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Fulbright scholar from Caribbean
makes scientific findings in the Sound
November 16, 1998

Special Issue

Having grown up in Jamaica surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, Tonna-Marie Surgeon's love of the ocean is not surprising.

But it was her intellectual curiosity that ultimately led her to UConn's Department of Marine Sciences, where she is working toward a master's degree in biological oceanography.

While she was growing up Surgeon, like many others, simply enjoyed the beauty of the sea and the white beaches of her native land.

Her consciousness of environmental issues was raised when she was an undergraduate student at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, where she majored in environmental sciences with a concentration in marine zoology..

Surgeon also took applied courses on fisheries and coastal zone management. "From these, I realized that there was a serious problem with overfishing and pollution of several of our harbors," she says. "The Jamaican economy is heavily dependent on tourism and tourism is heavily dependent on coastal resources, especially beaches."

From then on, "I wanted to be involved in the protection of our natural resources," she says..

After earning her undergraduate degree, Surgeon was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in ecology. She wanted to study marine sciences, a discipline she says is very new in the Caribbean. "In comparison to the leaps made in research related to the marine environment in first-world countries, we in the Caribbean do not know as much about our resources," she says. "Also, money to do research is very limited there."

What's more, interest in studying oceanography as a career is lacking, Surgeon says. "Even though people love the island's beauty and want to see it preserved, oceanography is such a specialized field that they fear they won't be able to find a job or be paid enough money," she says.

Surgeon came to UConn in 1995. Though she missed the clear Caribbean waters, she settled into her research on eelgrass in Long Island Sound. A type of seagrass which grows in shallow water, eelgrass has been disappearing in the Sound..

Surgeon says the grasses form "underwater meadows."

"They are important in that they function as nursery and feeding areas for numerous species, including several that are of recreational and commercial importance such as scallops and manatees. They also help beach formation and stabilization," she says.

Although the disappearance of seagrasses has also occurred in Chesapeake Bay and Florida Bay, most of the research on those areas has focused on how much light these plants are able to receive, Surgeon says. Her idea, and that of other researchers, was that something other than light was affecting the plants.

"Plants need light, but there is something else," she says. "The other component is the sediment they grow in, which must affect their health.

because they are rooted there."

Surgeon decided to measure the level of sulfide, a toxic chemical produced from bacterial decomposition of organic matter, in eelgrass beds and to do laboratory tests to find out what concentration of sulfide was toxic to the plants.

What she found was that "light is important, but when you don't have enough light present along with high sulfide levels, the combination is more detrimental to eelgrass growth and survival than if there was just low light only." Surgeon has presented her findings at a number of scientific meetings and has received strong positive responses to her work, says Robert Whitlatch, professor and head of the marine sciences department. "She has established herself as one of our best master's students," he says.

Surgeon has found the small size of the marine sciences program, its interdisciplinary approach and the availability of the faculty to be the program's strong points. "I have absolutely enjoyed working with the faculty here. You can go to them at any time and feel welcome. They have always given very good advice and detailed suggestions," she says.

When she graduates, Surgeon plans to do a one-year internship with a nationally competitive award she recently won, the Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. The fellowship is administered in Washington, D.C.

The fellowship will enable her to "get right in there and see how policies are developed that govern different marine resources," she says. "There is a need for better communication between researchers and policymakers."

Sherry Fisher