Name: Andrew Massaro, '11
Major: Biology
Minor: Chemistry
Academics: SSUR Scholar (HHMI-funded)
Science Scholar
Activities: Club Tennis
Chemistry Tutor
Volunteer at International Hospital for Children
Alpha Phi Omega

Andrew Massaro is spending 10 weeks in the Florida Keys this summer, doing research in University of Richmond biology professor Malcolm Hill’s lab at the Mote Marine Research Laboratory. In addition to his research, Massaro is working as an intern at the Key West Wildlife Center, which rescues sick or injured birds and rehabilitates them to be released back into the wild.

Describe your research project.

This experiment I’m working on investigates whether carbon is translocated from the zooxanthellae Symbiodinium to the tropical reef sponge Cliona varians and whether nitrogen is translocated from the sponge to the zooxanthellae, using stable isotope pulse-chase experiment. This is a relatively new technique and is in fact novel to sponges, allowing us to use non-radioactive labeled carbon and nitrogen, which have never been used with these organisms.      

The tropical reef sponge Cliona varians is associated with the endosymbiotic zooxanthellae Symbiodinium. This photosynthetic dinoflagellate, which gives the sponge its golden-brown color, has been shown to increase growth rates of its host sponge. Although this association is likely a mutualism, the nature of the interaction is not well known. To support hypotheses about mutualism, one must show that both partners in the association receive some benefit. These benefits can be difficult to quantify but new techniques make it possible to trace the flow of crucial nutrients, such as carbon and nitrogen, between individuals.

How’d you get involved in the project?
I knew that I wanted to become involved in biology research before I even started college. In fact, the Gottwald Science Center at Richmond and the research opportunities available to undergraduates were very strong motivating factors for me to choose Richmond. In my first year I met with many biology professors to learn about their research and what opportunities would be available to me, and I joined Dr. Hill’s lab during the fall semester of my sophomore year.

The prospect of being able to combine traditional laboratory research along with field research in marine biology was very exciting to me. Dr. Hill began talking to me about the possibility of spending the summer in the Florida Keys to do field research, so I got SCUBA certified in Richmond and spent the year working in his lab learning both traditional and field research techniques. I have been studying the association between Clionaid sponges and the endosymbiotic zooxanthellae Symbiodinium, so this was a great project to do while in the field.   

You spend five days of your week doing research and then the other two volunteering at a wildlife center – tell us about that.

Well, I use my two off days to volunteer at the Key West Wildlife Center, which rescues injured or sick wild birds and abandoned baby birds and rehabilitates them until they are well enough to be released back into the wild. As an intern, I assist the center’s rehabilitator in rescues, administering medications, feeding, cleaning, and handling all of the birds. I have worked with some rare and remarkable birds including great white and blue herons, green herons, pelicans, cormorants, and frigate birds. It’s an amazing opportunity and, since I plan on applying to veterinary school after Richmond, this internship is a truly great experience for me.

Not to mention, your work at the center made front page news in Key West a couple of weeks ago.

A journalist from the Key West press showed up at the wildlife center one day because he wanted to include a picture from the center in the next day’s paper. He asked if we had anything interesting at the time, and I told him I was about to feed two baby green herons who had been abandoned by their mother and we had rescued a few days earlier. He thought that would make a great picture, so he snapped some shots of me feeding the birds, and the next day that picture was on the front page of the Key West Citizen. The headline read “Heron Heroes” and was accompanied by the caption, “Key West Wildlife Center intern Andrew Massaro feeds a green heron chick a small smelt fish Tuesday as wildlife rehabilitator Michelle Anderson looks on. Two of the chicks were found stranded, probably fallen from their nest, near the Key West Aquarium about two weeks ago. The center will take care of the birds until they can be released in about a month.”

How do you see this project contributing to your collegiate success during the rest of your time at Richmond?

In addition to learning a number of new lab techniques and skills, my research experience has forced me to be very independent. This will go a long way in helping me succeed during the rest of my time at Richmond. I have already had to prepare and present a poster in my first year of research, which gave me practice with public speaking as well as organizing my findings into a presentation.

Dr. Hill has not been with me for the majority of my time in the Florida Keys, so I have been forced to be very independent and think for myself when it comes to my project.  This will help me tremendously in my future work at Richmond as well as in my future endeavors in and outside of school.

You’ve got a crystal ball.  What’s in store for you after graduation? 

My goal is to attend Cornell Veterinary School, obtain a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, and then either do research, practice and teach at a veterinary school, or start my own private practice.

What book is on your bedside table?

A Natural History of Australia by Tim Berra (I’m studying abroad in Australia in the fall)

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

The Great Barrier Reef. I’m thrilled I’ll finally get there in the fall!

What has a liberal arts education at the University of Richmond meant to you?

I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend my college years at Richmond.  Academically, my experience at Richmond has been really rewarding. The small class sizes and personable faculty have given me the opportunity to get a lot more out of my experience that I would have at a larger school. Richmond’s focus on undergraduates has provided me with valuable research experiences. Also, taking classes outside of my major has introduced me to new interests that I probably wouldn’t have discovered at a non-liberal arts school.