Saving the Sound with History

May 10, 2024

Lola Jalbert, NERRA’s cub reporter, catches up with Meg Shah, recent graduate from the University of Connecticut and undergraduate intern at the Connecticut Reserve. They talked about modern lawns and historic eelgrass, why the Reserve is a sweet spot for undergraduate scientists, and why climate doom isn’t always the answer.

Lola: Thanks for taking the time to chat today. I loved this video highlighting your work; tell me more about how it came about.

Meg: Well, I started off as an undergraduate research assistant in Jamie Vaudrey’s lab in Fall 2022 and at the Reserve last summer. My summer project was funded by SURF. It revolved around mapping historical distribution of eelgrass in Long Island Sound.

Lola: What was the impetus behind your project?

Meg: We don’t have a good understanding of past eelgrass distribution because it was ubiquitous in coasts and bays before 1930. Nobody was surveying it because it was so common, like lawns are today. However, in 1930 there was a wasting disease that decimated 90% of North Atlantic Eelgrass, which is why it’s so scarce today and why restoration is so important.

Lola: If there isn’t historical survey data, how did you map it? 

Meg: I had to use alternative methods. In this case, a combination of literature review and sifting through archived plant resources. Using those two methods, I was able to create a map of historic eelgrass locations.

Lola: Clean water, fish habitat, erosion control—there really are a lot of reasons to love eelgrass! How is your research like yours going to help bring it back?

Meg: Areas where eelgrass has flourished in the past have a higher chance of restoration success. A historical map of eelgrass can narrow down possible locations we should restore. Then current strategies, such as suitability modeling and water quality analysis, can give us added insight on where to focus our efforts.

Lola: Reserves are designed to be places where students like you can get hands-on research experience; does that ring true? 

Meg: From my perspective, the Reserve is really focused on education. They host a lot of students and have a lot of funding to do so. If you want to do a project as a student, it’s easy to do at the Reserve. They provide funding sometimes, if you can’t get it from another source. The Education Coordinator also does a lot of work with high schoolers and the general public. Education and learning are a big focus for the Reserve. They take it as seriously as their research. 

Lola: What are your plans for after university? 

Meg: I’m graduating this semester, and I plan to continue at the University of Connecticut for graduate school. My project will have less of an ecology/biology focus than my work at the Reserve, but it still will be coastal ecology-based. My decision to go that route is based on my classes, but also very much from working at the Reserve. My time there gave me an education in Long Island Sound’s ecology and ecosystems! I’m really excited to apply that knowledge, along with the other things that I’ve done as an undergraduate student, to my work moving forward.

Dried eelgrass samples.

Lola: What are your hopes for eelgrass restoration in general? Should we feel optimistic?

Meg: Being an environmental major, gloom is inevitable. You always hear more about the negative stuff. It’s easy to overlook what’s been done, and what’s being done now. Compared to ten or 20 years ago, restoration has increased drastically. Now, when we restore marsh, we build it to keep pace with future sea level rise.

It’s important to think about what you can do rather than what you can’t. I knew that my project at the Reserve didn’t have to be perfect, but it’s a small puzzle piece in a larger picture. Somebody will take on my work and expand upon it. Everybody plays a small part in accomplishing a big thing. Everybody’s small efforts in the face of something difficult, like reversing climate change, still pushes us in the right direction.

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