This is the first time you’re traveling outside the country. You haven’t had a lot of time to travel in the past, but an opportunity arises that has you scrambling to make deadlines for a 10-day trip overseas. Leiden, The Netherlands is the destination. The reason? To look at sponges.
Ashley Bobnar and Camille Berardone are both undergraduate seniors at the Honors College. With concentrations in Marine Biology (and a second concentration in Environmental Science for Camille because she’s an over-overachiever) the pair of them knew they wanted to focus their efforts on the ocean. “The whole reason I wanted to come to FAU in the first place was because of Harbor Branch,” Bobnar explains when asked about her time in the Semester By The Sea Program. This program is an undergraduate one-semester affair where students work at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and the Department of Biological Science of FAU in Fort Pierce, Florida. While the two were stationed at the northern campus, they worked closely with Dr. Andia Chaves Fonnegra, an Honors College Professor and Researcher.
Dr. Chaves is running a Sponge Nursery in her lab, a unit used to grow and develop sponges into self-sustainable inverts so they can be released back into the ocean. This sounds like wholesome, altruistic research but it’s also incredibly important and quite groundbreaking because of the projects being studied within the nursery.
For example, Camille’s research is about the early stages of these sponges’ lifecycle. “I’m studying the larval release of sponge individuals and seeing if there is a relationship between the size of the sponge and the number of larvae it releases.” With this, Camille is then looking if the release is consistent throughout a 3-day span and what happens after the larvae settle on the seafloor, specifically looking at what percentage of them will survive.
“As the sponges settle, they metamorphosize into sessile animals and they start to grow all these characteristics for survival [but] the process of that is not really studied… so that’s what I’m working on,” Ashley explains when asked about her role in the nursery. Bobnar wants to timeline the growth and development of each of the larvae to see the relationship between time and what characteristics grow on these sponges to aid in survival. The rate at which sponges grow varies from species to species but Ashley has observed that “within 8-10 weeks, they have developed all the things they need to survive, or at least from what we can see from our level, observing through a microscope.”
With this ongoing research, Dr. Chaves Fonnegra was eager to bring the two, along with her graduate students, to the quad-annual 11th World Sponge Conference in Leiden, a coastal city in the northern part of The Netherlands. As Morton Fellows at the Honors College, an esteemed fellowship awarded to eight students a year to support their research opportunities, Ashley and Camille were covered financially for the trip. That was a relief for them, considering this was a last-minute decision that left them filling out a tedious conference application only a few days prior to the deadline.
Nonetheless, Ashley and Camille found themselves closer to Amsterdam than Jupiter, FL in the matter of a couple of months. The five-day conference, held at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the heart of Leiden, made the girls feel like their studies and hard work in Andia’s lab finally paid off. “The highlight of the conference I feel like was getting to talk to and be around real scientists,” Bobnar says, unfairly excluding herself as a real scientist. “It might me feel like, in a way, we made it.” Camille had similar thoughts, “It was also cool see them because they’re presenting research they’ve been working on for several years and getting to talk to them made you really feel like you were one of them.” The two were understandably coy about their research but were getting a number of compliments before and after their poster presentations. Camille was even asked if her project was for her PhD dissertation!
When the conference ended, Dr. Chaves’ group had a couple of days to spare so, naturally, they decided to sail from Amsterdam to the port city of Workum; yes, you read that right. Andia knew some other biologists – natives to the Netherlands – who invited Andia’s whole lab to sail on a 102-year-old boat for five hours across the Markermeer lake. “The best thing, by far, [about the conference trip] was the sailing. It was ree-dic-ulous!” Ashley says with reminiscent disbelief, sounding out “ridiculous” because that’s how, well, ridiculous it was to her. “I was thriving in that moment!” The best, yet slightly terrifying, part of the sailing was the horrendous rainstorm they all endured, but luckily, they lived to tell the tale, and eat some warm, homemade soup the boat owners provided.
Ashley and Camille will graduate in Spring 2023 and pursue their respective interests in the ocean; Ashely wants to study predatory sea creatures like sharks while Camille is more focused on studying turtle biology. But their sponge escapades will not go amiss as the two were able to actively contribute to Andia’s lab and the global research of these inverts, even if it was all unexpected.
“We literally wrote our abstracts and applied while we were doing field work down in The Keys, early in the morning, just days before the applications were due. We would’ve never imagined, back in June or July, that we would be in The Netherlands a few months later.”