboyant cuttlefish, we check on them six times per day,” Matt says, “if there’s too big of a shrimp in there, it can freak the animal out, and it can actually die from that.”

A Flamboyant Cuttlefish bobs near the surface of his tank in the Cephalopod lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

A Flamboyant Cuttlefish bobs near the surface of his tank in the Cephalopod lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

His main project, though, is where he’s breaking ground. Matt is raising the Lesser Pacific Striped Octopus, Octopus chierchiae, which has never been cultured in captivity before. Not much is known about O. chierchiae, they have yet to be studied thoroughly by scientists, partly because there hasn’t been a viable program to culture them. Native to the shallow waters of Panama and Nicaragua, a cohort of O. chierchiae now live in tanks in Woods Hole under Matt’s watchful eye.

Matt had no idea that he’d be working on his own project when he started, “Taylor came to me one day and said, ‘ok, you’re going to be here for six months, we want you to try to be the first one to culture this animal’.’’

Matt Everett feeds a shrimp to a Lesser Striped Pacific octopus in the lab at the MBL.

Raising a new species is “a little nerve wracking,” according to Matt. “On one hand, I’m achieving a dream and I’m getting to work hands-on with animals, doing something no one has done before. But at the same time, if I fail, then that’s just on me. I try to be aware of the big picture but focus on the day to day because that’s what’s keeping the animals alive.” His bosses have had a very hands-off approach as well, encouraging him to be independent and take the project into his own hands. “I’ve asked them a question, ‘do you think I should do this?’ And he said, ‘I’m not going to answer that, it’s up to you, you’re the one in charge.” Matt has risen to this challenge, and dealt with many of the problems he’s encountered on his own, though Taylor and Brett will still help with personal experience if he needs it.

The cephalopod lab is only about a year and half old, and it has recently been experiencing some growing pains. Brett Grasse, the Manager of Cephalopod Operations, and Taylor Sakmar, Matt's supervisor, came to the MBL from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where Grasse managed the cephalopod program, which held over 30 species. In the new space at the MBL, Matt’s biggest challenge so far has been finding space for his octopuses, partly because they underestimated how many eggs would be laid. “We thought they laid clutches of eggs of about 30, because that’s what one of the clutches was. The second clutch, we’re up to about 45, so that’s a 50% increase. I ended up having to scramble to try to find homes for 50% more animals.” The chierchiae don’t play nice either, in fact they tend to eat each other. Finding appropriate homes for them has been a challenge on top of just having enough, “octos love to live in things, under things, kinda hidden away,” Matt said, “so with some of the hatchlings I’ve been trying out giving them different things to live in, like a different PVC nozzle, small PVC joints, pieces of rubber tubing, to try and see if they react differently to them.” In the wild, octopuses live in cracks and caves in the rocks to hide from predators, often hunting at night when it is safer.

A Lesser Striped Pacific Octopus, Octopus chierchiae, displays its dark stripes in its tank at the MBL.

While at the MBL, Matt has been able to expand his animal care repertoire, as his day to day has been extremely varied. “I could be building tanks, I could be doing water quality tests, I could be moving animals around, I could be receiving a shipment of animals that someone else has sent us, we could be packaging animals that we’re going to send to other people. I really like the dynamic work environment.” For Matt, this means there’s never a boring day on the job, because it’s rarely the same, something he’s always wanted in a job. “I don't want to have a desk job where I sit and do paperwork, that does not appeal to me at all. I want to be working hands-on with animals because that's what interests me, that's what excites me. This job was the perfect fit for me."

The cephalopod lab grows all these animals so that they can be used as model organisms for other researchers. One researcher at the MBL is sequencing the genomes of cephalopods, with one octopus genome published and two squid on the way, including the Hawaiian Bobtail squid. Another group of scientists is working on trans-generational epigenetic research, where traits are passed down through generations without changes to actual DNA, but the molecules around it. Matt and the rest of the lab hope that by culturing the Lesser Striped Pacific octopus, they’ll be able to create a new genetic model organism as well as learn more about its habits.

Matt has enjoyed working at the MBL, especially the perks of being immersed in the science culture. “Everyone is enthusiastic and cares about the ocean and the life that lives there, it’s a very different atmosphere that I haven’t experienced before.” Weekly lectures have allowed Matt to learn about the world class research happening in the surrounding labs. He’s looking forward to the rest of his time with the cephalopods, and hoping that he’s successful with his octopuses, but he’s trying not to get too swept up in the big picture. “The focus is kind of day to day, making sure the animals are alive, that they’re fed, that they’re happy. The rest will follow.”

A California Two-spot octopus peers over its arms with one eye as it hugs the wall with 8 arms in the outreach tank at the MBL.

