At first, Robyn Hannigan just wanted to find Nemo.
Hannigan, dean of the School for the Environment at UMass Boston, is a geochemist. She wanted to figure out if acidifying oceans would negatively affect the ear stones of clownfish (the same fish featured in Finding Nemo). All fish need ear stones to navigate the ocean. The minerals that make up those ear stones are vulnerable to acid, so Hannigan wanted to see if fish born in acidic conditions would have difficulty finding their way around.
Hannigan didn’t have the equipment or expertise to grow clownfish in her lab, so she turned to the best experts she knew: the research scientists at the New England Aquarium. Her colleagues at the aquarium ended up collaborating with her on her research project, helping her to grow and care for the fish.
This week, UMass Boston and the New England Aquarium launched a first-of-its-kind partnership to encourage even more collaborative research between the two institutions. While scientists from both institutions have worked together in the past, this partnership will create more avenues for collaboration.
As a part of this partnership, researchers from the New England Aquarium will teach courses at UMass Boston. Twelve researchers have already been named faculty members at UMass Boston’s School for the Environment. The two institutions will also be able to share lab facilities in Boston and at their field stations.
“With the New England Aquarium field station in Lubec, ME and the UMass Boston field station on Nantucket, we are going to bracket the entire Gulf of Maine,” says New England Aquarium Vice President for Research Scott Kraus.
Kraus and Hannigan point out that the two institutions have different research specialties. The NEAq has a focus on large marine mammals and fisheries (Kraus studies Right whales). Faculty members at the School for the Environment have expertise in invertebrates and other species that are a part of the same ecosystems that the NEAq studies.
“We see some great synergies by working together,” says Bud Ris, President of the New England Aquarium, “We’re dedicated to research and public education for the public good. We share a strong commitment to managing our oceans and our coasts more wisely.”
“The New England Aquarium researchers think about the interconnectedness between the life in the ocean and humans,” says Hannigan. “And that’s what we do in the School for the Environment.”
In addition to the collaborations between researchers, UMass Boston graduate students will be able to work alongside researchers at the aquarium. Undergraduates at UMass Boston will have a special pipeline to apply for internships.
Eric Wilcox-Freeburg, a former UMass Boston graduate student, wanted to work on research projects at the aquarium because of its connection to the greater Boston community. Wilcox-Freeburg is collaborating with the aquarium to make 3D models that interpreters can use to teach the public about fish anatomy.
“We want the public to know what we’re doing,” says Wilcox-Freeburg, “We’ve been able to expand the level of impact on the public.”
As the partnership grows, Hannigan wants to see even more UMass Boston students involved in the aquarium’s many programs.
“I expect that we will see students here at UMass Boston really understanding that the aquarium is part of our campus, and is part of their educational experience,” says Hannigan. “Through this partnership, their stewardship of our planet will be deepened and strengthened.”