Math students study the effects of white syndrome diseases on coral 

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Six students presented their research concerning the effects of white syndrome diseases on Guam’s coral populations using mathematical modeling this summer as part of the 2022 Summer Joint Math Research Program showcase held on July 20, 2023.  

The students – four UOG undergraduates, one high schooler, and one recent graduate –  were part of the Guam NSF EPSCoR Summer Math Research Experience held at the University of Guam.  

The Summer Math Research Experience was held concurrently along with the NSA Research Experience for Undergraduates and the Young Scholars Research Experience in Math.  

Due to Typhoon Mawar, the eight-week program was condensed to six weeks this year. Despite the shortened timeframe, the students were able to familiarize themselves with new mathematical concepts and programming tools while helping each other overcome various challenges.  

“They would help each other a lot,” said JC Saul, a Guam NSF EPSCoR research assistant and UOG alum. “Whenever there was a part of the data that didn’t make sense, the other group would try to find out what’s missing. Even though their projects are different, they would still try to help each other.”  

Using data provided by UOG Marine Laboratory Director Dr. Laurie Raymundo, participants focused on modeling the infection rate of white syndrome diseases on coral as well as how factors such as water quality and temperature can impact infected coral.  

White syndrome refers to a group of coral diseases that cause acute tissue loss. During an outbreak of white syndrome, the disease eats away at coral tissue, exposing the white coral skeleton. This disease is different from coral bleaching, white also turns coral white. Coral bleaching stresses the coral, making them more susceptible to disease, but does not immediately kill them.  

“Dr. Raymundo and her team had been monitoring coral restoration plots and they had planted some Acropora aspera in February 2022 and did monthly monitoring. In May 2022, they noticed the plot had contracted white syndrome disease, so they were able to track the progress of the outbreak until unfortunately, everything died by the beginning of August,” said Dr. Leslie Aquino, chair of UOG’s Division of Mathematics & Computer Science.   

Acropora aspera is a species of staghorn coral, a type of reef-building coral that is largely affected by white syndrome diseases.   

“The hopes I have for our project is to bring some attention to coral diseases and the state that corals are in right now,” said Ian Galang, an undergraduate secondary education major with a focus on mathematics. “From what we’ve read, a lot of people misunderstand coral and classify them as nonliving organisms, but they play a very big part of the aquatic environment and right now, they need help.”  

Anthony defends his Master of Science in Biology


Guam NSF EPSCoR Graduate Research Assistant Colin Anthony defended his thesis in front of his mentors, classmates and teachers at the University of Guam Marine Lab in Mangilao.

His thesis was titled, “Acclimation of Endosymbiotic Symbiodiniaceae: Improved Insights through Flow Cytometric Phenotypic Profiling.”
His chairperson was Dr. Bastian Bentlage. Colin’s committee consisted of Dr. Brett Taylor from the University of Guam and Dr. Cheryl Ames from Tohoku University.

Six student researchers join Guam NSF EPSCoR 

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Guam NSF EPSCoR welcomed six undergraduate students from the University of Guam to its 2023 Student Research Experience (SRE) as part of an orientation ceremony held on Jan. 26, 2023, at the UOG School of Business and Public Administration. Photo courtesy of Guam NSF EPSCoR

Guam NSF EPSCoR welcomed six undergraduate students from the University of Guam to its 2023 Student Research Experience (SRE) as part of an orientation ceremony held on Jan. 26, 2023, at the UOG School of Business and Public Administration.   

The initiative of this internship is to increase the diversity of students who choose STEM careers.  

As part of the program, these student researchers will spend a year receiving mentorship and research experience in fields such as coral genomics, invertebrate genomics, marine microbiology, molecular ecology, marine ecophysiology, and diatom diversity.  

These students include Madeline Gonzalez, Thomas Babauta, Anna Mallari, Merry Ocampo, Cassandra Paule, and Brandon Respicio. 

“It’s a privilege to be able to welcome and work with all of you,” said Terry Donaldson, Ph.D, the principal investigator and project director of Guam NSF EPSCoR. “Do good work and have a lot of fun!”  

These students will also participate in near-peer mentorship programs which will encourage them to share their experiences and learn from participants in the NSF INCLUDES: SEAS Islands Alliance along with other programs under Guam NSF EPSCoR. 

