A Unity College professor will use a $1,000 grant to help undergraduates investigate microscopic invertebrate organisms at Acadia National Park.
Dr. Emma Perry received $1,000 seed money as part of The Unity College Undergraduate Research Mentor Award for her 2015 project titled “Tardigrades of Acadia National Park.” Perry and two student collaborators will investigate terrestrial and marine tardigrades throughout the park.
Tardigrades are tiny invertebrate organisms (.039 of an inch on average) that, despite their size, are big enough to be seen using a low-power microscope. They are found all across the globe and can thrive in some of the most hostile conditions on earth, from the deepest Maine lakes to the vacuum of outer space.
Scientific tardigrade research is important because, according to the Consortium of European Taxonomy Facilities, “biodiversity loss, global warming and other environmental issues need natural history collections and related expertise as sources of knowledge and for reference.”
Under Perry’s tutelage, students will conduct fundamental scientific research on the species, with specific objectives and a sound understanding of research techniques such as observing, measuring, sorting, codifying and discovering. Other students are studying tardigrades that live on apple trees on the campus as well as on samples from the Hemlock Ecosystem Management Study plots.
Graduates who have training and skills in taxonomy are crucial in the continuation of biodiversity research and conservation. According to the National Science Foundation, the information is particularly important “on large but poorly known groups such as bacteria, fungi, protists, and numerous marine and terrestrial invertebrates.” Research on these species is essential because they “constitute critical elements of food chains and ecosystems and the high proportion of unrecognized species in these groups limit research and progress in many areas of biology and conservation.”
Perry’s winning grant proposal included clear research objectives, defined student involvement in all phases of the project, and outlined rigorous student learning outcomes. The annual award is presented by the Unity College Undergraduate Research Program.
Perry completed her undergraduate degree in zoology at Exeter University, Britain, where she was born and raised. For her senior thesis, she studied habitat preference by the burrowing brittle star Acrocnida brachiata. She then completed a PhD in biology from the University of South Florida, studying the process by which echinoderms, especially sand dollars, construct their intricate three-dimensional skeletons. Since then, she has become more interested in the biology and systematics of lesser known marine invertebrates.