URI student’s research earns top prize at national conference

KINGSTON, R.I. — December 26, 2001 — Fremont, N.H. resident Abigail Knee, a senior at the University of Rhode Island, has been interested in marine science as long as she can remember. Her father is a high school biology teacher, but it was her grandmother who got her hooked on the plants and animals and other creatures found along the New Hampshire shoreline.

“My grandmother has been involved in marine education at elementary schools for a long time,” said Knee. “She’d bring samples of things she’d find at the beach into the classroom and lead field trips. So I had the exposure and curiosity about marine life as a kid.”
That early interest bore fruit for the 22-year-old marine biology major last month when her research on lobster larvae was selected as the best undergraduate research poster at the biennial conference of the Estuarine Research Federation.

Knee’s research focused on determining the source of local lobster populations.

“The inshore and offshore lobster populations in Rhode Island are managed as two separate fisheries,” she explained. “I wanted to try and figure out where the baby lobsters supporting the inshore fishery come from — inshore or offshore – as this would provide managers with an understanding of how the inshore stock is sustained.”

Knee speculated that, since the inshore lobster population is heavily harvested, the lobster larvae from the offshore population may float or swim inshore and repopulate inshore locations.

Her research was conducted by identifying the ratio of stable carbon isotopes found in 7- to 14-day old lobsters. “What they eat leaves a pattern in their bodies in the form of carbon isotopes, so meals can be tracked by what their carbon composition is. There’s a difference in the stable isotope ratios of inshore versus offshore lobsters.”

While both populations of lobsters eat the same prey, what the prey eat varies between the populations. So Knee cruised Narragansett Bay in a URI research vessel towing plankton nets to catch lobster larvae. The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Rhode Island Department of

Environmental Management did the same along the continental shelf to collect offshore lobster larvae for her. She then dissected the larvae to determine their carbon composition.

Unfortunately, her results were inconclusive.

“The first problem was that we couldn’t catch enough offshore lobsters to have enough data to analyze. The larvae swim around at the surface of the water and don’t necessarily congregate in any one particular location. And when we compared lobsters collected from Narragansett Bay and near Block Island with those found in Maine and lab-raised lobsters, we found there wasn’t a significant difference between them.

“An interesting pattern showed up, though. We looked at the tissues of the lobster’s gut, muscle and shell, and the carbon composition was different in each. We hypothesize that what is found in the gut tissue represented the most recent meal eaten, what was in the muscles was from a more distant meal, and in the shell a meal even longer ago. So we now need to look further at how quickly and to what degree a meal travels through different tissues.”

Despite her inconclusive results, the members of the Estuarine Research Federation thought her research merited one of 16 travel awards, which provided her with an all-expense-paid trip to the group’s November conference in Florida.

“There were thousands of people in attendance, and I stood there for three hours answering questions about my research. Three of the people asking questions were judges, but I’m not sure which ones they were,” Knee said.

Funding for Knee’s lobster research was provided by Rhode Island Sea Grant through the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its sixth year, the Coastal Fellows Program teams students with faculty, research staff and graduate students to help them gain skills that will ensure their future success.

Knee’s lobster project is just one of the notable research projects she has worked on. Last summer Knee was one of 18 students from around the world selected to participate in the Research Training Program at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. During the 10-week program, she studied a group of marine worms in an effort to understand the evolutionary relationships between species.

“I worked at the microscope looking at all the features of the worms, from the bumps on their backs to their eyes to their bristles, comparing and analyzing them in the computer and making an evolutionary tree using the 83 characteristics that I proposed were important. The result was a hypothetical diagram of their relatedness,” she said.

When Knee receives her diploma from URI in May she intends to pursue a graduate degree and ultimately plans to conduct research in academia or at a research institution.

“I want to work with the little things in the marine environment, perhaps in the deep-sea hydrothermal vents,” she concluded, “the things you don’t quite see hidden below the waves and in the tide pools.”

NOTE TO EDITORS: Digital images of Abby Knee conducting her research are available by calling Todd McLeish at 401-874-7892 or tmcleish@uri.edu.

For Information: Todd McLeish 401-874-7892