FIU alumnus awarded prestigious NSF CREST postdoctoral research fellowship

By Taylor Gutierrez

Javier Rodriguez-Casariego conducts coral research in Puerto Rico.
Javier Rodriguez-Casariego conducts coral research in Puerto Rico.

An FIU alumnus is blending research from three universities in an attempt to discover how marine life is responding to global climate change.

Javier Rodriguez-Casariego, who was recently minted as a postdoctoral research fellow funded by the National Science Foundation, is continuing research he began at the FIU Institute of Environment’s Environmental Epigenetics Lab.

“CREST is trying to help students find new avenues. Part of my plan is to shape my resume in order to be a professor. The CREST program is perfect for this because it helps with resources and shapes us to be competitive in academia,” said Casariego.

While Casariego is a postdoctoral researcher through an NSF-funded CREST Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Puerto Rico, he will use the fellowship as an opportunity to collaborate with FIU and the University of Miami.

“The collaboration with FIU makes sense because part of my project will compare habitats that have been exposed to anoxia recently,” he said. “Biscayne Bay is one of the most critical cases right now with the second consecutive year of fish mortality because of low oxygen levels. I will compare Biscayne Bay to San Juan Bay in Puerto Rico.”

His new research endeavor will focus on the neurobiology of aplysia, or as they are commonly called, sea hares. Casariego will evaluate how sea hares respond to external stressors like hypoxia.

“I want to expose adult aplysia to anoxia and see how their effects are passed down to their offspring. I will analyze if their mechanisms are maintained across generations even if the stressor is not present again,” he said. “This is like the holy grail of epigenetics.”

If sea hares can acclimate to these environmental stressors, Casariego said, they have a better chance of surviving the change in global water conditions.

The postdoctoral student also highlighted another major benefit to his research.

“Aplysia is also a known model for studying disease in humans. If we study the effects of anoxia in the nervous system of aplysia, it could be translated to humans who experience anoxia during strokes,” he said. “You can mimic hypoxic conditions in these organisms without killing them, but you can see how their neurons respond and compare it to humans.”

Casariego is the third FIU CREST student to be awarded an NSF CREST Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. His collaboration across the University of Puerto Rico, FIU and the University of Miami will allow him to continue to build on the research he started at FIU five years ago.