Undergraduate Sea Grant Scholar looks to microalgae as alternative fuel source

As gas prices rise the search for alternative fuels has become an important area of research for the industry, and even university students.  Marcella Nunez, a senior Marine Sciences major, is one of these students from Texas A&M University in Galveston who has turned her attention to the valuable resources found in the ocean.

Nunez is one of five Undergraduate Research Scholars designated as 2012-2013 Sea Grant Scholars.  With funds generously provided by the Texas Sea Grant Program, Sea Grant Scholars are recognized for the quality of their undergraduate research on the marine environment. Nunez’s project focuses on microalgae use of sodium bicarbonate and nitrogen from sea water to create complex carbon compounds. This research could help determine if these marine microalgae can be used as an alternative fuel. Biofuels are taking a leap onto center stage of alternative fuels research because they cause less pollution and are biodegradable. Through her research Nunez is also determining if these microalgae are a cost-effective source of fuel.

Nunez started her undergraduate research career by participating in a summer research project as a NSF REU (National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates ) student directed by Dr. Antonietta Quigg, Associate Vice President for Research Development and Associate Professor of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University in Galveston and her postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Yuelu Jiang. During her work on the summer project Nunez realized she wanted to continue undergraduate research with Dr. Quigg during the regular semester, resulting in her Sea Grant project.  As a non-traditional student, Nunez found it easier to approach professors and seek out research opportunities.  “Sometimes [traditional] freshman find it hard to talk to their professors.  Since I was a little older I wasn’t afraid to talk and ask questions.  I think this helped me find a project to pursue,” said Nunez.

Both Quigg and Nunez believe programs such as Undergraduate Research Scholars and Texas Sea Grant give undergraduates the experience they need to become more competitive in the job and academic market.  “I like [Sea Grant Scholars] because it gives students confidence and affirmation that their research is valuable and valued by a broad community,” said Quigg.  Quigg also liked the freedom the Texas Sea Grant support let her and Nunez have on their project.  They were able to use the Sea Grant funds to send Nunez to the Texas Agrilife Algal Biofuels Research facility in Pecos, Texas to process her samples and have in-house experts help her analyze the results.

After graduation, Nunez hopes to attend graduate school and study oceanography or chemistry, or jump into industry and continue research.  Her experience as a Texas Sea Grant Scholar and undergraduate researcher has prepared her for what post-graduate life will be like.

Quigg advises students who want to get involved in research to model Nunez’s attitude and be ambitious, driven, imaginative, and work hard because it will take them places. Nunez says, “Undergraduate research can give you a leg up on other students going into graduate school.  I started to write and research [as an undergraduate], when most people don’t until graduate school.”  Dr. Duncan MacKenzie, Associate Director of Honors and Undergraduate Research and Chairman of the Graduate Interdisciplinary Degree Program in Marine Biology, agrees, saying “The Texas Sea Grant Scholars program provides a great opportunity to recognize and reward our outstanding undergraduate researchers in marine science.  We expect that it will help propel our best student researchers into careers that will have a positive impact on the world’s oceans.”

Contact: Chrystina Rago, chrysrago@honors.tamu.edu

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