Updated August 29 at 7:42am

STAC grant helps team study deaths of sea stars

By Emily Jones
Contributing Writer
The last thing a marine researcher wants is for all her sea stars to die in their tank. Yet that is exactly what happened to University of Rhode Island student Caitlin Del Sesto last May when she was working on a research project for her invertebrate zoology class.

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AQUACULTURE

STAC grant helps team study deaths of sea stars

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The last thing a marine researcher wants is for all her sea stars to die in their tank. Yet that is exactly what happened to University of Rhode Island student Caitlin Del Sesto last May when she was working on a research project for her invertebrate zoology class.

“It was pretty terrifying, to be honest,” Del Sesto said, but her professor was understanding. “He knew there would be some bigger implications of it.”

Sure enough, when Del Sesto asked around, she learned the same thing had happened to other researchers. She saw the problem again when she worked over the summer at the New England Aquarium, and again in the fall at the Mystic Aquarium. It all led to a clear conclusion: some mysterious disease was killing sea stars up and down the East Coast.

Now, with the help of a $40,000 Collaborative Research Grant from the R.I. Science and Technology Advisory Council, Del Sesto is part of a team hoping to find out just what is wrong with the starfish. Theirs is one of six projects funded by this year’s round of grants, totaling $810,541.

The 2013 STAC grant recipients are all projects focused on understanding how climate change affects Rhode Island’s marine life and ecosystems. The goal is to ensure Rhode Island is a global leader in the field and to attract further research funding to the state.

This year’s grants mark the seventh round of awards as part of STAC’s partnership with the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR. To date, STAC has awarded $8.5 million in grants that have brought in $36 million in follow-on grant funding, federal programs, commercialization of new products, venture funding for new companies and infrastructure improvements, according to the council.

In addition to attracting funding, the grants are aimed at encouraging collaboration among Rhode Island’s universities and other research institutions. Projects need to have lead researchers from at least two institutions to be eligible for a grant.

Collaboration is key because it draws on the different strengths of Rhode Island’s researchers and institutions, said STAC Executive Director Christine Smith.

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