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Fellowship Grants Get Science Out of the Lab (Part 1)

Billur Celebi is studying how changing CO2 concentrations and temperatures will affect eelgrass in Virginia’s coastal waters. For the outreach portion of her project, she teamed up with Chris Witherspoon and Jovonne Vrechek of the Virginia Aquarium to develop educational programming about seagrass and ecosystem health for Aquarium guests and student programs.

Seagrass at the Aquarium

Billur Celebi (right) teaches students about seagrass as part of the Virginia Aquarium Mentoring Young Scientists Program. ©VA Aquarium

By Erika Lower, Summer Science Writing Intern

Billur Celebi spends much of her time up to her elbows in tanks full of seagrass, and she wants the public to join her. As a Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellow, she’ll get just that.

The Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellowship provides two years of support to Ph.D. candidates doing coastal and marine research at universities in Virginia. New this year, Fellows are also working with outreach mentors to make the results of their research accessible to managers, stakeholders, and the public at large.

Working with Professor Richard Zimmerman at Old Dominion University, Celebi is studying how changing CO2 concentrations and temperatures will affect eelgrass in Virginia’s coastal waters. For the outreach portion of her project, she teamed up with Chris Witherspoon and Jovonne Vrechek of the Virginia Aquarium to develop educational programming about seagrass and ecosystem health for Aquarium guests and student programs.

“Aquarium visitors, especially the kids, connect us researchers with the rest of the community. They’re such an important middle link,” Celebi says.

In addition to leading seminars for volunteers hosted at the Aquarium, Celebi teaches students in the Aquarium’s Mentoring Young Scientists program about seagrass through hands-on experiments.

Working one-on-one with Aquarium outreach mentors, Witherspoon and Vrechek, has been invaluable, says Celebi. “Before this project, I had no experience working with children, so I was afraid they would get bored and might not understand me,” she recounts. “But Chris and Jovonne showed me ways to break down the science with them, and I was surprised by the way the kids understand so quickly.”

As part of the Mentoring Young Scientists program, Celebi worked with students from local middle schools to document the growth of eelgrass samples over the course of a school year. The students used scientific tools and techniques to study the plant, and many of the children wanted to stay involved with the project even after their experiments were complete. Celebi was impressed with the students’ competence and enthusiasm, and sees the project as a great success.

Celebi knows the importance of being able to discuss her research with the public, and sees working with aquarium visitors as a unique opportunity to give back to the community through a different audience than her scientific peers.

“It’s important to be able to let people know why it’s relevant and how it’s going to affect the lives of everyone,” she says. “No matter the audience, we have to be able to communicate.”

This is part one in a two part series about how Virginia Sea Grant Fellows are bringing their science to those who could use it.