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NC State program aims to build belonging, increase diversity in marine sciences while aiding oyster sanctuaries

Rebecca Ruiz was recruited at N.C. State University as part of a new oyster restoration program. During a boat trip, she helped collect barnacle-laden items like this buoy and other instruments. (Sophie Mallinson/WUNC)
Rebecca Ruiz was recruited at N.C. State University as part of a new oyster restoration program. During a boat trip, she helped collect barnacle-laden items like this buoy and other instruments. (Sophie Mallinson/WUNC)

On a cloudless, sunny day,  North Carolina State University graduate student Rebecca Ruiz joined three others on the 21-foot Privateer as they set out to various man-made oyster reefs near Bayboro.

At each boat stop, Ruiz and fellow graduate student Mikayla Carrier measured water quality, while researchers John Brooks and Melissa LaCroce suited up for their dive into the shallow turbid water.

This story was reported and written by WUNC

At one point, Brooks broke through the surface holding a muddy collection of concrete-looking material — large oysters, clumped together in a mass about the size of Brooks’ hand.

To combat the loss of these natural water filters and their vibrant habitats, the  North Carolina Coastal Federation has been establishing oyster sanctuaries. In August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  finalized a grant of more than $14 million dollars to aid these efforts.

But establishing new reefs isn’t enough. Marine biologists have to make sure the oyster restoration efforts are actually working. That’s where graduate student Rebecca Ruiz comes in.

She's part of a new N.C. State program the  NOAA grant is also funding. This summer, she’ll start conducting research to monitor the health and biological footprint of oyster reefs. But on this day, she was learning the workflow of boat outings and collecting reef instruments that she’ll reuse in the summer.

Once the divers surfaced, they handed Ruiz and Carrier the barnacle-laden tools that monitored the health of the oyster reefs.

"Check it out, it’s see-through,” Ruiz said, after successfully crushing and scraping the barnacles off a small black tool. “You would’ve never known with all the mud that’s covering it."

Ruiz finished cleaning a hydrophone. The roughly 5-inch cylindrical tool can help determine if new oyster reefs are successful in promoting biodiversity.

"The hydrophone looks at the acoustic data, basically taking the sounds of the surrounding area,” Ruiz said. “So, you can actually determine certain species coming through based off the sounds they make or the hertz that their calls fall within."

Snapping. Crackling. Popping. A slight drumming sound. These are the sounds of an oyster sanctuary.

The areas provide homes for a variety of marine organisms, like snapping shrimp or croaker fish.

Ruiz said that visualizing what animals pass through is one way to track if the man-made reefs are thriving. In addition to looking after aspects like the health of man-made reefs, the new N.C. State program can also help the  North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries determine where to establish future reefs.

'Building Bridges'

The Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, or  CMAST, is leading the new NOAA-funded oyster project. CMAST director and professor Dave Eggleston said about $1.2 million will fund four graduate students in the program for three years, plus three undergraduate students each summer.

While these students will monitor the ecological performance of restored reefs, Eggleston said the program has another goal for his profession.

“It's not very diverse,” Eggleston said. “What we see in general is the more diverse the population, the better the ideas, so that's what's driving this.”

Marine science is an overwhelmingly white field. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that for the past decade, white students have earned about  70% or more of the marine biology and biological oceanography degrees. This new program aims to address that, by specifically recruiting students from underrepresented communities.

"Instead of just recruiting one underrepresented student kind of working solo,” Eggleston said, “we're recruiting this sort of cluster hire of graduate students that are underrepresented to represent a cohort that can not only work together, but also, these graduate students become mentors of the undergraduate students."

N.C. State is working with  North Carolina Central University to recruit students for the new program, with a hope that such a partnership will further strengthen N.C. Central’s research program.

“Hopefully, it would kind of serve as a pipeline to get students involved with this type of research, and then also encourage them to stay in this line of research,” said N.C. Central professor Carresse Gerald, who will help mentor recruited students.

As a professor at one of North Carolina’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Gerald said that fostering a sense of belonging in the field is crucial. It’s not unusual, she said, for her students to return from environmental meetings or programs and report having felt uncomfortable.

“That could be a make or break moment for students to actually go into the field, or to apply to that internship, or apply to that job, because they don't feel comfortable,” Gerald said. “Just naturally, humans don't go where we don't feel comfortable. So, just trying to bring some of that into the program is going to be key.”

With the NOAA grant funding the N.C. State program, as well as covering tuition and fees for some N.C. Central students, Gerald said that her hope is for students not just to learn the science, but to build bridges and pave a way for future students in the field.

'Capable and Competent'

Two graduate students have been recruited so far, including Ruiz, the expert barnacle scraper.

“Through learning from my fellow students, I was like, ‘Wow,’ these are really, really useful and very cool organisms to study. So, I went for it," Ruiz said.

She said she was interested in the marine sciences from a young age. But through high school and into college, Ruiz began having doubts about going into the field.

"Seeing that the people who already had their boat experience, all their fishing experience, was through their childhood, with it being a very dominant thing in white culture to do,” Ruiz said, “I felt like I was behind already because I didn't grow up learning how to ride a boat. Or, knowing the basic species that are present in the Gulf."

Ruiz said that familiarity is often taken as competency, but she said that her tenacity led her to working her way into coveted programs like the one at N.C. State. And, Ruiz said, it’s reassuring knowing inclusion-based programs are out there.

"It might have taken a bigger toll on my psyche,” Ruiz said. “Just wondering if my degree will be worth it, or if I'll be able to make anything of myself because I don't see people like me in the field. It feels very encouraging and relieving to know that there are programs out there that are specifically searching for you, and that you are not only welcome but considered capable and competent."

After a morning of measurement-taking and barnacle-scraping, Ruiz said that she's excited to train and eventually helm her own research excursions. And while she may be in training, she still had some words of wisdom for others.

"Assume that you're going to make it through,” Ruiz said. “Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself, cause that's the whole point of learning. As long as you're open and willing to learn, that'll take you a long way. So, go for it, jump for it, and have fun along the way."