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Students Preparing to Use Research in South Padre Island for New Zealand Academic Work

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – APRIL 25, 2012 – New Zealand’s natural beauty is sure to inspire students at The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College as they travel for the first time to take special topics classes in May.

Andres GarciaDr. Timothy Markowitz, a Visiting Professor in Marine Mammalogy in the Department of Biological Sciences, will teach Ecology and Conservation of Marine Mammals and Birds in New Zealand on the nation’s South Island from Tuesday, May 15 to Wednesday, May 30. The class fulfills the undergraduate Topics in Biology and Graduate Topics in Biology.

“The opportunities are there but you have to go for it and not wait for it to be handed to you,” said biology graduate student Andres Garcia, 26, of Brownsville who is making the trip overseas.

Nine undergraduate students and six graduate students will experience glaciers, natural hot springs, endangered species, rainforests and waterfalls while in New Zealand.

“It’s going to be a real mind opening and life altering experience in a positive way,” said Markowitz, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. “I think it’s sort of going to give them a broader understanding and open their eyes to the possibilities that are going on out there.”

Though the snowy mountain passes and lakes of New Zealand are far away from the Rio Grande Valley, two graduate students in biology are using South Padre Island’s own natural features to conduct marine science research.

“There are wonderfully funded projects up for grabs,” said Liana Lerma, 26, of Brownsville who is going on the New Zealand trip.

Lerma is studying the effects of beach grooming on invertebrate creatures living under the sand. For her research she collected 600 samples of organisms at sites a quarter of a mile in size on the island. The samples are placed in biological bags and are being examined in a laboratory.

“What I hope to achieve is an effect on beach raking has on the community,” said Lerma. “It’s the method that tourism and humans are having on these beaches. Human methods influence the ecosystem.”

She is looking at the organisms to determine how they are affected by seaweed that is deposited on the sand or beaches that are swept clean of seaweed.

“Those invertebrates serve as one of the main foundations of a source of food for small fish,” she said.

She began her work in spring 2011 which is funded by the Texas Sea Grant College Program.

Lerma is a graduate of Brownsville’s Hanna High School. Growing up she spent time with her family outdoors and took up fishing when she was 17.

She received a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science in 2007 from Texas A&M University in College Station.

Lerma became interested in marine science last summer when she did an internship at Sea Turtle Inc. on the island. The non-profit organization leads conservation efforts and rescues, rehabilitates and releases injured sea turtles.

“I always knew there was a passion but I wasn’t sure of the opportunities in a career,” said Lerma. “I moved back to Brownsville after graduating from college. I just did a little bit of research and decided I would spend my time here wisely.”

She is scheduled to graduate in December from UTB.

Garcia is diving at the Texas Clipper artificial reef off the coast of Cameron County and at an artificial reef near Port Mansfield in Willacy County to catch grouper and snapper and implant them with acoustic transmitters electronically connected to a data recovering chamber. He is also putting spaghetti tags on their backs to know which fish have been caught.

“I am diving 70 feet down to do the surgery underwater,” said Garcia. “I have about 40 minutes to do the surgeries because of the air tank. It takes multiple dives and I am tagging about 25 fish at each site.”

Garcia puts each fish in an underwater holding cage to make sure they wake up, breathe and swim. He cuts an extra hole in each fish to decrease pressure as they swim downward.

There is a risk of implanting the fish with the technology because if they are eaten, Garcia loses his work. Each transmitter lasts 300 days.

The purpose is to determine if aquatic wildlife are taking advantage of artificial reefs. He began the work last fall which is funded by Texas Parks and Wildlife.

“I’m trying to prove the sole fidelity and residency time,” said Garcia.

Garcia, a certified scuba diver, is a graduate of Brownsville’s Rivera High School and received a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2010 from the university.

Garcia received experience during his undergraduate studies working in the university’s Rancho Del Cielo office and at Sabal Palm Sanctuary operated by the Gorgas Science Foundation and owned by the National Audubon Society.

For more information contact the Department of Biological Sciences at 956-882-5040.




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