During the SRE program, the student researchers will be able to present their research at various conferences such as the National Diversity in STEM Conference held by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics in Science, the UOG Center for Island Sustainability Conference, and the UOG CNAS Conference.   

Students present at 2022 NSF EPSCoR National Conference

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Two students from the University of Guam presented their research at the 27th NSF EPSCoR National Conference which was held in Portland, Maine from November 13 – 16, 2022.  

This year’s conference theme was “Translating Stakeholder Needs Into Impactful Research Outcomes.”  

The event engaged audiences from various sectors, disciplines, and jurisdictions – including state legislators, congressional representatives, as well as EPSCoR committees, scientists, and faculty members.  

During the conference, students had the opportunity to interact with peers, and attend workshops and discussions.  

UOG undergraduate biomedical track major Zaine Benavente along with graduate biology student MacKenzie Heagy presented posters of their research projects.  

Benavente, who is part of the 2022 Student Research Experience program, presented his project, “Genetic barcoding of cryptic massive Porites species in Guam’s reef flats.”    
This was my first time presenting at an off-island conference,” said Benavente. “I didn’t know what I was saying yes to, so it was a big surprise! I didn’t know it was such a small group going. I was the only undergraduate student from Guam at the conference. It was a little intimidating, but I got through it and presented my work.”  

Heagy, a Guam NSF EPSCoR Graduate Research Assistant, presented her project, entitled, “Coralline Algal Phylogenetics to Better Assess Coral Reef Biodiversity.”  

“I talked about Guam’s vastly diverse marine flora and how my group of interest, Genus Mastophora, is a representation of the many species that have yet to be discovered of the crustose coralline algae,” said Heagy.  

Heagy said that she appreciated the opportunity to talk about the research being done at the University of Guam.   

“It was a privilege to represent some work being produced at the UOG Marine Laboratory while learning about the incredible science EPSCoR has encouraged across the country,” said Heagy. “Facilitating strong research from young scientists, EPSCoR projects ranged from virtual reality fire-wise properties to 3D in vitro models for breast cancer research.”  

Graduate biology student attends University of Washington summer research program 

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University of Guam graduate biology student and Guam NSF EPSCoR graduate research assistant Therese Miller gained research experience this summer through a course held by the University of Washington. The class was called Biodiversity and Integrative Taxonomy of Invertebrates and was held at the university’s field station in Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island from July 18 to August 18, 2022.  

The course focused on methods for documenting and describing the species-level diversity of invertebrate animals through activities such as field trips to collect samples, dissecting, photography, and genetics work.  

The class was taught by two instructors: Gustav Paulay, Ph.D., a curator and professor at the University of Florida who served as the director of the UOG Marine Laboratory from 1991 to 2000 and has extensive experience in studying marine invertebrate zoology.  

Kevin Kocot, Ph.D., a curator and professor at the University of Alabama, hosted workshops on bioinformatics and studying meiofauna. Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that develops software and tools to understand biological data. Meiofauna are small invertebrates that live on or near the bottom of bodies of water.  

“Together, they not only encouraged our passions for studying marine biodiversity but also equipped us with the tools to further our careers,” said Miller.  

Over the course of the program, Miller worked on a research project that involved describing species of blood stars (Henricia), a sea star found along the Pacific Coast which is typically red-orange in color but can vary from tan to almost purple. 

“Historically, what appear to be several different species are all called the same name in the literature or are left undescribed,” said Miller. “My project entailed collecting about 50 specimens of these sea stars and taking DNA from them to see how closely they were genetically related.”  

During the course, she found two specimens of a species that were the first to be sampled in the Juan de Fuca Island strait. This species had previously been found along California and Oregon.  

Throughout her time in Washington, Miller was able to see cultural aspects of San Juan Island such as various small farms throughout the island as well as a fishing vessel that belonged to the indigenous Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest.   

“It was fascinating to learn about some of the native tribes that have lived in the area for several centuries,” said Miller. “I also relearned the importance of characterizing biodiversity in the anthropogenic age, particularly for marine species, which are largely understudied compared to terrestrial fauna. This is especially important to me living on Guam since marine biodiversity here is so rich and there is so much to research and explore. I felt this course really inspired me to open my eyes more to the world around me and consider what species here have yet to be identified.” 


