Indiana State University Newsroom



Oyster research uncovers clues to clean up pollution

October 27, 2014

Coastal residents may be gathering for oyster roasts these crisp fall afternoons, but Indiana State University student Zach Nickerson spent his summer in the Chesapeake Bay learning how these creatures help clear pollutants in the water before they make their way to our dinner tables.

"Oysters are good for food, and the reefs they create are good for biodiversity and whatnot, but the water quality (issue) was never really studied until recently," Nickerson said. "It was never thought that oysters, through the reef communities they create, can improve water quality."

Specifically, Nickerson was researching how oysters provide a micro-environment that can sustain denitrification -- a chemical process that removes pollutants from the water -- at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Research Experience for Undergraduates. The experiments involved placing pieces of oyster and shells in incubation chambers and measuring denitrification.

His work is making a splash in academic circles -- so much so Nickerson has been invited to present his research findings at the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography's international conference in Granada, Spain in February.

"My lab and that of our colleagues have been very fortunate to have the resources to look at both large scale and small scale phenomena in oyster reefs. Zach's contribution is the first to clearly identify dead and living oyster shells as key habitat for organisms that render nitrogen into a form that no longer grows algae (i.e. N2 gas)," said Dr. Jeff Cornwell, Nickerson's faculty advisor at Maryland. "His results were way beyond my expectations, and we can clearly publish these results; these are absolutely new findings and will alter the perception of how oysters improve water quality."

The Chesapeake Bay area was an ideal location, as oysters are on a steep decline because of over-harvesting, disease and habitat destruction. A multi-agency effort is under way to help clean up the bay by restoring its native oyster reefs.

"Oysters provide many ecosystem services in the bay, but their populations are crashing," Nickerson said. "If the oysters aren't there but the pollutants are still being added, it's just going to get worse."

Nickerson, a senior from Columbus, Ind., is no stranger to research; he's spent more than a year studying how bats use swimming pools and other projects under the guidance of Indiana State's Center for Bat Research, Outreach and Conservation.

"Zach carries an intensity to succeed that is at the upper end of the scale; he was very comfortable working until he dropped, a great characteristic for doing field and lab science! The work we did had a moderate level of complexity, requiring success at both experimentation and interpretation, and he mastered both," Cornwell said. "In the end, his results were much more definitive that usually expected from such a short research experience. And very publishable."

When it came time to make plans for this past summer, Nickerson set out to have a coastal research experience and applied to four universities -- Maryland, Washington, South Carolina and Oregon.

"Being from Indiana, I'd never done any kind of marine research. That was one of the reasons I applied to four marine centers. I wanted to find something I hadn't done before," Nickerson said. "I didn't expect it to be exactly what I wanted it to be, but it was. It worked out perfectly -- I got set up with the right professor doing the right research, and we found some novel things that haven't been put into literature."

His faculty advisor echoed those sentiments.

"Zach's program at (the Maryland) Sea Grant is characterized by students who are academically capable and highly curious about marine science," Cornwell said. "Zach figured the key things he needed to accomplish, adapted each experiment based on the previous one and got it done. After the first experiment, his intellectual curiosity was a major driving force in his work. His presentations were clear, the graphics were great and very professional."

Nickerson said he would eventually like to teach at a college or university some day. In the mean time, he enjoyed combining chemistry and ecology.

"I liked the oyster research, because it was nice to mix animals with chemistry," he said. "Normally, when people go into chemistry, they're in the lab or in front of a computer all day. I actually got to go out in the water, dive down, catch an oyster and examine it."

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Photos: http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-GRf8fF2/0/X2/i-GRf8fF2-X2.jpg -- Indiana State student Zach Nickerson dives for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay as part of his research project with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Research Experience for Undergraduates.

http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-mS8PSbh/0/X2/i-mS8PSbh-X2.jpg -- Indiana State student Zach Nickerson dives for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay as part of his research project with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Research Experience for Undergraduates.

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Events/Events-by-Year/2014/Bat-Conference-2014/i-dMPGK7q/0/XL/April%2004%2C%202014%20Bat%20Conference%201807-XL.jpg -- Indiana State student Zach Nickerson presents research at the sixth annual Midwest Bat Working Group Annual Meeting in March.

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or libby.roerig@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

Indiana State student Zach Nickerson's research is also making a splash in academic circles, and he has been asked to present his findings at a conference in Spain next year.

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