Name: Andrew Massaro, ’11
Major: Biology
Minor: Chemistry
Academics: Richmond Science Scholar, Beckman Scholar
Activities: Alphi Phi Omega, chemistry tutor, biology lab teaching assistant, intramural sports

Andrew Massaro is spending 10 weeks in the Florida Keys this summer, completing research in University of Richmond biology professor Malcolm Hill’s lab at the Mote Marine Research Laboratory. This is his second summer researching in the Keys.

What are you researching?

I’m characterizing the bacterial diets of several Caribbean marine sponges on the species level. No one has ever identified the specific species of bacteria that these sponges filter and consume. Using SCUBA, I take samples of water that the sponge is inhaling, and that the sponge is exhaling, and compare the culturable bacteria present in each sample. After identifying bacteria that appears in the inhalant but not exhalent sample, I isolate these colonies and extract DNA in order to identify the species. The goal is to create a library of bacterial species that make up each sponge's diet. These diets will then be compared among sponge species. The results of this project will greatly enhance our knowledge of sponge feeding behavior and trophic status.

This is your second summer at the Mote Marine Research Laboratory, right?

Last summer was my first summer in the Keys, and it definitely prepared me for this summer in several ways. Because I had already spent a summer at Mote Marine Lab, I was already familiar with the lab and with living in the Keys. Prior to last summer, I was a very inexperienced diver and had never seen the reefs that we work on. I came into this summer an experienced diver and was already familiar with the reefs. This helped greatly because I was able to conduct my experiments more efficiently.

Describe a typical day in the field.

A typical research day is very long and busy. We are up early — sometimes even before the sun comes up because we need to sample in the dark — and often work until sundown. We spend some days out on the boat diving and collecting samples on the reef. These samples are then immediately processed back in the lab. We also often conduct experiments and collect samples while snorkeling in the flats, a shallow water habitat that we can kayak to. When we aren't in the water, we’re monitoring and maintaining experiments in the lab or analyzing data. At the end of the day, there is finally time to relax in the apartment at the research station.

Has the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico affected your work?

The oil is definitely something that we are concerned about and paying attention to. It hasn't reached the Florida Keys yet, and we are hopeful that it never will. However, if one of the eddies with oil breaks off, it could reach the Keys. Our lab is currently not conducting any experiments regarding the effect of the oil, but at the marine research station there are several other labs that are doing these experiments. It’s definitely a concern. If the oil reaches the Keys, I may have to change my experiments to investigate the effect of the oil on the sponge communities.

What will you take from this experience?

This project will be a major component of my honors thesis, which I will complete and present in the spring. The results of this project will provide a foundation for further projects related to sponge feeding, which will strengthen my research and my thesis. This research has also made me an independent thinker and scientist, and it has prepared me very well for future upper-level science classes.

What other research projects have you worked on?

Besides the Florida Keys, I have also completed research at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville, Australia. During the fall semester of my junior year, I studied abroad in Australia in a program called SIT Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology. Through this program, I conducted a five-week research project with Dr. Nicole Webster at AIMS. Dr. Webster is another sponge researcher, so I was very fortunate to be able to continue my research while abroad. My project investigated the effects of climate change on the feeding behavior of a Great Barrier Reef sponge, and I will be publishing this work in the near future. As a result of this project, Dr. Webster, Dr. Hill and I are continuing to collaborate, and I am planning to return to AIMS within the next year to continue this research.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I plan on going to veterinary school, hopefully at Cornell University, after I graduate.

A full day of research lies ahead of you. What's on your iPod?

Lots of classic rock.