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Ward finds his research is in high demand
January 18, 1999
Whether it's developing new courses to teach, or pressing the envelope of knowledge on the feeding habits of marine bivalves, J. Evan Ward is finding his expertise in demand these days.
Earlier this month, Ward, an assistant professor of marine sciences at the Avery Point campus, hosted a British Broadcasting Corporation film crew documenting his research that uses endoscopic techniques to observe the feeding behaviors of shellfish such as scallops, mussels and oysters. Ward's work will be included in an educational documentary the BBC is producing for Britain's Open University.
Marine bivalves feed by using gills and accessory structures called labial palps to filter microscopic particles suspended in the water into their mouths, Ward explained. Endoscopy, a technique that uses a special instrument to examine visually the inside of a hollow organ, has enabled him to measure particle processing and selection in several species of bivalves.
"I can remember when I was an undergraduate student how hard it was to visualize the feeding process in bivalves from pictures, slides, charts and books," Ward recalled. "Endoscopy allows us not only to see how a particle is captured, but then lets us track it as it moves along the gills and palps into the mouth, and the process becomes crystal clear," he said.
"The traditional way of studying bivalves was to dissect them, which
understandably stressed the animal," Ward said. "Leaving the animal intact we have discovered that much of the literature about bivalve filtration was totally incorrect."
Besides studying the feeding process, Ward has examined how
different shellfish have responded to chemical compounds found in their food sources, and how some species have an ability to reject low-quality particles and adjust their feeding rates in response to the amount of good food available.
Ward's research into the inner workings of shellfish, combined with his teaching abilities, prompted UConn to recruit Ward to the faculty in 1997 from the University of Delaware.
"Evan was hired specifically for his anticipated contributions to the new four-year undergraduate program in Coastal Studies," said David Madacsi, interim director of the Avery Point campus. He noted that Ward is currently designing several new courses for the coastal studies core curriculum, following his success in developing a new course for the program, which he taught this fall. The course, "Environmental Physiology of Marine Animals," examined a variety of topics, including the feeding strategies and physiological responses of commercially important shellfish when exposed to different environments.
Ward's research "is important for its scientific merit and for its potential implications for Connecticut's economic development," Madacsi said. "Inclusion of his research in the BBC's Open University curriculum is indicative of the truly world-class quality of both his work and of UConn Avery Point's growing reputation for excellence in education and research."
Open University, founded in 1970, has become the largest university in Great Britain by pioneering the uses of distance education methods such as television programs, videos and audio-tapes, as supplements to conventional textbooks, to teach its undergraduate and graduate students.
The documentary, which will be broadcast in March, is part of a new second-level biology course (the equivalent of a sophomore-level course in the United States) being
developed by the Open University's science department, titled "Biology: Uniformity and Diversity."
"We go anywhere in the world if the expert is there," said BBC producer G.D. Jayalakshmi, who traveled from London with a production crew to film Ward. "Evan Ward is in the lead in his field, that's why we came here."
Describing the two segments filmed at UConn's campus-by-the sea, Jayalakshmi said the first is of Ward strolling along the shore of Long Island Sound picking up mollusks from rocks and explaining what goes on inside. The second segment was of the marine biologist inside his lab conducting endoscopy - inserting a thin fiber-optic camera into a living shellfish.
She also took some footage of Ward dining on scallops and oysters at a res-taurant. "He calls them the cows of the sea because they eat phytoplankton," Jayalakshmi said, adding that Ward told her "his policy is never to do research on anything you cannot eat."
Ward welcomed the opportunity to work with the BBC production, describing it as a great way to communicate a very complex biological process to a student audience. Endoscopy is "perfect for television because it is both visual and novel," he said.
Ward's work is also drawing attention from the National Science Foundation that recently awarded him a second, three-year, $135,000 grant to conduct further research into how bivalves can selectively ingest particles.
"We know that particle feeders are influenced by compounds in their food source and we have been able to identify the anatomical location of particle selection in several species, but we don't know how they tell the good food from the bad," Ward said. "Do they taste food the way you and I can tell carrots from peas or is it something about the surface of the particles that signals their quality? This is the main thrust of our next project."