Skye Schmidt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware College of Marine Studies, has been awarded the second annual Elizabeth K. Tunnell Memorial Fellowship.
The fellowship, which includes a $1,000 research grant, is awarded 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 at the annual award ceremony of Beneath the Sea, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the oceans and the sport of scuba diving.
“We chose to present the award through the auspices of Beneath the Sea because my mother, in her own way, aspired to the same goals,” says Barbara Tunnell Rudolph, whose active involvement with this organization for the past 16 years led her to became a scuba diver 12 years ago.
“My mother’s influence and love of nature inspired my family to establish the fellowship, which will serve as a lasting tribute,” adds Rudolph. “The fellowship recipients will continue her legacy through their research and as role models for future generations.” Rudolph, a resident of Eagleville, Pennsylvania, says that her family chose the University of Delaware because of its esteemed reputation as well as for her family’s love of the Delaware Bay area.
Skye Schmidt credits her mother, “whose enthusiasm for the ocean was contagious,” with developing her interest in the ocean and in the rocky intertidal coast of New England. Three years ago, Schmidt became certified as an underwater diver, making her first dive in the Great Astrolabe Reef off Dravuni Island in Fiji. Since then, she has been on 36 dives, ranging in length from 30 minutes to 120 minutes.
“My favorite dive was a wall reef on Uepi Island in the Solomon Islands, which marks the entrance from the Pacific Ocean to Morovo Lagoon,” says Schmidt. Within half an hour during that dive, she had encountered a sea turtle, two eagle rays, and a moray eel and spotted three hammerhead sharks swimming in the distance.
“I love being underwater,” she says. “If I could, I would rather swim than walk.”
At the College of Marine Studies in Lewes, Schmidt is conducting research on the environmental genomics of the American horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, under the guidance of marine biologists Pamela Green and Patrick Gaffney. In particular, she is working to identify and characterize the molecular mechanisms that enable horseshoe crabs to tolerate metal pollution in the marine environment.
Limulus polyphemus is found along the Atlantic coast of North America from Maine to the Yucatán Peninsula, with the largest number found in the Delaware Bay. Previous research has shown that the Gulf of Mexico horseshoe crabs are genetically distinct from those found in the Delaware Bay. Furthermore, research has suggested that different populations can have different tolerances to metals such as copper, nickel, and zinc.
According to Schmidt, the early life stages of horseshoe crabs are extremely tolerant to metal pollution when compared to other marine arthropods. However, this tolerance increases the potential for bioaccumulation and the subsequent transfer of metals to more susceptible organisms such as fish and shorebirds that feed on these stages of the horseshoe crab.
“The goal of my research is to determine how genetically distinct populations respond to heavy metals,” says Schmidt, who will use the fellowship to travel to the Gulf Coast of Florida to sample horseshoe crabs from that area.
“My work will help give a more complete depiction as to why horseshoe crabs are so tolerant to metal stress in their environment as well as provide information on their population dynamics,” explains Schmidt. “Knowing the population dynamics of the horseshoe crab, especially in and around the Delaware Bay, can lead to more efficient management strategies for the different populations.”
Prior to attending the College of Marine Studies, Schmidt graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in marine science from Southampton College of Long Island University in New York in May 2003. While at Southampton College, she participated in several field studies in a variety of marine environments, including the Atlantic Coast of the United States, the tropical coral reef and mangrove systems of both the Caribbean and the South Pacific, and the estuaries of New York.