Senior Liz Prager makes a splash with research

Liz diving upside down

By Salynda Hogsett '17


For Elizabeth Prager, night dives were pretty normal, maybe even routine - but this night was different.

Normally, when Prager and her research team dove, they had weights, tools and slates strapped to themselves to keep track of their research and keep them stable underwater. This dive, however, was just for fun, and they were able to plunge in without any restrictive gear.

They were diving during the height of the ostracod breeding season. Ostracods, a kind of microscopic crustacean, become bioluminescent when they breed, gleaming neon blue like glow sticks.

As the divers descended, they muffled their flashlights against their bodies and allowed darkness to envelop them. Before long, they found themselves completely surrounded by billions of glowing, breeding ostracods.

“I felt like I was swimming in the galaxy,” Prager said, remembering the tiny, neon-blue orbs that had surrounded her.

Prager is a senior biology and engineering student at Pitt-Bradford and captain of the Pitt-Bradford swim team. She has set many swimming records throughout her years on the swim team and was even named the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference's Swimmer of the Year in her freshman year.

Her memorable night dive took place this past summer in the waters surrounding Bonaire, an island off the northern coast of Venezuela. She was on a summer study-abroad experience organized by the Council for International Education Exchange, a non-profit organization that provides study abroad opportunities for college students.

Prager was enrolled in the Summer Intensive Research in Coral Reef Ecology program, an eight-week course that focused on building field research expertise and experience. She was one of six students who attended the program, most of whom attended colleges and universities much bigger than Pitt-Bradford. Although Prager was a little worried about being left behind since she had never taken any ecology classes before this trip, her education at Pitt-Bradford prepared her well for the work of the program.

“I could keep up with the other students,” she said. “I could absorb all the information that they were trying to throw at me, learn it all, then represent it and not feel like I was behind. My education helped me keep up to par with people from other schools.”

The students were taught by Astrid de Jager, a dive master and instructor; Dr. Enrique Arboleda, a marine biologist from Jorge Tadeo Lozano in University in Colombia; and Professor Nathaniel Hanna Holloway, a professor of marine ecology research methods.

The first four weeks of the course were dedicated to intensive class work and diving school. Prager and the other students in the program took classes in coral reef ecology and marine ecology research methods and received several SCUBA certifications.

“We pretty much fit an entire semester into four weeks,” said Prager, who completed 10 upper-level credits throughout the duration of the program.

The last four weeks of the course were mostly dedicated to a final research project. Prager and her research group investigated the effects of artificial light on shallow marine life at night. Prager and her group spent a lot of time looking for and reading the research that has already been done on the topic, and they didn't find much.

“There's not that much going on in that research field,” Prager said.

The lack of research presented an interesting opportunity for Prager and her team.

“We didn't know what we were looking for because no one has studied this before,” Prager said. “We were the first people studying light effects on marine organisms.”

All the dives for the research project were night dives. The team marked out grids on the ocean floor with rebar stakes to provide parameters for their research. They lit certain sections with artificial light and left some sections dark, gathering similar samples in each area to create a comparison. Prager and the rest of her team measured plankton, polychaetes, crabs and barnacle larva to see how the organisms reacted differently in the treatment and control group.

After the field research, they had to catalog, process and measure the samples that they took.

“For every one hour we spent in the field, we would spend another three in the lab,” Prager said.

Although she did get frustrated with the amount of time that they had to spend in the lab (up to 6 hours at a time), Prager became confident in her lab skills, especially microscope use, as a result.

Now back on land and diving head first into her senior year, Prager isn't done with the research. She continues to work with members of her research team from Bonaire as they attempt to publish their research findings. However, since the paper is unpublished, she is unable to share the results.

Prager and the other students didn't spend all their time engrossed in research. Study abroad experiences present many different learning opportunities that aren't limited to the classroom, and her group took advantage of them.

Group members took a 10-mile hike on the island of Bonaire, listening to bird calls and learning to identify the local wild life. They also spent a lot of time in Washington Slagbaai National Park, which protects the northwestern section of the island, and the Bonaire National Marine Park.

The group also flew to the neighboring island of Curaçao, about a 20-minute flight from Bonaire. There they got a behind-the-scenes look at the Sea Aquarium, an aquarium that provides a natural environment for the animals living in it.

“It really opened my eyes to the efforts of conservation and animal protection and education,” Prager said.

They also visited Substation Curaçao, a company that uses a mini-sub to provide research and tourism experiences. Not only does Substation Curaçao provide tourists with the opportunity to see the ocean floor, it also works with NASA on long-term research in the area.

Prager, with a background in engineering and biology, was intrigued by the collaboration she saw between the different experts at Substation Curaçao.

“The engineers there said, 'We don't really understand the biology part. We just drive because we know how to make the mini-sub work,”' Prager said. “It was cool to see that branching together of engineers and biologists.”

Through this trip, Prager discovered a passion for marine ecology, but she still plans to pursue a career in the medical field as an eye surgeon or a doctor of osteopathic medicine after graduating.

“Med school is my overall dream, and I'm not going to give up on it,” she said.

Even though she doesn't plan on making marine ecology a career, she said that she still wants to stay involved in the field.

“I'd like to still be included in what's going on in ecology, the marine environment and conservation because I think that's something that is a passion for me,” Prager said. “I don't think that I'm going to sway my career goals toward ecology, but I know that because of this study abroad trip and because of what opportunities I've been afforded through it, that I can use the information that I've gained to better my medical career.”