Six new graduate research assistants join Guam NSF EPSCoR

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Guam NSF EPSCoR welcomed six new members to its Graduate Research Assistantship program during an orientation held on Friday, August 26, 2022.  
Over the course of the three-year program, these six graduate research assistants will receive tuition coverage, a salary, as well as mentorship and support over the course of their graduate program as they conduct research regarding coral reefs, coastal systems, genetics and genomics, or identifying patterns of regional biodiversity.  
These new GRAs include Grace Jackson, Lauren Kallen, Andrew O’Neill, Xavier De Ramos, Zoe Trumphour, and Garret O’Donnell.  
“I would like to welcome our new students to the program,” said Terry Donaldson, the principal investigator and director of the Guam NSF EPSCoR program. “You will get to utilize equipment, instruments, and various assets to conduct your research that people used to dream about. When I was a student, a lot of this stuff had not been invented yet. You’ve earned your place here. We’re behind you and we want you to succeed.”  

The GRA program is part of Guam NSF EPSCoR’s goal to develop a research program to help ensure the sustainability of coral reef ecosystems in the face of environmental change. In total, Guam NSF EPSCoR now has 20 graduate research assistants.  
Each of the graduate research assistants were given free memberships to the Guam Green Growth Makerspace and Innovation Hub. Guam NSF EPSCoR helps support Guam Green Growth.  

“This is like a whole other fancy lab,” said Austin Shelton, Guam NSF EPSCoR’s co-principal investigator and the director of the University of Guam Center for Island Sustainability and Sea Grant. “Outside of campus, you can go down to the CHamoru Village in Hagatña and use 3D printers, CNC routers, and laser cutters as well as brand new terracotta printers. If anybody wants to use that to build tiles to start growing stuff on, you can plug in the 3D designs and start building there.”  

For three years, these students will be a part of a project that covers a diverse range of research areas.  

“For this grant, the research crux here involves understanding why some corals are more resilient than others, climate change and temperature increases, and watershed degradation and sedimentation,” said Bastian Bentlage, co-principal investigator of the Guam NSF EPSCoR. “We have a lot of associated research projects, as well. Some of you will focus on coralline algae, crustaceans, diatoms, as well as fish that spend part of their life in freshwater systems and then another in the ocean. There’s a broad variety of research areas, but the overarching theme is how our reefs will fare in a changing climate.”  

The new graduate research assistants will also be able to access near-peer mentorship opportunities in which they can learn from their peers and postdoctoral students as well as teach undergraduate and high school teachers over the course of their term. 

“This program is such a great opportunity, especially for master’s students,” said Garret O’Donnell, a new graduate research assistant. “It’s very well-funded compared to a lot of master’s programs. When it comes to other universities, sometimes students would have to pay for their positions, so it’s helpful to have a salary on top of my tuition coverage that allows me to do this.”  

Five students join summer math program

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Five students have been welcomed to the 2022 Summer Research Experience, a six-week research program from May 13 to July 26, 2022 that will have students study mathematical models of coral reef responses to climate change.

Five students have been welcomed to the 2022 Summer Math Research Experience, a six-week research program from May 13 to July 26, 2022 that will have students study mathematical models of coral reef responses to climate change.

During the program, students will gain experience with industry-standard software, network with participants in other summer research programs, and develop skills in oral presentations and technical reports.

“I’m looking forward to this experience because this will be my first time being in a research program,” said Ernie Samelo, an undergraduate in mathematics. “I want to experience everything and apply what I’ve learned in math to this research.”

In addition, the program welcomed two research assistants who will assist the GECCO students along with those who are participating in other concurrent summer math programs such as the National Research Experience for Undergraduates Program.

“I look forward to learning from everyone and I hope everyone can learn from me,” said Cabrini Aguon, an undergraduate in mathematics. “It’ll be a mutual exchange of growth throughout this process.” Over the course of the program, the students will use data collected from the Common Garden Project, a four-year EPSCoR-funded study launched last year that will examine three habitat-forming coral species over a multi-year span and their responses to environmental change.

“Math is the language of nature. You can describe the processes of nature using mathematical models,” said UOG Associate Professor Bastian Bentlage. “If you have a good model, you can identify certain key parameters that are important for corals’ response to stress, and you can make informed decisions about reef management planning and intervention strategies.”

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