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Published: January 21, 2022

UT Senior Studies Red Tide and Ammonium to Better Understand Marine Ecosystems

Since last summer, Emily Friden ’22, marine science-chemistry major, has been in the lab researching red tide, the harmful algal blooms in coastal regions that color the surface of the water and kill marine animals.

At The University of Tampa, students gain the opportunity to conduct research through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, in which they are partnered with a faculty mentor and present their findings in poster format. In addition to presenting at the Posters at the Capitol event on Jan. 21, Friden will be presenting her findings at the Ocean Science Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, in February.

Portrait of Emily Friden '22Since last summer, Emily Friden ’22, marine science-chemistry major, has been in the lab researching red tide, the harmful algal blooms in coastal regions that color the surface of the water and kill marine animals. Photo courtesy of Emily Friden ‘22

“Doing this undergraduate research is going to make me really competitive for going to graduate school,” said Friden, who noted her increased comfort level with reading and writing research papers and grants, and the techniques she’s learned using instruments she feels will set her apart from her peers. “It’s experience that is really good for continuing on in my field.”

Friden, from Rochester, NY, was mentored by Robert Masserini, associate professor of chemistry, on their project, “Red Tide in Tampa Bay: Fish Kills and Ammonium Enrichment Correlations.” Her research originally revolved around developing a new method to measure ammonium in Tampa Bay. However, as red tide increased this past summer, Friden used that to her advantage for more insight.

“Algae feeds off of nutrients, ammonium being one of those nutrients, so we were able to correlate the two,” said Friden, noting their final data showed as red tide increases, ammonium increases, which in turn, causes fish kills to increase. “It worked out that we could use the red tide in our research.”

Masserini helped Friden gather her peer-reviewed readings and increased her comfortability and familiarity with the new chemicals with which she was working.

“I didn’t dictate the work she did. My goal is to help; I want to help shape the next generation of scientists,” said Masserini. “By doing this, I want to empower the students and make sure that they understand the obstacles and the ways that you can circumvent obstacles and solve problems. It was a very collaborative approach.”

Equipment used for measuring water qualityThe research demonstrates the capabilities of their new ultra-sensitive technique to measure ammonium in natural waters. Photo courtesy of Friden

Friden, Masserini and a team of other researchers went out on cruises around Tampa Bay to get samples from the water and measure the amount of fish kill, which is the amount of dead fish floating in the water. While out on the water, Friden was hands-on in changing out the pump tubes to ensure the chemicals for their experiments were filled up and correctly mixed together. 

She also used a programming system called Ocean Data View to create maps of her findings, which were presented on her poster, and created reagents (mixtures used for chemical analysis) for her research method in the field. The method uses “reverse flow injection analysis,” Friden said.

The two said their research demonstrates the capabilities of this new ultra-sensitive technique to measure ammonium in natural waters. Ammonium is important because it is the easiest form of inorganic nitrogen that phytoplankton can use, and its availability often limits phytoplankton biomass. Detecting and quantifying the distribution of ammonium is essential for understanding the marine ecosystem.

“The difference between our method and past methods is that we use fluorescence and other methods use absorbance,” said Friden. “Fluorescence automatically corrects for dissolved organic matter, [which helps] find the actual measurement of ammonium. You need a specific method to do that in order to get that information accurately and precisely, and our method was able to do that really well.”

Her classes at UT prepared her for her research endeavor, providing an extensive background of chemical information that she may have struggled without. Friden noticed she went from learning macro-information in school to honing in on a new micro-topic, which was interesting to see the difference in learning processes.

Friden thrived in the independence of the work. “I felt so responsible for where I was and what I was learning. It was almost like an adult moment; it felt really satisfying to be in the position I was in,” said Friden.

Masserini noted that being involved in a research opportunity like this helps put Friden and other students on the right path in their career fields. 

“Now, [Emily] understands the path that you have to take, the effort that’s necessary at certain times and the different aspects that need to be addressed in order to be successful in academia,” said Masserini. “She knows now that she really wants to pursue a graduate degree, too. Some people get out there and start doing these kinds of things in the lab and find out it doesn’t suit them. But, that wasn’t the case here.”


Story by Kayla Lupedee '22, journalism major and writing minor


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