Student studies water’s flow for mangrove restoration

By Maria Gabriela Gonzalez Starchek

Valentina Peña

Valentina Peña has always been fascinated by science, particularly marine ecosystems and the species that call these habitats home.

The undergraduate student at Binghamton University in New York was one of 19 students who participated in the FIU Institute of Environment’s Coastal Ecosystems Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).

Peña came across the program, which matched her passion for the marine field while looking for research opportunities on the National Center for Education Statistics website.

Peña worked as part of the summer 2021 cohort in the institute’s Scinto Lab for Freshwater Biogeochemistry under the guidance of professor Leonard Scinto and her near-peer mentors Ali Mahdavi Mazdeh and Ph.D. student Ike Onwuka. Peña spent 10 weeks studying the stagnation of water in dwarf mangroves’ soils.

“It’s crucial for researchers in Florida to build a comprehensive picture of the multiple stressors these dwarf mangroves face in their environments to understand better why these mangroves have been stunted in their growth,” Peña said.

Peña’s research highlights the role of water flow as a significant driver for sustained growth in mangroves. Her fieldwork took place in Homestead Bay Park where she studied the site’s topography and water table. She looked at the soil’s ability to allow water to flow through it effectively. While in the lab, she built equipment to run experiments that tested for values of hydraulic conductivity, which measures how easily water can pass through soil or rock.

Mangrove forests are known as the backbone of many coastal ecosystems in south Florida. Besides sustaining commercial and touristic interests, mangroves also help soften the impact of harsh storms and flooding in the areas where they are located.

“Knowing which conditions promote the best growth for mangroves is essential for restoration projects to sustain long-term results,” Peña said. Her work will hopefully help inform and promote future mangrove restoration projects.

Peña is currently double-majoring in biology and environmental science. She plans to continue her studies by pursuing a doctoral degree and hopes to eventually lead critical scientific research in a lab of her own.