CREST grant creates a ‘CEA’ of opportunity

CREST grant creates a ‘CEA’ of opportunity

Students conducted field-research, took steps toward doctorates in 10-year program

Research rundown

Get a quick breakdown on the research conducted by some faculty of the CEA-CREST program, and learn where they are headed.

Carlos Robles
Costal marine population dynamics

His work along the Pacific Coast from Catalina Island to British Columbia showed how certain “keystone” predators determined the composition of rocky shore communities.

New research: A $750,000 NSF-grant funds collaboration among Robles, Desharnais, and colleagues at Caltech, in which faculty and student researchers will study the vulnerability of ecosystems to natural and human-caused disturbances.

Barry Hibbs
Hydrology of aquifers and rivers in arid zones

Hibbs and student researchers collected water samples from wells, aquifers, rivers, and streams throughout the Rio Grande and Southern California. They analyzed the quality, salinity and replenishment of ground water.

The research shed light on the diminishing water resources of the region and need for international cooperation on managing water resources. Potable water supplies in the southwest are diminishing due to drought, over exploitation and salinization.

New research: Water monitoring in The Santa Monica Mountains and Point Loma’s Cabrillo National Monument for the National Park Service, as well as salinity testing in the Rio Grande for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Patrick Krug
Molecular genetics in evolution, ecology and conservation

Studied how gene flow occurs between populations in different parts of the Caribbean, genetics of the populations of a common sea slug found in areas from San Diego to Alaska, and identified invasive species that are originally from New Zealand, Asia and Japan but are now prevalent along the coast.

This research could have implications on managing and conserving coral reef ecosystems by improving our understanding of how ocean currents distribute the microscopic larvae that link island populations.

New research: Two separate NSF-funded programs support student research on how changes in water temperature and rainfall can affect range limits in local marine animals, and DNA sequencing and evolutionary genetics – specifically how switches in eating habits can explain the origin of new species.

Elizabeth Torres
Molecular genetics in evolution, ecology and conservation

Torres, in collaboration with her students, developed a captive breeding program to recover the threatened California Channel Island fox.

New research: A collaborator in the bid to establish a national center studying the effects of ocean acidification, with CSU and Scripps.

Krishna Foster, Tina Salmassi, and Crist Khachikian

The trio discovered a new compound of phosphorus in thermal hot springs, which may show us how this essential mineral cycled in the environment of earth hundreds of millions of years ago.

New research: Developing highly sensitive sensors of the chemistry of natural springs.

When Carlos Robles became director of the CEA-CREST program for research in environmental science nearly a decade ago, there were big plans:

  • To offer undergraduate and graduate students unique field research experiences studying the changing ecosystem, marine populations, ground water contaminants, conservation, molecular genetics and more.
  • To present students, including those who are under represented in the sciences, with a pathway to postgraduate and doctoral studies.
  • To build upon and expand the platform for interdisciplinary research and collaboration on campus.

Now, 10 years later, Robles can proudly say that CEA-CREST has delivered on those initial pledges — and even accomplished much more. The $10 million, National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded CEA-CREST program elevated research and created wide-ranging opportunities.

CEA-CREST, the Center for Environmental Analysis — Centers for Research Experience in Science and Technology, has given way to the establishment of a Master of Science program in environmental science and several new research opportunities and grants.

“We didn’t have a history of an advanced graduate program in the field of environmental science,” Robles said. “Now we have graduated three to four dozen students who went on to Ph.D. programs and environmental careers. We were one of the few diversity-focused programs nationwide that had conspicuous success in this important endeavor.”

Included among CEA-CREST’s alumni are Ph.D. candidates at USC, UCLA and Northwestern; faculty at Penn State University, CSU Monterey Bay and Cal State L.A.; and professionals working with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“During my time with CEA-CREST, I had many opportunities to attend scientific meetings locally and internationally, and to conduct research locally, regionally and internationally,” said CEA-CREST alumnus Demian Willette ’06, who is working toward a Ph.D. in biology at UCLA.

“Perhaps the greatest benefit from the CEA-CREST program was the guidance and attention provided to me and my research, which nurtured my fondness for science and eventually led to a change in life plans — saying yes to pursue a Ph.D.,” he added. “… My current career path is more than I had (ever) envisioned.”

Willette is one of the 12 graduate students and more than a dozen undergraduates who were invited into Biological Sciences Professor Patrick Krug’s lab to research gene flow and genetics in marine organisms under the program.

CEA-CREST created many opportunities for his students, Krug said, including enabling some to travel to Panama, Jamaica and Bermuda to study how gene flow occurs between populations in different parts of the Caribbean. The research is important for understanding how to manage and conserve threatened coral reef ecosystems and could impact policymaking decisions on marine protected areas, he said.

“These students bring badly needed diversity to the academic world and also to the private sector, where jobs focused on molecular technologies and sustainable development will become increasingly important to the health of our economy and world’s ecosystems,” Krug said.

“I have lived in Brazil, lived on an island off the coast of Washington state, been to various states in the U.S. and visited France — all due to science and (CEA-CREST) research,” said Melissa Romero, a graduate biology student.

The center has officially run its course, because funding for each NSF-CREST center is limited to two, five-year, $5 million grants. However, new funding opportunities and grants are continually being sought to maintain the momentum of the student programs and cross-department research.

“Funded partnerships will play a big role in the future of the environmental science community at Cal State L.A.,” Robles said.

For instance, Hydrology Professor Barry Hibbs’ work on water resources in the Rio Grande Basin has resulted in further salinity testing projects in the region with the Army Corps of Engineers. Biological Sciences Professor Bob Desharnais’ formulations on disturbances in ecology were the pathway for collaborations with scientists at Cal Tech, including CEA-CREST graduates now enrolled there. Civil Engineering Professor Crist Khachikian is organizing a network of engineering faculty and off-campus partners to win funding for research in alternative energy sources.

And a new joint venture between the laboratory groups of Robles, Krug and Professor Elizabeth Torres, and CSU San Marcos and Scripps Institution of Oceanography could lead to the establishment of a national center to study the effects of ocean acidification.

In the words of Hibbs, “CEA-CREST is definitely a highly recognized force. We have some good scientists who are competitive with scientists at Level 1 research institutions, and I think we became well-known for that.”