SARASOTA, Fla. (April 14, 2016) – The promise of collaborating one-on-one with scientists made all the difference for Cristina Solorzano. For Bryn Austin, it was that plus the opportunity to delve into biochemistry.
The two enrolled in USF Sarasota-Manatee’s biology program for different reasons, but a common thread binds them: They were attracted to the program’s partnership with Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory.
The aquarium and research center, home to USFSM’s biology and chemistry research labs since 2014, is where students like Austin and Solorzano rub shoulders with scientists as part of a USFSM internship program. Several Mote scientists also teach at USFSM as adjunct professors.
“It’s very interesting and each day is different,” Solorzano, a junior and aspiring veterinarian, said of her experiences at Mote.
For now, the students work at Mote’s labs on City Island and its renowned aquaculture park in eastern Sarasota County where species including snook, red drum, pompano and sturgeon are carefully monitored in above-ground tanks. Mote is working to increase domestic aquaculture production and restock species depleted by over-fishing and habitat destruction. Saltwater fishing is a $7 billion industry in Florida.
“The (internship) program is unique in that it provides students with the opportunity to cultivate invaluable skills and to really immerse themselves into a project, working closely with marine science professionals,” said Dr. Nicole Rhody, Mote’s directorate of Fisheries & Aquaculture. “It’s a chance for those students to choose from a broad range of career areas to gain real-world experience.”
Each day brings a different task for the interns. Collaborating with Dr. Rhody at Mote and Dr. Christelle Bouchard, an assistant professor of biology at USFSM, Solorzano says she’s gained knowledge of both laboratory work and animal husbandry.
At the lab, she’s focused on protein production in unfertilized fish eggs. Outside the lab, she might be asked to tend to any of the aquaculture park’s many inhabitants, including its tiniest: baby fish no longer than her thumb.
One day might have her scooping up the creatures to measure and weigh one by one in a plastic dish to determine growth rate and overall health. Another may see her focused on their parents, such as at feeding time.
The park, housed inside warehouse-like structures off Fruitville Road, relies on food pellets for adults and live microscopic organisms for newly hatched fish. Frozen food – shrimp, squid and herring – is fed to spawning adults that researchers call “brood stock.”
Broadcasting the food across the surface, Solorzano observes how quickly the fish eat and rates their appetites on a 1-to-5 scale. A “5” indicates they gobbled up their food quickly. Researchers use the rating to determine how much to feed the fish.
Other occasions might see Solorzano away from the tanks in a lab helping Dr. Bouchard extract genetic material from bacteria to inject into unfertilized fish eggs.
“Initially when I was invited to do the internship I was interested because I hadn’t done much research,” she said. “Now that I’m here, I see how this could help me as a veterinarian. You get to meet all these researchers at Mote and interact with them, which is very valuable.
“I definitely feel this will give me a competitive advantage when I apply for veterinary school,” she said. “I’ll not only have small animal experience as a veterinary assistant, but also marine experience from working at Mote.”
Austin said she was drawn to the program’s biochemistry component. Working with her mentor, Dr. Andrea Tarnecki at Mote’s main facility on City Island, Austin has delved into the inner-workings of a marine laboratory, its equipment and protocols.
Along with extracting bacterial DNA from fish intestines and skin, she said she studies the effects of probiotics, or “healthy bacteria,” on young fish. Added to their food or the water, the probiotics aid in their development.
“We are looking for specific bacteria to be present in the water, the food source and the fish themselves,” said Austin. “This is all part of an effort to see if the probiotics we are testing are reaching the fish and having a positive impact on their health.”
The mother of three says she hopes to work in pediatric cancer research which, given her internship activities, might seem a world away. But if anything, she said, the work has strengthened her interest in research.
Unlike classroom experiments designed to produce a specific outcome, Mote’s experiments aren’t predetermined and the results can sometimes be surprising.
“Nothing is laid out for you in advance,” Austin said. “You have to figure out which experiments to run and how best to run them. It’s very hands-on.
“When I started in the biology program at USFSM, I wasn’t sure whether it would fit my interests in chemistry and research,” she said. “However, I have found that through the biology program and the internship with Mote, I am getting a real-world view of biochemistry and research in action.”