Jennifer Robison, a master’s degree student at the University of Delaware College of Marine Studies, is the first recipient of the Elizabeth K. Tunnell Memorial Fellowship.
The fellowship, which includes a $1,000 research grant, will be awarded annually to a deserving graduate student at the college who is a scuba diver with a passion for preserving the ocean. It was established by the family of Elizabeth K. Tunnell and is presented through the auspices of Beneath the Sea, a non-profit organization dedicated to diving and marine education.
“My mom had a great love of nature,” says Barbara Tunnell Rudolph. A resident of Eagleville, Pennsylvania, Rudolph is an avid scuba diver and a trustee of Beneath the Sea.
“We always watched anything related to fish and the oceans on TV when I was growing up, such as “Sea Hunt” and the Jacques Cousteau specials when I was older,” she notes. “We spent our summers in Stone Harbor and Ocean City, New Jersey. I don’t remember a summer without boats.”
Rudolph says her family wanted to honor her mother’s memory through a lasting tribute.
“My mom was a wonderful example of courage and overcoming the odds,” Rudolph says. “She made a positive difference in everyone’s life that she came in contact with. This is a tribute to her that can make a difference for generations to come.”
Robison, a first-year graduate student at UD, was thrilled to receive the inaugural Elizabeth K. Tunnell Memorial Fellowship and will use the funds to support her research on coral reefs.
“I’ve loved the ocean since I was a little girl,” Robison says. “My ultimate goal is to become a college professor. I’d like to teach marine science to undergraduate students and help instill in them a sense of learning and appreciation for the ocean.”
Robison credits her mother, who home-schooled her, for cultivating her interest in ocean science by taking her on weekly trips to explore the tide pools along the California coast, where Robison lived as a youngster. Marine science continued to beckon Robison after her family moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and she began her undergraduate education at Dickinson College in Carlisle. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she decided to pursue graduate work at the UD College of Marine Studies.
Currently, Robison is conducting research on coral bleaching, a major indicator of corals under stress. This phenomenon occurs when the algae called zooxanthellae that live in the tissues of corals are expelled, giving the coral a white or “bleached” appearance. Increased seawater temperature, coupled with excess sunlight, are the primary causes of bleaching episodes.
“Given the expected rise in global warming over the next generation, some reef biologists have predicted that coral bleaching will become a regular seasonal occurrence,” Robison says. “My research involves detailed analyses of both the genetics and physiology of the zooxanthellae that live in several different species of Atlantic reef-building corals.”
This September, Robison will have ample opportunity to use her scuba-diving skills. She will conduct research in the Aquarius, an underwater habitat managed by the National Undersea Research Center in Key Largo, Florida. For ten days, she will live in the habitat, which has been likened to an “underwater camper,” while making periodic diving trips to the surrounding reefs to conduct research.