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Rebecka Brasso

Rising levels of mercury in the world’s oceans have many scientists concerned. Once deposited in the water, microbes convert mercury into methyl mercury, the more bioavailable and toxic form of mercury that can accumulate in the tissues of marine and aquatic organisms.  Mercury can have significant negative impacts on the nervous and reproductive systems of humans and other animals.  Rebecka Brasso, ’13 PhD, has coupled her interests in the Antarctic ecosystem and the use of birds as biomonitors by using penguins to measure the amount of mercury available in this remote region. 

Brasso graduated from UNCW with a bachelor’s degree in marine biology in 2004.  She also completed a departmental honor’s project on fossil birds with Professor Steve Emslie, a marine ornithologist with more than 30 years of research experience. Together, they were able to publish her thesis in Condor, a top ornithological journal. She earned her master’s degree in biology at the College of William and Mary, where she studied the effects of mercury exposure on reproduction and chick survival in tree swallows.  In 2009, she returned to UNCW to pursue her PhD with Professor Emslie, who welcomed her return.  “Rebecka was great as an undergrad here and now she brings more experience and knowledge to her Ph.D program.  I’m very happy to have her in my lab again,” said Emslie.  Brasso’s idea to look at mercury accumulation in penguin tissues was a great fit to Emslie’s existing Antarctic research, which boasts a collection of specimens from penguin colonies dating back over 40,000 years. 

Supported by an National Science Foundation grant awarded to fellow PhD candidate Mike Polito and Emslie, in December 2010 Brasso travelled to the Antarctic Peninsula for 30 days aboard the National Geographic Explorer expedition. Aboard the ship, Brasso worked as a researcher with a non-profit organization called Oceanites.  Oceanites researchers conduct population censuses of penguins in the Antarctic Peninsula. In tandem with this research, Brasso was able to collect penguin eggshells that will help her gain an understanding of current mercury availability in the marine Antarctic food web.  In addition, she will use ancient radiocarbon-dated penguin tissues collected by Dr. Emslie to complete a timeline of mercury concentration in the Southern Ocean over the past 10,000 years. While in the Antarctic, Brasso also maintained a blog as part of an outreach project with a local elementary school.  “I enjoy outreach education, but more importantly, I enjoy being a role model for young girls and showing them that being a woman and being a scientist are not mutually exclusive.  I want to encourage girls to get involved in fields that they may think are traditionally male dominated,” said Brasso.

Using birds as biomonitors is a common way to establish a baseline understanding of mercury levels in the marine environment, but has been little studied in the Southern Ocean.  Preliminary data suggests current mercury levels are too low to cause reproductive impacts, but Brasso is concerned about considerable increases in global mercury emissions via practices such as coal burning.   She speculates, in the near future, such increases could bring contaminant levels in these remote ecosystems to toxic levels.

Since returning to UNCW, Brasso has received several travel awards to attend international conferences.  She likewise serves as the PhD student on the Department of Biology and Marine Biology Graduate Advisory Committee, and is a graduate assistant for UNCW’s Center for Support of Undergraduate Research and Fellowship (CSURF).  Her most recent award came from PEO international, a philanthropic educational organization. 

 

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