GAINESVILLE, FL (UF/IFAS) — Right now, in a University of Florida marine science lab in Cedar Key, Florida, about 40 sea urchins are chowing down on their food of choice — seagrass. Jamila Roth, an interdisciplinary ecology student in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, is watching them closely.
Roth wants to know how the urchins’ eating behavior varies depending on which species of seagrass they are given. Seagrass is at the base of the food chain in many marine ecosystems around the world, including the Gulf of Mexico. It provides food and shelter for fish, manatees and other sea life.
But seagrass is in trouble. Increasing ocean temperatures have spurred tropical species to move northward, where they mow down the seagrass in their new habitat. Seagrass loss can have a negative ripple effect through the entire food chain, with consequences for the people and industries that rely on the ocean.
“One solution to seagrass loss is to find ways to make seagrass more resilient in the face of stressors. In my research, I want to know whether having several different species of seagrass affects seagrass resilience and its ability to support the food chain,” Roth said.
The sea urchin experiment is one component of that project.
“I want to know if having several different species of seagrass affects sea urchin feeding behavior and food choice. I also plan to investigate how seagrass species diversity affects habitat selection as well,” she said.
Roth has just won the Nature Coast Biological Station/Florida Sea Grant Scholarship, which will support her research based at the Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key. The NCBS is part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Florida Sea Grant is a statewide program hosted at UF/IFAS and one of 34 university-based programs nation-wide that fund and support coastal research, extension and education.
Her goal is to produce research findings that will help environmental agencies conserve and restore seagrass, Roth said.
Laura Reynolds, assistant professor of soil and water sciences, is Roth’s dissertation director.
“Jamila’s proposed work is innovative and timely,” Reynolds said. “Working more closely with Florida Sea Grant and the Nature Coast Biological Station will afford her more opportunities to interact with managers and agency partners and thus achieve her goal of making her research applicable and widely used in restoration and management.”
Mentors like Reynolds have helped Roth get to where she is today, Roth said.
“All the faculty I’ve worked with have been very supportive and inspired me to research topics that have real-world applications. If I ever have a question or concern, their doors are always open,” Roth said. “They’ve shown me that science requires perseverance — to keep at a question even when the way forward isn’t clear.”
Roth started her research journey while attending Skidmore College in New York, where she helped conduct research in the Finger Lakes. While completing her undergraduate degree, Roth also studied abroad in Costa Rica, where she first learned about the importance of seagrass.
Roth also works to educate residents about marine issues.
“I have been impressed with Jamila’s motivation and commitment to outreach and K-12 education,” Reynolds said. “On her own, she secured funding from the Florida Museum of Natural History to create a curriculum based on her research and to share it through elementary school science clubs. She is also planning to modify this project to create a display to be used at Nature Coast Biological Station open house events.”
Roth’s passion for marine science is both academic and personal. Her grandmother is from Jolo Island in the Philippines where the sea is an essential part of daily life.
“Learning about my family history and the dependence of coastal communities on threatened marine resources pushes me to research and address those challenges,” she said.