Allison Y. Beauregard, a doctoral candidate in oceanography at the University of Delaware’s Graduate College of Marine Studies (CMS), is one of a select group of 85 women who received a Philanthropic Scholar Award for the 2003–2004 academic year.
The $8,000 competitive award recognizes outstanding women of the United States and Canada pursuing graduate study or research who have demonstrated excellence and exemplary academic achievement and who will become significant contributors in their career fields. Beauregard was nominated for the award by the Philanthropic Education Organization’s Chapter G of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
“I am really excited about the award,” says Beauregard. “It will allow me to complete the final stages of my research. In addition, the award will give me the opportunity to present my results at a conference, where I also will be able to meet with other scientists who are conducting research in my field.”
Under the guidance of Jonathan Sharp, professor of oceanography, Beauregard is studying how reef-building corals obtain the nutrients they need to grow into massive reef structures, which are filled with fish and other marine organisms. Although coral reefs are typically found in clear waters with low concentrations of nutrients, they support one of the richest ecosystems in the world.
Hundreds to hundreds of thousands of individual animals, called polyps, make up a coral reef. Many scientists believe these polyps obtain the nutrients they need thanks to a mutually beneficial relationship that each polyp has with tiny single-celled algae, called zooxanthellae, that live inside it. The polyp or coral animal protects the zooxanthellae and provides them with access to sunlight, which supplies the algae with the energy they need for photosynthesis.
During photosynthesis, the zooxanthellae convert carbon dioxide and water into organic molecules, such as carbohydrates and amino acids, which are then “shared” with the coral host. This sharing has been traditionally believed to be a highly efficient way for the coral to obtain the nutrients it needs, with none lost to the surrounding waters.
“However, contrary to this belief, my research shows that a large fraction of what the zooxanthellae produces through photosynthesis is actually being released into the water and not used by the coral host,” says Beauregard.
According to Beauregard, this release of nutrients by the algae may provide other reef organisms with a source of “food,” which may help contribute to the rich diversity of marine life found in coral reefs. Her research will help determine whether it actually is the coral-algae unit that is so efficient in using the nutrients that are available or whether it is the entire reef ecosystem as a whole.
“My ultimate career goal is to become a professor at an undergraduate college or university,” says Beauregard. “I look forward to being a role model to young women interested in science, an area that has been historically underrepresented by females.
“Oceanography has the added benefit of integrating four major science disciplines — chemistry, biology, geology, and physics,” she notes. “And I can’t think of a better way to introduce new scientists to the wonders of science than through the beauty of coral reefs.”