Science professor discusses available research opportunities

Dr. Stephen Gosnell is an assistant professor in the department of natural sciences at Baruch College. He received his undergraduate degree in biological sciences at Clemson University and his master’s and doctorate in the ecology, evolution and marine biology program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He attributes his love for science to growing up in the outdoors of South Carolina. Gosnell revealed that science fulfills a natural curiosity—it is not only about memorization, but also about teaching students to think and analyze. His latest research was an analysis of how predators impact oysters, a collaboration with the River Project and Billion Oyster Project. In a personal interview, Gosnell described the oyster project and how students, even non-science majors, can get involved in hands-on ecological tasks.

Q: What are your research interests?

A: In the lab, I am interested in two things: local coastal communities and oysters. A hundred years ago, New York City oysteries were well-known and sustainable. Oysters protected our shores, filtered the water and provided erosion control. Due to pollution, however, the oyster population all but disappeared. After Hurricane Sandy, there was a renewed interest in green infrastructure. I take students to Governor’s Island to see the oysters grown there. Half of it is a hands-on experience and the other half is quantitative analysis, or using data to see where to plant oysters.

Q: Can you elaborate on your oyster research and the Marine Ecology Progress Series article that described how oysters responded to changes in predator number than predator size?

A: Oysters were placed in Florida from the northern tip of the state to the Gulf of Mexico. There, the oysters were grown to eat. The cages were on top of the water so the oysters received sunlight and energy, but the presence of predators reduced oyster population growth by 20 percent and the oysters produced thicker shells. In the New York City area, we put the oysters in the Hudson River. There, the issues are with the sewer system—the untreated water goes back into the river because of the combined sewage overflow. Because the pipes are diverted to the Hudson River and East River, the water is enriched with nitrogen oxide. Dealing with the influx of nitrogen oxide is something that oysters do well. They produce feces and the pellets fertilize microbes, which take the nitrogen oxide and put it back into the air. The mollusks do a huge service because excessive nitrogen oxide means health problems and beach closures for New Yorkers.

Q: How do you engage students, particularly those who are non-science majors, to explore the research opportunities available?

A: The introduction to environmental science class is a literate and conceptual class that examines why ecology matters. Most of the students in that class are business majors, and I invite them to do research both inside and outside of class. A lot of students already know dataset and data management, a skillset utilized in science.

Q: What were some of the past research opportunities that undergraduate students were involved in?

A: I had students that worked on database projects to help build tanks on Governor’s Island.

Q: Can you describe an undergraduate student’s research that you believe was particularly successful?

A: One student wrote her senior thesis on the size and number of predators using meta-analysis and ran a large-scale model.

Q: What do you think your greatest contribution to Baruch College was?

A: In 2012, we introduced the biology major. We also have a new course called biology statistics, or BIO 2100. Students learn software and the R programming language. Additionally, we redid our conservation biology course, and we teach outside half the time by taking students to Governor’s Island, the United Nations and zoos.

Q: Do you have any advice for students?

A: Find a professor whose research you are interested in and email them. They will be happy to meet you and work in a lab with you. Get involved with research experience because it will make you more marketable when looking for a job. We send students to class, but they find no jobs after graduation.

A student may be good at taking notes, but research and thinking critically will better prepare them for the future.