Investigating the lives of one-clawed lobsters

Summer days in Nahant at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center can be hot, and Kelsey Schultz knows that better than most. Schultz spends many sweltering days under the sun at the tank farm, now running her second summer of experiments with Professors Jonathan Grabowski and Randall Hughes. She is currently the head lab technician for Grabowski’s lab, and will start graduate school with him in the fall.

The tank farm sits next to the greenhouse on the Marine Science Center’s campus, with a view of Boston’s skyline peeking over the horizon. Twenty, six-foot diameter tanks sit in rows of five, and these tanks house the Grabowski Lab’s experiments.

Lobsters are separated before the experiment to prevent fighting.

This summer, the tanks contain two things: lobsters and sculpin. The Grabowski lab is interested in competition in lobsters, especially when there’s a predator around. Lobsters compete for many things, including food, mates, and preferred habitat type. Lobsters prefer to hide out in rocky crevices where they are more protected from predators, rather than in seagrass, which affords some cover, and bare sand.

The lobsters in the grassy habitat “still have some protection,” Schultz says, “but it’s the less preferred habitat.” Compared to in rocky habitats where lobsters can hide away under boulders, Schultz says “you can easily pluck out a lobster” from seagrass. However, they are the most at risk of being eaten in bare habitat.

Competition for these resources can be fierce. Schultz says “lobsters get injured when they compete for habitat. They lose their claws easily and often.” Losing a claw can be devastating. While lobsters have a relatively long lifespan—some species can live up to 50 years—it takes several months for a lost claw to regrow to full size. During those months they’re much more vulnerable to predation and survival becomes much more difficult.

As if a lobster with only one claw didn’t have enough on its plate, other lobsters don’t cut them any slack. In last summer’s experiments, Schultz and her colleagues found that “healthy lobsters roam around the tank and harass the injured lobsters. They’ll kick them out of seagrass, kick them out of rocky habitat.” This leaves an already vulnerable disarmed lobster out in the cold in its scariest habitat: open sand.

Without cover, lobsters are easy targets for predators like cod, sculpin, and striped bass. Recently, another predator has been introduced; the range of Black Sea Bass is expanding northward into the warming waters of the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. Last summer, the researchers wanted to know what effect the presence of predators have on competition, using Black Sea Bass as the predator in their experiments.

A longhorn sculpin flexes its spiny fins after it was removed from its tank to be measured.

A longhorn sculpin flexes its spiny fins after it was removed from its tank to be measured.

The tanks were set up so that the researchers could see which habitat type lobsters preferred: rocky, seagrass, and bare areas. The lobsters could also ‘smell’ predators in the tank, in this case sculpin, through what are called chemical cues. By analyzing the choices of the lobsters, researchers can understand how the presence of a predator or competing lobster affects which habitats an injured lobster spends its time in.

Grabowski lab technician Adi Behrens labels small lobsters to help tell them apart during the experiment.

Grabowski lab technician Adi Behrens labels small lobsters to help tell them apart during the experiment.

This year, Schultz is trying sculpin as a predator. Sculpin are bottom fish that are found in many environments including the Gulf of Maine. Among other things, sculpin feed on small lobsters. Their specialized fins act as a defense and help them gain traction on the bottom of the ocean in high currents. The large spines on the fins and around the head of the fish give this species its name: Longhorn Sculpin. Measuring the length of a Longhorn is dangerous; Schultz dons thick gloves for protection from its formidable spines while she handles it. Schultz and the other researchers in the Grabowski lab hope to find out how lobsters react to sculpin, which have long been predators of lobsters in the Gulf of Maine.

Preliminary results show that one-clawed lobsters are at a huge disadvantage, and are easily bullied by the two-clawed competitors. “When a lobster that is already injured is in the bare habitat, it’s at a higher risk of being consumed, which is selecting for the more fit lobsters that can compete.” The results of this year’s experiment will help to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of how one-clawed lobsters fare in the ocean.

For now, Schultz is occupied with building and running this year’s experiment. “The setup has been the most challenging part. With our video cameras, they have to be around 9 feet over the tank to capture the whole tank. Figuring out how to get the camera that high, light the tank, and make sure you can actually see the lobsters has been difficult.”

Learn more about the Grabowski and Hughes labs at their lab websites.

Kelsey Schultz releases a sculpin back into a holding tank.

Biology Professor Javier Apfeld awarded NSF CAREER grant for early career faculty

Graduate student Jodie Norris sterilizes a tool used to sort worms in the Apfeld Lab.

Graduate student Jodie Norris sterilizes a tool used to sort worms in the Apfeld Lab.

For Biology Professor Javier Apfeld, his role as an educator is the best part of the job: “mentoring students and talking to them and brainstorming ideas, that’s the best part of it all. To see the students come to the lab and they’re excited about science, as they … develop their own ideas, it’s so exciting to see them grow, mature, and help direct them on their paths and teach good practices of how to be a scientist. To be on a quest for knowledge together is great.” In just three years, Apfeld has hosted over a dozen undergraduates students in his lab, including one co-op. To Apfeld, the undergraduates are an essential part of the lab.


