Sacred Heart partners with Sea Research Foundation on marine conservation efforts

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Sacred Heart University’s Professor Jennifer Mattei, left, works on Project Limulus with a student.

Sacred Heart University and the Sea Research Foundation have agreed to a partnership that will involve collaborative research, educational presentations, internships and other special programs designed to protect Earth’s oceans and their inhabitants — as well as mankind — through increased public awareness, educational outreach, advocacy, research and a variety of hands-on projects and programs.

Sea Research Foundation is a leader in marine research, deep-sea exploration and hands-on education. The Foundation, which comprises Mystic Aquarium, Ocean Exploration Center and JASON learning, is based in Mystic and seeks to protect Earth’s oceans by increasing awareness of ocean environments and the creatures who live there, involving and educating budding scientists and conducting and supporting aquatic and deep-sea research.

“We are very pleased to enter this partnership with Sacred Heart University, which is recognized for its marine research in Long Island Sound,” said Stephen Coan, president and chief executive officer of Sea Research Foundation. “I know that our combined marine conservation efforts will help a region that for many years had been imperiled. In addition, we will be able to bring this same commitment to a younger generation through JASON Learning.”

Three faculty members from Sacred Heart University’s biology department will participate in this effort. Professor Jennifer Mattei will manage the collaboration for Sacred Heart. Associate Professor Mark Beekey and Mattei will hold training sessions with the Mystic Aquarium staff to promote Project Limulus, a community research endeavor designed to better understand the ecology and conservation of Limulus polyphemus, also know as the American horseshoe crab.

Mattei, who heads the university’s professional science master’s program, said the partnership will provide opportunities for graduate and undergraduate internships and research experiences at Mystic Aquarium and provide a forum for members of the Sea Research Foundation to share their experiences with Sacred Heart faculty and students.

Additionally, Assistant Professor John Rapaglia will meet with members of the North American Marine Environment Protection Association, which Sea Research Foundation actively supports and helped to found. Rapaglia will present his research involving sedimentary changes due to vessel navigation in ports and harbors at one or more of the organization’s seminars.

Mattei and Beekey lead the team of students and other devoted biologists and conservationists on a mission to conserve the American horseshoe crab in Long Island Sound. It is prized by scientists and medical researchers for a derivative called Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) that is found in its blood. It contains unique blood cells that are used to test human vaccines for bacterial contamination and in the development of anti-cancer medications. The horseshoe crab eggs and larvae also play a critical role in supporting birds and other species, ranging from Maine to Florida, and are valued by commercial fishermen, who use them as bait.

The partnership with the Sea Research Foundation, Mattei said, will include mutual teaching opportunities, Sacred Heart student internships at Mystic Aquarium, volunteer development and training, lectures at the University and in Mystic related to Long Island Sound preservation efforts, class trips involving hands-on conservation projects, public outreach and advocacy and other programs still to be determined.

“This is a mutually beneficial partnership that will help our students gain invaluable experience working with a respected non-profit organization devoted to preserving ocean habitats through conservation, education and awareness,” Mattei said. “It’s critical that students and the public better understand how human health is integrally connected to the seas and our overall environmental wellness. Actively involving students and the public in this learning encourages their participation, makes them better scientists and educators, teaches them about the important work non-profits are doing, and will help raise awareness for critical funding and support. At the same time,” she adds, “we’ll be supporting the fantastic work being done in Mystic and worldwide through the Sea Research Foundation and its partners and collaborators.”

The partnership program between Sea Research Foundation and Sacred Heart University will be managed for the Sea Research Foundation by the Office of Education and Conservation Programs at Mystic Aquarium and will include engagement with JASON Learning in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Although Project Limulus focuses its efforts on Long Island Sound, Mattei and Beekey have been invited to participate in the horseshoe crab working group for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. According to Mattei, the population status of the three Asian species of horseshoe crabs is unknown.

“We are trying to help our international colleagues in China and Malaysia start up programs like Project Limulus because we have clearly demonstrated how citizen scientists and students can positively contribute to a research program,” Mattei said.

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