Life’s (More Than) a Beach

Biology major wins National Science Foundation internship to study new crop for damaged coastal farms

It’s true Charleen O’Brien spent her summer at the beach, but she wasn’t just surfing or waiting tables for extra cash. She was busy building on her undergraduate marine biology research at CNU by studying the seashore mallow, a flowering plant that grows along the Atlantic coast.

A senior environmental biology major, O’Brien was part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) team based at the University of Delaware, a highly competitive summer internship program sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and headed by Dr. John Gallagher from the School of Marine Science and Policy at Delaware. Gallagher and his team are developing the mallow (also known as fen rose or sweat weed) to be a salt-tolerant crop with many applications, from biodiesel and ethanol to cat litter, that can be grown in coastal areas where sea-level rise or storm damage has rendered traditional crops like corn or soybeans unsustainable. According to O’Brien, the mallow is also ideal because it is not in demand as food and fuel, as corn is.

As an REU intern, O’Brien was responsible for devising and executing her own experiment. Her work dealt with the impact temperature and salinity have on the germination of seeds from seashore mallows collected in Delaware, North Carolina and Texas. The mallow, which grows 3-5 feet tall, with pale pink flowers, grows naturally in brackish water, and O’Brien’s work subjected the plants to extremes of salinity and temperature and then measured their performance. “In a larger context, I wanted to examine how they would do under potential future conditions, especially in relation to climate change and rising sea levels,” she says. It’s work Gallagher credits with having a lasting impact on the ongoing project. “[O’Brien’s] work established a screening protocol for examining our collection of mallow lines from all of the Atlantic and Gulf states,” he says. “These data will be used in planning future breeding efforts to produce improved varieties.”

The mallow has a lot to offer, and its future may brighten over time, if coastal farmers can’t cultivate land exposed to salt water from storms and sea-level rise. “Traditional crops are unable to tolerate these saltier plots of land, making portions of the farms not usable,” O’Brien says. “If the mallow can become commercially profitable, coastal farmers could grow these plants in the areas that now have saltier soil.” The mallow may also be useful as a transitional plant – converting unusable coastal farmland into a marsh habitat – which then protects inland areas from future storms and flooding. And the entire plant is usable, stems, roots, seeds and leaves. As a perennial, its yearly regrowth means it requires less labor than traditional crops, which must be replanted each season.

O’Brien attributes much of the success of her REU experience to her undergraduate courses and lab work at CNU. “My biology and chemistry courses at CNU played a large role in my ability to develop and execute a research project,” she says. “I’ve gained practical experience and the skills to analyze and interpret recorded data and present the results in scientific format.” O’Brien capitalized on skills she’s learned, most notably in the lab of Biology Professor Dr. Lauren Ruane. The two often discuss their scientific interests and future goals, and Ruane shares articles she knows O’Brien will find fascinating. “In my lab, Charleen has spent hundreds of hours meticulously pollinating stigmas, dissecting fruits and counting seeds,” says Ruane. “Her strong aptitude for research is fortified by her enthusiasm, positive attitude and diligent work ethic.”

O’Brien knows she has benefitted from time spent working so closely with the faculty at CNU, an opportunity generally reserved for graduate students at other universities. “I have learned a great deal from the opportunities Dr. Ruane has provided,” she says. “To do research as an undergraduate is incredible. Without it, I would have great difficulty getting into graduate schools, as research has become a requirement for entering some programs. There is no doubt in my mind that having research experience improved my chances of securing the REU internship.”

She has also found another outlet for her passion for marine science much closer to campus, as a volunteer in the aquarium department at the Virginia Living Museum (VLM) in Newport News, where she has been up to her elbows in daily feedings, water chemistry testing, food preparation, water changes and many other tasks, as an intern since her freshman year. The VLM’s aquariums house more than 1,000 animals, including several threatened and endangered species, and the complexities of their care and feeding schedules demand a sustained level of effort, one for which O’Brien has long felt ready. “Ever since I was little, I have enjoyed visiting zoos and aquariums and learning more about the wide variety of unique creatures our world holds,” she says. “As an aspiring marine biologist, volunteering with the aquarium department has allowed me to work hands-on with animal care and maintenance as well as learn more about the species.”

Chris Crippen is aquarium curator at the VLM and is quick to point out the benefits O’Brien has earned through such a diverse and demanding experience. “Most people go from college to graduate school without the hands-on experiences she has had,” Crippen says. “Interaction with the animals is earned through hard work and attention to detail, which Charleen has exhibited from day one. Her hard work and intelligence have already given her opportunities that few others can boast of at her age, and I'm sure that will continue wherever she goes next.”

As for where she’s headed, O’Brien still has some work to do finishing up her degree and CNU’s Service Distinction program, which recognizes seniors at commencement who have completed at least 140 hours of civic engagement and entrepreneurship in the community during their time at CNU. She plans to attend a graduate program in marine biology to explore the relationship between marine animals and their ecosystems, particularly coral reefs and mangrove forests. Her parting words to others: “Take full advantage of the opportunities CNU has to offer that can enhance your experience as a student,” she suggests. “Take a class that you are enthusiastic about, study abroad, or participate in an internship that matches your future aspirations. It will broaden your skill set and provide wonderful memories.”