Six years ago, Christien Laber travelled a thousand miles from his home in Missouri to study Voice Performance at Westminster Choir College. Now, as Laber prepares to receive his bachelor’s degree, however, the senior is making plans to find a graduate program where he can study a microscopic organism found at the bottom of the food chain in the Atlantic Ocean.
What made Laber, who had surrounded himself by music in high school and was a year and half into his program at Westminster, switch his major to Marine Sciences? Laber merely wanted to expand his horizons in other academic areas. In doing so, he found the easternmost horizon in New Jersey: the ocean.
After taking a semester off to switch gears, Laber returned to Rider, but this time, at its Lawrenceville campus. While taking BIO 101 (Life Science: Cell Biology and Genetics Emphasis) as part of his general education requirements, Laber discovered an interest in the sciences, particularly oceanography.
“It ended up opening an amazing world for me,” said Laber, who continues to sing and play the guitar in his spare time. “I think the Marine Sciences offer very exciting career choices, and I like how I have the ability to explore research in the lab and out in the field.”
Laber has gained plenty of experience researching phytoplankton species, a very small, single-cell organisms occupying the bottom of the food chain in salt and fresh water systems. After reading a paper about the toxic effects of a type of phytoplankton called Karlodinium veneficum (abbreviated K. veneficum), Laber expressed his interest of studying the species to Dr. Gabriela W. Smalley, assistant professor of Geological, Environmental and Marine Sciences.
While not all phytoplankton are toxic, about 60 species, including K. veneficum, are. Given the correct parameters, K. veneficum, found in relatively low concentrations in the Chesapeake Bay, reproduce at a higher rate called blooms and kill fish.
Smalley, whose research focuses more on nutrient intake of phytoplankton, introduced Laber to Al Place, who has conducted research on the toxic species at the Center for Marine Biotechnology, an affiliation of the University of Maryland. Place gave Laber a tour of the facility, as well as different strains of K. veneficum to research back at Lawrenceville.
“Christien was producing interesting research questions that no one had looked at before,” said Smalley, who received a Ph.D. in marine and estuarine environmental sciences from the University of Maryland. “He’s an excellent student, who is already performing at a graduate school level.”
This past summer, Laber had a chance to apply his knowledge of phytoplankton when he interned in the Phytoplankton Ecology Lab at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., as part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.
Under the guidance of his Mote mentor, Dr. Gary Kirkpatrick, Laber conducted independent research where he examined cellular light absorption and scattering of phytoplankton species, Karenia brevis and Synecococcus. Phytoplankton species absorb light differently depending on the concentration and suite of pigments in the chloroplasts of the cell.
“When the pigments are packaged tightly together they have more competition for absorbing light than when they are spread out,” Laber explained. “So, if pigments are packaged tightly rather than spread out while light is shown over an area, the pigments will in a sense be ‘competing’ for light directed towards them, while pigments that are spread out do not experience the competition, thus absorbing light more efficiently.”
While data from the ocean was collected by marine equipment called gliders, in the lab, Laber conducted research in order to find results that will potentially increase the accuracy of the technology that discriminates phytoplankton assemblage.
In addition to his independent research, Laber had a chance to work on projects with the other students in the field. For example, Laber and the students helped out with a project involving turtle tracking. They scanned the beach for nesting females and placed tracking devices on them. Then Laber and the students had a chance to take a boat five miles north of the Florida Keys, where a marine engineer from Mote deployed a glider in order to determine if there were hydrocarbons present from the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Thankfully, the glider came back with negative results. It didn’t detect any significant signs of hydrocarbon in the water,” he said.
In February 2011, Laber will present his research findings from his Mote internship at the American Society for Limnology and Oceanography’s Aquatic Sciences Meeting in Puerto Rico. Laber will be accompanied by Smalley and Caroline Baptist, another student in Smalley’s lab, who will also present her research. Baptist is studying feeding in toxic strains of K. veneficum at different light intensities, to complement Laber’s research into the effect of different light intensities on toxicity.
“The research that I’m working on Dr. Smalley’s lab is being conducted in order to determine the circumstances in which Karlodinium veneficum is most destructive to the environment, so we can better understand how it interacts with its environment,” Laber explained.
Laber would like to pursue a career where he can continue researching phytoplankton both in a laboratory setting and in the field.
“It’s really fascinating to me because phytoplankton has a large impact on human society and the environment in general. In the marine environment, they are the source of life,” he said. “I want to better understand the dynamics of how they grow and how environmental changes, such as global warming, will change the growth.”
Laber’s voice may have led him to the east coast, but the call of the ocean spoke loudest of all.