Undergrad Research Reveals: 'Nature Doesn’t Play by Rules'

Dr. Angela Witmer demonstrates for her students how to run sediment samples through a sieve with one millimeter holes. Her husband, Dr. Archie Ammons, is holding the sieve for her as Amberlyn Stuart, left, watches.Mapping marine life — whether it’s fish in the ocean or bugs and worms in the sand — is all part of the job for students doing summer undergraduate academic research with Dr. Angela Witmer.

Junior marine biology majors Amberlyn Stuart and Sierra King are working with Witmer, an associate professor of biology and oceanography, to get a lay of the land off Palm Beach. The project and others like it give undergraduate students firsthand experience in field research —and an idea of whether it’s a career path they want to pursue.

Students have joined faculty for other research projects. Dr. Carl Miller is working with Brooke Stanish on a study of international children’s literature that offers a model for other universities to integrate it into cross-silo fields of study. Dr. Robert Hegna and students Graysen Boehning, Elijah Hillman and Jonnie Nicosia are studying the effectiveness of bright colors on wasp moths and fireworms at warding off predators. Dr. David Compton and students Ashley Fravel and Miranda Heit are investigating the long-term impact of repeated ketamine use on brain function. 

Dr. Linda Sedlacek and senior marine biology major Alexis Lear are analyzing medical debris that’s washed up on Palm Beach and tracking it back to the sources.

Through their research, Witmer and her students are establishing a baseline so that they can determine how long it takes the environment to recover when there’s a hurricane or beach renourishment project. Their findings will offer insight into how long people should wait after such a disturbance before they resume fishing and other water-based recreation activities.

Dr. Angela Witmer's husband, Dr. Archie Ammons, paddles in the back of a kayak while student Amberlyn Stuart sits in the front. Student Sierra King is in the water. Stuart is working with Witmer to conduct underwater fish surveys. Photo by Dr. Witmer.Working with Witmer, Stuart conducted fish surveys using baited underwater cameras. The students built devices out of PVC pipes to mount the cameras and paddled out in a kayak to launch them. The cameras sunk 50 to 250 meters from shore captured footage of blue runners, lane snappers, angelfish, silver porgy, tarpon and gray triggerfish — one of which followed the students around.

Before the launch, the researchers tested their camera stands near the Blue Heron Bridge, where students took turns emulating big fish shaking them, Witmer said. When they reviewed the footage, they witnessed an angry triggerfish attacking the camera for 30 minutes, trying to get the bait.

For her part, King collected 15 samples each from 50, 100, 150 and 200 meters out to study macrofauna, the critters that live in the sand. She will study the samples under a low-power microscope in the lab to identify them and classify them to the lowest taxonomic level. Another student did the same type of research last year. 

It is important to have that data to study the effect of beach renourishment efforts, which take sand from farther out and shove onto the shore, mixing up the environment, King said. Fish and birds eat the critters, so if they go away, it could be detrimental for fisheries and recreation diving, Witmer added. Dr. Angela Witmer works with marine biology major Sierra King as she runs sediment samples through a sieve. They are researching the macrofauna, the bugs, worms and other critters that live in the soil and the sand.

“It’s one of those areas that tends to get ignored, but if something happens to this system, it’s going to affect all the others,” Witmer said. “It will have a greater effect than people realize.”

The research required flat seas, not to mention plenty of patience. More than any class, field biology requires students to apply what they’re learning as they go, King said. She had to constantly modify her methods. At one point, two-way radios stopped working while she and the others were on the water.

“You can’t get frustrated. You just have to keep going,” King said. “You never know what you’re going to get in the field. Nature doesn’t play by the rules.”

Photo 1: Dr. Angela Witmer demonstrates for her students how to run sediment samples through a sieve with one millimeter holes. Her husband, Dr. Archie Ammons, is holding the sieve for her as Amberlyn Stuart, left, watches.

Photo 2: Dr. Angela Witmer's husband, Dr. Archie Ammons, paddles in the back of a kayak while student Amberlyn Stuart sits in the front. Student Sierra King is in the water. Stuart is conducting underwater fish surveys with Witmer. Photo by Witmer.

Photo 3: Dr. Angela Witmer works with marine biology major Sierra King as she runs sediment samples through a sieve. They are researching the macrofauna, the bugs, worms and other critters that live in the soil and the sand.