PhD student Micheline Labrie on an SMAST research excursion
Micheline Labrie on a research excursion. (Photo courtesy of M. Labrie.)
Feature Stories 2021: Micheline Labrie '21: Protecting the ocean
Micheline Labrie '21: Protecting the ocean

Micheline Labrie talks about her love for the ocean, protecting the ecosystem, & her rich academic experience as a PhD student and research assistant at the School for Marine Science & Technology.

Micheline Labrie, who is completing her PhD in marine science and technology at UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science & Technology (SMAST) says she was fortunate to grow up in Seacoast New Hampshire where she appreciated the ocean and enjoyed tide-pooling as a child. “As a young girl, I had no idea that the ocean and coastal waters would turn into both a career and passion for me, says the Rye, NH native.  “The time between childhood tide pooling and the PhD program was filled with diverse interests and career ambitions, including architecture and veterinary medicine.” 

During the last two years of her program at the University of New Hampshire, Micheline says her interests narrowed.  “Most notable was my time spent at Shoals Marine Lab located on Appledore Island, one of nine islands just eight miles off the Maine/New Hampshire coast.  I spent my two weeks on the island as a student in the intensive Underwater Research course.  There I met my mentor and advocate, James Coyer.”

“My interest in the PhD project began when it was presented to me as a "project in need of a student," with potential for multiple years of funding during a preliminary meeting with my advisors, Dr. Brian Howes, and Dr. Miles Sundermeyer.”  From there it became Micheline’s area of expertise and a source of pride.  “Before I reached this point, I worried that I wasn’t one of those people that knew exactly what they wanted to do or study, that I didn't have a passion,” she says. “It took me a while to realize that I could find purpose in the journey, that the most important passion was the desire to push forward.”

Micheline Labrie and Amber Unruh
Micheline Labrie & Amber Unruh present their research at the New England Estuarine Research Society (NEERS) Spring Meeting, April 15, 2016. York, ME. (Photo courtesy of M. Labrie.)

A multifaceted academic experience

When reflecting on the past several years of her PhD program, Micheline recalls the challenges she faced as a series of stages in progression. “These included: lab and fieldwork, data analysis, writing and presentation, and finally mentoring new grad students and interns.” She also led a multi-year oyster aquaculture demonstration project to assess oyster effects on water quality. “During this time I learned how to grow oysters on a commercial scale, source and purchase the required gear, engineer and build innovative data collection devices, and execute best management practices,” she says. This involved organizing field experiments and delegating tasks. “Finally, I oversaw sample and data processing and the result write-up which included reporting to funding institutions.”

Micheline notes some of her most fulfilling experiences have followed periods of intense work and personal challenges.  “The motivation to push on to the end came from the heartfelt and committed support of SMAST students, staff, and faculty, specifically, fellow members of the Coastal Systems Program (CSP), which have become truly like family to me,” she says.

“Being a student and research assistant in the CSP means always learning new skills, some I expected:  chemical assays, designing experiments and developing a research proposal, taking classes.  Some were unexpected:  disassembling, diagnosing, and fixing scientific instruments, purchasing aquaculture gear, problem-solving, and engineering new equipment in the field.  Each new skill provided to me a measure of personal growth.”

Protecting the local ecosystem

Her research project, “Quantifying Impacts of Suspended Oyster Aquaculture on Nitrogen Cycling in Southeastern Massachusetts Coastal Embayments,” serves as a major component of her academic experience. She aims to quantify the mass of nitrogen that suspended oyster culture removes from shallow water coastal embayments typical of Southeastern MA.  

“Estuaries are increasingly degraded by anthropogenic nitrogen inputs. Fortunately, there has been much interest in the use of innovative methods of removing nitrogen and restoring balance to the ecosystem, one such method is oyster aquaculture,” she explains. “Quantification of nitrogen removal by suspended oyster culture is needed before it can be incorporated into a nitrogen management program. Those charged with implementing such a program need to be able to demonstrate efficacy and cost-benefit.” 

While Micheline graduates with her PhD this year, she has chosen to remain at SMAST for an additional year as a postdoctoral researcher. “I will remain with the CSP to continue writing and assisting with research projects.  I collected a lot of data over the years. There is much more research to conduct.”