Ben Ciotti near Roosevelt Inlet in Lewes, Del.
Photo by Matt Strom
Ben Ciotti, a doctoral student in marine studies, has been awarded a Chateaubriand Fellowship from the Office of Science and Technology of the Embassy of France in the United States. Ciotti is one of just 20 graduate students from American universities to be selected for this competitive honor.
Every year, the Chateaubriand Fellowship allows pre- and post-doctorate researchers in science, humanities, and social science positions to conduct their studies in some of the best research institutions in France. Recipients receive a monthly stipend, round-trip airfare to France, and health insurance.
In February 2009, Ciotti will begin his 10-month stay in France and French Polynesia, where he will conduct a research project focusing on the ecology of juvenile damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus) living in coral reefs.
Ciotti explained that his work centers on the fact that many marine organisms release vast numbers of eggs but only a small portion of them survive to adulthood. This period of high mortality can drastically influence the biological characteristics of the surviving generation, and the resulting attributes may vary depending on the environmental conditions at a specific location.
“I will collect young damselfish and place them on various experimental reefs around the island of Moorea, which is close to Tahiti,” Ciotti said. “Only a few of the transplanted fish will survive — most damselfish of this age end up getting eaten by larger predators. The idea is to examine the genetic and physiological properties of those individuals that do survive and test whether these properties vary according to the environmental conditions at each site.”
He will do his fieldwork in French Polynesia at the Centre de Recherche Insulaire et Observatoire de l’Environnement (CRIOBE), and he will complete his laboratory analysis at the Centre de Biologie et d’Ecologie Tropicale et Méditerranéenne, Universite de Perpignan, in France.
Ciotti said his research will examine the consequence of fundamental population processes in fish from a new, relatively unexplored angle. In doing so, he will be contributing to his field’s expanding knowledge of why fish populations vary, how they will respond to human activities and other environmental changes, and what conditions are necessary for their preservation. Ultimately, such knowledge will help scientists and managers to make more informed decisions about how these marine resources can be used sustainably and safeguarded for the future.
The 29-year-old was born in South Carolina and moved to the United Kingdom when he was a year old. He grew up in East Anglia and attended the University of Liverpool, from which he graduated in 2002 with a bachelor’s of science with concentrations in marine biology and French.
“The underwater world has intrigued and fascinated me since an early age,” Ciotti said. “Hidden just beneath the waves is an amazing number and diversity of plants and animals that live, grow, and interact almost unobserved by humans. My desire to explore and understand this mysterious world sparked my interest in marine ecology.”
He said his interest also is in French language and culture, and to him, studying it has been the cultural analogue of scuba diving. Since beginning at UD in 2003, he hasn’t forgotten his affinity for French.
“I find it very exciting to be immersed in foreign cultures and very rewarding to gradually come to understand them,” Ciotti said. “Combining marine biology with French is an unusual career path, but I think I have benefited from the dual perspective. It is amazing how many useful skills I have learned, and how many research opportunities have become available by combining these interests.”
Helping Ciotti merge those interests has been his adviser, TimTargett, professor of marine biosciences at UD.
In a letter of recommendation that Targett wrote for the fellowship, he said Ciotti approaches science by “looking at the big picture, while also paying careful attention to the details of conducting rigorous research in the field and laboratory.”
Ciotti said he plans to continue with the ecological research initiated during the Chateaubriand Fellowship after he completes his degree in 2010 and hopes one day to become a university professor or a government scientist. He said the award will provide a good platform for him to approach the next stage of his career.
“It is a fantastic opportunity to work with some excellent scientists and tackle exciting new research questions,” Ciotti said. “Undertaking scientific research with other nations is a great opportunity to exchange knowledge and strengthen the cooperative approach required for the effective study and management of marine ecosystems.”
For more on the College of Marine and Earth Studies, visit www.ocean.udel.edu.