Feature Stories 2023: Emma Gallagher '23: Ecosystems and aquaculture

SMAST student Emma Gallagher in the lab
Feature Stories 2023: Emma Gallagher '23: Ecosystems and aquaculture
Emma Gallagher '23: Ecosystems and aquaculture

SMAST student Emma Gallagher studies harmful algae blooms that can turn shellfish poisonous.

Working with oyster farmers on Nasketucket Bay in Fairhaven, SMAST student Emma Gallagher (August '23) monitors local waters to identify harmful algae blooms that can turn shellfish poisonous.  

How did you become interested in marine science as a course of study and as a career? 

"I was interested in nature from a young age. I attended high school at the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center, where the curriculum had a special focus on aquaculture and marine science. That experience piqued my interest in aquatic ecosystems."  

Why did you choose UMass Dartmouth/SMAST for your master’s? 

"My undergraduate advisor at Southern Connecticut State University recommended SMAST to me after attending the Intercampus Marine Science (IMS) Symposium. They were so impressed by the research being done by the students and faculty here. I found it to be a perfect fit for the kind of work I wanted to do." 

SMAST student Emma Gallagher looking into a microscope in Dr. Jefferson Turner's lab

What is your favorite thing about your field?  

"I like doing research that has real-world applications. I'm invested in how ecological systems work together, like the food chain for example. The work I do encapsulates that." 

Tell us about your research 

"My research focuses on phytoplankton and harmful algae blooms (HAB).  These blooms result from the multiplication of certain types of phytoplankton. They are toxic to other organisms and can infect filter feeders like oysters that are then ingested by people.  

"The effects of algae blooms can be mitigated, but they can't be totally prevented, so it's important to monitor the water quality before something toxic becomes released to the public. Monitoring these algae blooms is important for maintaining healthy ecosystems and for the shellfish industry; an HAB can shut down fishing operations until they disappear. 

"I have been focusing my efforts in Nasketucket Bay where Blue Stream Shellfish has an oyster farm. Currently there is no monitoring station there, leaving the bay vulnerable to undetected algae blooms.   

"I took weekly water samples and examined them under a microscope in the lab to determine the concentration of different types of phytoplankton.  I also conducted an oyster growth experiment, where we put oysters out at sample stations to test whether the oysters were affected by the presence of certain phytoplankton." 

Emma Gallagher in the lab pouring liquid into a funnel

Do you have a favorite memory of your time at SMAST?  

"I loved the simple, unexpected moments that happened while doing field work. I got to see all kinds of aquatic animals like black sea bass, starfish, even scallops swimming away — I didn't know they could do that!" 

What’s something you’d like more people to know? 

"It’s surprising how little people know about harmful algae blooms, especially here in New England! Many people aren’t even aware of them. Some people have heard of red tides, but there are other kinds of algal blooms that aren't as obvious. The toxins that result from these blooms can affect our food supply and can't be cooked out. These include neurotoxins that can cause amnesia! 

"I'd also like people to know that shellfish aquaculture is a very environmentally friendly form of farming, and oysters are one of the most sustainably produced food sources available."  

How has UMass Dartmouth prepared you for your future? 

"I feel very well-prepared. As a student at SMAST, I had an assistantship that provided me with valuable experience and paid for my tuition. I received funding for my research, resources for my experiments, and connections with people in the oyster and shellfish community.  Dr. Jeff Turner provided wonderful support and insights in the lab, and my fieldwork experience with Blue Stream Shellfish and assistantship with the Division of Marine Fisheries have prepared me to continue working after I complete my degree."  

Emma Gallagher seated looking into a microscope with guidance from Dr. Jeff Turner
Emma Gallagher '23 and Chancellor Professor Jefferson Turner

What advice do you have for future UMassD students? 

"If you want to study marine science, it's very helpful to have a background in biology.  Get as much lab experience as you can. And, ask around for opportunities.  You'd be surprised how willing researchers are to grant access to their labs; you just have to ask!" 

What are your plans after graduation? 

"After graduation, my goal is to continue working with a government agency, and I’d love the chance to continue doing research with real-world and policy applications." 

What are you most proud of? 

"As I've been wrapping up all this data, I'm very proud to see this project through to completion. When you’re doing research, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds and lose sight of the end goal or the purpose behind your work. Now I'm seeing the results of all those days spent in the field and the lab; it's the result of many small pieces finally coming together to make something meaningful."