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You Did What With a Fish Ear Bone!?

I was involved in an independent research project to assess positive density dependence shown in White Grunt aggregations. These tropical reef fish create dense diurnal aggregation on reefs and forage nightly to nearby seagrass beds. The objective of this project was to address the validity of the trend “safety in numbers”. This was done through age and growth analysis techniques using fish otoliths, a calcified structure located on either side of the individual’s brain. These help in balance for the fish but also allow us to study annual growth in each fish collected.

Although not involved in the field data collection portion of this project, I was responsible for processing otoliths, analyzing fish surveys captured by GoPro camera footage, aging the sectioned otoliths and analyzing growth. I also developed a manuscript for this project while working on a poster presentation for the North Carolina Undergraduate Research Symposium.

My favorite part of this project happened to be one of the most important steps, as well as the most time consuming. Aging individual fish is done only after their otoliths have been mounted in modeling clay, hardened in epoxy and sectioned using a low speed saw. The thinly sectioned disks are then read using a microscope with reflected light. Each one of the steps aforementioned, not including aging, took about 3 months. There were 250 individual fish collected for this study. At this point in the study, I felt like a real scientist. I had started a project that I did not fully design and was given bits of data with instructions for collecting additional components, but I did not see how this project would matter. When physically counting annuli made by fish after each year of growth with the ability to measure growth and back calculated lengths, I knew this project had direction. Although a lot was left to be done in order to write an accurate results and discussion section of the manuscript, there was a boost of confidence involved that gave motivation to learn how to analyze this data set and other morphological measurements of collected fish.

The biggest influence that this project had on me was creating responsibility through time management and leadership of an independent project. I had two mentors, a graduate student and faculty member, who taught me various techniques and programs used for statistical analysis of collected data. However, I was responsible for setting personal deadlines and completing given tasks. When working 15+ hours per work on this project in addition to being a full time student in a science field, time management takes on a whole new meaning. This process was very rewarding in the sense of being able to network with other students and faculty. I also took pride in the hard work I dedicated to this project in order to complete all necessary components. To anyone interested in research involvement, I would highly encourage this experience to anyone. Many skills are acquired that prepare you for graduate school or related careers. I also learned professional verbal and writing skills that are valuable in everyday communication.