A student in the Apfeld Lab maintains petri dishes that contain C. elegans worms.

A student in the Apfeld Lab maintains petri dishes that contain C. elegans worms.

This year, Apfeld received the 2018 National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Program (CAREER) award to support his lab’s research on how inter-tissue communication affects protein oxidation during aging. A Northeastern professor for almost three years, Apfeld says the award is “a great honor, it’s nice to be recognized by your peers for this prestigious award.” The CAREER award is intended to support early-career faculty who are poised to become role models in education and research in their department or organization.

One reason undergraduates are such a key part of the lab is the literal millions of worms they help maintain. The Apfeld lab studies aging in C. elegans, a nematode worm and common model organism that allows scientists to study many phenomena in a simpler setting. “Worms only live a couple weeks, we live a thousand times longer,” said Apfeld, though the genetics of aging are surprisingly consistent across many organisms. According to Apfeld, “the same genes that are in worms are in flies and in mice, even though those organisms appear at first to age in different ways.” The worms’ condensed life span allows researchers to study a whole lifetime of the same aging process in just a few weeks, where it may take years in other animals.

A visualization of oxidation in a C. elegans worm.

A visualization of oxidation in a C. elegans worm.

In the early part of Apfeld’s career, he explored how to quantify and visualize aging in worms. One symptom of aging in tissues is protein oxidation, a form of protein damage. Oxidized proteins accumulate in worms as they age, and fluorescent sensors can pick up oxidation reactions, giving a picture of a worm’s cell as it ages. Research has shown that oxidized proteins are linked to age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

Recent research has shown that aging and protein oxidation is controlled by certain genes that tune lifespan and how quickly tissues fail. This means that they not only control how long you life, but how gracefully you may age. Apfeld thinks that these findings ask the biggest questions in the field. “What’s exciting about what we’re studying is that we’re studying the signals from the brain that dictate which tissues should have protein damage, when they should have protein damage, and in other non-NSF projects, the signals controlling the resilience of the animals to stress, and how long they live.” 

Graduate student Jodie Norris sorts C. elegans worms in the Apfeld Lab.

Graduate student Jodie Norris sorts C. elegans worms in the Apfeld Lab.

Apfeld thinks that that the brain seems to be making decisions about when to age, which he says is surprising in an organism whose brain is a paltry 302 neurons, compared to a human’s 100 billion. Apfeld described the brain’s involvement in aging, “the worm is sensing the environment and then thinking about the external and internal environment of the worm and then it’s making a decision of, OK I should live long, I should have high stress resistance, I should have little protein damage, or the other way around.” Determining how sensory input affects the way a worm ages is the first of many questions Apfeld hopes to answer, though the youth of the field leads to uncertainty, as Apfeld confessed, eagerly, “we don’t even know the universe of questions to ask yet.”

The NSF CAREER grant will help fund further research into this area, supporting two graduate students and a co-op every year.

Learn more about the Apfeld Lab’s research on their website.


Stacked petri dishes in the Apfeld Lab.

Stacked petri dishes in the Apfeld Lab.

Using drones to model climate survivors in Downeast Maine

Undergraduate researcher Sahana Simonetti and Senior Lab Technician Francis Choi conduct a biodiversity survey in Winter Harbor, Maine.

Undergraduate researcher Sahana Simonetti and Senior Lab Technician Francis Choi conduct a biodiversity survey in Winter Harbor, Maine.

Anyone who has spent a day at a New England beach knows that it is often colder on the coast, and may have regretted not packing a sweater with their bathing suit and flip flops. Compared to the chilly air, the water can be even colder still, sometimes shockingly so. Like a beachgoer jumping in and out of the water, intertidal animals such as a mussel on the rocks experience a roller coaster of temperatures over a day. The tides bring cold, food-filled water twice a day only to pull it away again to reveal the mussels to punishing heat of the summer sun.

What a beachgoer may not realize is that mussels living on different beaches or even different rocks on the same shore can live in climates as different as a Boston suburb and a Cape Cod beach.  Underdressed tourists aren’t the only ones caught by surprise by local differences in environment; large amounts of research in marine biology neglect local variability, instead focusing on large scale environmental factors.


Researchers from the Helmuth lab at Northeastern piled into two cars and made the 6 hour, 350 mile drive to Downeast Maine to explore local variability in the field. The crew for this trip included Dr. Brian Helmuth, the primary investigator and head of the Helmuth Lab, senior lab technician Francis Choi, two graduate students — Jessica Torossian and Ashley Cryan— and four undergraduate students, Sahana Simonetti, Sophia Ly, Jaxon Derow, and myself. The Helmuth Lab is focused on identifying and forecasting factors that are changing with the Earth’s climate.

