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As Puerto Rico continues to recover from the extensive destruction of Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, the CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment welcomed Yuleika Martínez and Nicole Diaz, two undergraduate biology students from the University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón Campus. The students joined FIU for the summer as the University offered them a place to continue their research and enhance their professional experience while their home university continued the hurricane recovery process.

With the collaboration and partnership between FIU CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment (CAChE) and CREST Puerto Rico Center for Environmental Neurobiology, both Martínez and Diaz, along with their instructor Dr. Concepcion Rodriguez, had the opportunity to use FIU laboratory facilities, library resources, and general computer equipment to continue their research and expand their educational opportunities, as well as bring new ideas from the neural physiology perspective to FIU students and faculty. 

While growing up in Puerto Rico, both Martinez and Diaz developed an interest in science due to their curiosity about life and general interest in nature. They are both currently pursuing biology degrees at the University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón Campus. Under the mentorship of Dr. Rodriguez, they’re researching the effects of phthalates, a compound from the plastic family, on the settlement behavior of the land crab (Cardisoma guanhumi) larvae. They were welcomed to FIU to work in Dr. Piero Gardinali’s lab, where they analyzed sediment samples previously taken from a coastal wetland in Puerto Rico.

“We were able to create a method to determine the concentration of phthalates for future experiments that will serve as a reference to other investigators,” Diaz said. This result will help to inform important future experiments conducted both in the United States and overseas.

Thanks to the resources and assistance from faculty and staff, the students had the opportunity to expand their research network. While both CREST centers conduct similar research on aquatic contaminants, UPR CREST focuses on neural responses to contaminants and FIU CREST on the chemical nature of contaminants.

“I was able to learn new procedures and techniques that are different to what we do in biology,” Martínez expressed.

The FIU-UPR CREST partnership goal is to broaden the abilities of both Centers to measure and understand aquatic contaminants and climate stressors on marine habitats by providing enhanced research and educational opportunities. This successful partnership highlights the importance of collaborating between CREST centers – collaboration amongst the centers allows for knowledge transfer of ideas and continued relationship building across the nation.

“This is the perfect example of collaboration among different interdisciplinary groups,” expressed Dr. Piero Gardinali, Director of the Southeast Environmental Research Center.

To learn more about CREST CAChE, you can contact Bradley Schonhoff at bschonho@fiu.edu.