Four images showing a satellite view of Duxbury Bay, oysters, eelgrass, and underwater robotics.

STREAM Grants program kicks off with documentary filmmaking, water quality monitoring, robotics, and microplastics research

August 30, 2022 —  This May, MIT Sea Grant launched a new grants program open to a diversity of Massachusetts applicants. STREAM Grants — Solutions Through Research, Education, and Art in Massachusetts — support one-year projects that align with program priorities and engage local communities and partners in marine science in new ways.

MIT Sea Grant is excited to announce four new funded projects. While the STREAM Grants program awards up to three projects during each funding cycle, the review committee found the proposals in this first round so compelling that MIT Sea Grant decided to fund a fourth project separately. In the spirit of STREAM Grants, the projects span across art, engineering, education, and research: 

  • Artistic Documentary: Plunging in with Eelgrass Researchers (Cohasset Center for Student Coastal Research)
  • Water Quality Monitoring in Duxbury Bay (Island Creek Oyster Foundation)
  • Designing a highly extensible ROV with a highly actuated gripper arm to lower the barrier to entry for student marine research projects (Northeastern University)
  • Is phthalate exposure in oysters linked to microplastic exposure with leaching from the pseudofeces/feces? (University of Massachusetts Boston)

“STREAM Grants provide a unique opportunity not only for innovations in research, education, and industry, but also for new collaborations at the intersection of art, science, and engineering in Massachusetts,” said MIT Sea Grant director Dr. Michael Triantafyllou.

“The grants are designed to be flexible and with a quick turnaround, so despite the modest funds we provide, they can empower a wide range of ocean-related creative activities that would not have been possible without them.” 

Through STREAM Grants, MIT Sea Grant aims to engage new communities and applicants, including artists, educators, and students. One student grant recipient is Owen Gurtz, filmmaker and rising junior at Cohasset High School. He plans to work with Ecology Coach Susan Bryant and a team of peers and researchers at the Cohasset Center for Student Coastal Research to create a documentary film about one of our coastal champions — eelgrass (Zostera marina). 

An important coastal species, eelgrass acts as a habitat for young fish, helps mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, and creates a buffer for coastal erosion; but it seems to be fading from Massachusetts coasts. Owen aims to show his artistic and research-focused documentary at film festivals and community events to share the story of this persevering natural resource.

Another issue of concern for many Massachusetts marinas and towns is water quality monitoring. Catherine Poquette, Lead Hatchery Technician with the Island Creek Oyster Foundation, decided to take action after observing impacts from poor water quality in Duxbury Bay in recent years, including stunted oyster growth and die-offs — a looming problem for the largest oyster-producing body of water in Massachusetts. 

Catherine explains that the bay lacks a strong long-term water quality monitoring program despite having over 25 commercial aquaculture leases and an active marina. So, she plans to start a monitoring program with the Duxbury Middle School Aquaculture Club and support from the STREAM Grant program.

The Duxbury Middle School students, who already engage with aquaculture at Island Creek Hatchery weekly during the school year, will help set up the new sensor system and collect data. They plan to share their findings with the town, other farms in the bay, and the broader Duxbury community.

The next project also plans to engage local students. Led by Northeastern University undergraduate Jonah Jaffe and professors of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Dr. Srinivas Tadigadapa and Dr. Thomas Consi, the team plans to work with the Northeastern Robotics Club, to help lower the barrier of entry for students and researchers interested in using ROVs (remote-operated vehicles) to conduct coastal research.

Jonah and the team intend to create an accessible, maneuverable, adaptable, and affordable ROV frame and robotic arm with custom-added sensors. The goal is to enable students and researchers to build a completely custom ROV capable of coastal cleanups or sample collection in complex locations. They’ll test and improve designs with local high school students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin and Boston Public Schools to help build interest in underwater robotics and marine research. 

The fourth funded project will take a closer look at microplastics, an emerging priority area for Sea Grant. Three researchers from the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston School for the EnvironmentJuanita Urban-Rich, Karen Johannesson, and Michael Tlusty will explore whether there may be microplastics even in our local oysters.

Recent work conducted in Dr. Urban-Rich’s lab revealed microplastic and microfiber particle concentrations in surface waters in Boston Harbor and Nantucket. Now, the team will measure phthalates (harmful chemicals used in plastics) in oyster samples from the same locations, and attempt to identify the types of microplastics found. The exploratory research may give an indication of whether microplastics are impacting oyster health and potentially their value as a food source or ecosystem service healthy oyster reefs serve important functions like improving water quality and providing protection from storms and sea level rise.

Results from the study will be used in a UMass Boston undergraduate capstone course on microplastics taught by Dr. Urban-Rich, and also shared with the Department of Marine Fisheries, hatcheries, and other shellfish stakeholders. MIT Sea Grant will be accepting STREAM Grant proposals again this fall. STREAM Grants will support small (up to $10,000) research projects, seed funding explorations, artist and student projects, educational initiatives, and rapid response projects addressing a current challenge.

>>More about STREAM Grants | Deadline: November 15, 2022