Predicting a mussel’s response to a widespread effect like global temperature rise can be tricky, as seemingly small changes in its environment can have radical effects. Shading by algae or a rock, insulation from fellow mussels or mud, or even the orientation of the mussel can all influence how heat or cold impact the mussel. Shaded areas can be up to 60°F cooler than an area just 6 inches away.

Blue mussels and common periwinkles are crammed into a crack in the rocks in Winter Harbor, Maine. Refugia like this crack may allow these organisms to weather extreme climate events.

Blue mussels and common periwinkles are crammed into a crack in the rocks in Winter Harbor, Maine. Refugia like this crack may allow these organisms to weather extreme climate events.

The local environment transforms an enormous number of life-determining factors for a mussel: wave action or ice scouring individuals off of rocks, breezes cooling their shells, small currents between rocks changing food availability, the list goes on and on. Expand these effects to every organism in the intertidal (the area between the water line at high and low tides), and you’ve got your mind wrapped around the importance of such small differences. New research has shown that local variability can buffer extreme events like heat waves or cold snaps, as insulated areas become a refugium from stress, safeguarding groups of survivors. A refugium is a biological term that refers to an area that supports a population of a once wider spread species. These survivors act as a backup, replenishing the surrounding areas with life after a large mortality event.

Until now, large scale studies were limited in their analyses, unable to take into account or ignoring local effects in an ecosystem. As strong storms and intense weather events grow more frequent, more extreme, and more persistent due to climate change, the ability to quantify the importance of local effects is poised to become a key focus of restoration and conservation efforts, helping damaged populations recover. 

Helmuth Lab graduate student Jessica Torossian measures percent cover of algae — how much of the rock surface is covered by each species — during a biodiversity survey in Hamilton, Maine.

Helmuth Lab graduate student Jessica Torossian measures percent cover of algae — how much of the rock surface is covered by each species — during a biodiversity survey in Hamilton, Maine.

As the sun rose on Downeast Maine in mid May, the researchers of the Helmuth lab and I were already packing the van full of field gear including full rain gear, several drills, precise GPS location hardware, a drone, and 8 pairs of knee high boots. Traveling light is not in a scientist’s vocabulary.

Why Maine? Well, the intertidal in the Gulf of Maine is a very stressful place for organisms to live, with strong summer and winter storms, intense temperature swings over the year and between air and water, not to mention that the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water in the world. The Helmuth lab has also partnered with Haifa University in Israel to study a sister body of water, the Eastern Mediterranean, which is warming at a similarly alarming rate.

Francis Choi flies a drone to map the intertidal landscape during a 2017 field expedition.

Francis Choi flies a drone to map the intertidal landscape during a 2017 field expedition.

We arose so early in order to catch the morning low tide, allowing us to work for several hours in the morning and again later in the day as the tide receded. The first step at a new site was to establish the two transects: 25-meter lines that would represent our research area. Along these lines we fastened permanent research areas which are marked by bolts drilled into the rock. Researchers return to these same sites months or years later to observe changes in the marine life, especially after extreme weather events. The main way that the Helmuth lab is assessing marine life is through measurements of biodiversity, or the amount of life and number of species in an area. The working theory is that more complex areas, which contain more refugia, will support higher levels of biodiversity.

To map the complexity of the intertidal, the Helmuth lab uses a novel technique. The lab creates 3D models which are then combined with thermal data, giving the researchers a detailed view of the environment and where organisms hunker down during extreme weather events. Drones are the key to creating these models. At each site, a drone flies in a grid pattern while taking photos and videos. Data from the drone’s positioning system is combined with GPS coordinates from measurements on the ground, providing a precise rendering of the research area accurate to the centimeter. All of this data is integrated into a rich 3D model back in the lab.

The Helmuth Lab is collaborating with Dr. Tarik Gouhier’s lab, to build another kind of model from their data. The Gouhier Lab uses mathematical models to determine how ecology on different scales interacts. Together, the labs are seeking to create a model that can predict the effects of refugia and apply the knowledge to large scale ecological processes and effects such as the temperature of a whole gulf, or the entire eastern seaboard. In the future, this model will be able to help researchers better understand the intricate dynamics of intertidal life.

The researchers hope that their model and data will help to encourage others to not overlook the importance of local effects, so that the effects of climate change can be more carefully and successfully managed.

To learn more about the Helmuth Lab and their research, visit their website.

The sun sets at the West Quoddy Lifesaving Station, a former Coast Guard operation that served as the base of the Helmuth Lab for the first half of the trip.

The sun sets at the West Quoddy Lifesaving Station, a former Coast Guard operation that served as the base of the Helmuth Lab for the first half of the trip.