UConn PhD student uses scuba diving to search for microscopic algae


Underwater diver diving into the water. Sean Ryan scuba dives to research microalgae and find out how they can help deal with the growing threat of climate change. Ryan hopes his work will help other scientists take action to address the problem of climate change. Photo by Pia Bercic

A doctorate in marine science from the University of Connecticut. The student uses the Avery Point diving program to study the adaptability of microalgae to climate change.

Microalgae are phytoplankton, present in freshwater and marine ecosystems, which lives in water and sediments. They are single-celled, invisible to the naked eye, and form the basis of many aquatic food webs, as they tend to float in the upper levels of the ocean where they feed on sunlight. The two main types are dinoflagellates, which have a whip-shaped tail and complex shell, and diatoms, which depend on ocean currents to move through water and have a rigid, nested shell.

Sean Ryan, a fourth year PhD. undergraduate, received her BS in Biology from SUNY Binghamton and has a background in freshwater systems ecology. Since arriving at UConn, he has been studying marine systems. Ryan is studying how climate change impacts these habitat-forming microalgae and how the composition and functions of communities will be affected.

“I think it’s really important to understand how the species that provide habitat for everything around them will be affected by warming oceans,” Ryan said.

The main facet of his research is deploying data loggers to record how environmental factors, like temperature, vary between time and space in order to understand the performance of kelp populations in the Long Island Strait. He surveyed sites near Avery Point, collecting species density and biomass data for sugar kelp (Saccharina latissim) and horsetail kelp (Laminaria digitata). Going forward, Ryan will be conducting growth experiments in the field and in the lab.

Kelp is essential to Ryan’s research because within the algae group it provides food and habitat for other species. As climate change warms the Earth’s oceans, the number of cold-water-adapted kelp is declining, affecting the health of Connecticut’s waters, Ryan’s research shows.

Ryan received his Science Diver certification with Jeff Godfrey, the Dive Safety Officer for the Avery Point Dive Program.

He has always loved water and grew up trying to be as close to it as possible. He became addicted to research as an undergraduate and found it even more rewarding to focus on the ocean.

“Diving underwater is a therapeutic experience for me. I can block out the rest of the world, including my to-do list, and just explore. My favorite memory overall was diving with other UConn students in Stonington, CT, ”said Ryan. “The sun went down as we were diving and as we rose to the surface there were bioluminescent dinoflagellates illuminating a bright blue color when our fins kicked.”

The diving program at Avery Point allows students and researchers to understand the complex and mysterious world of the ocean by putting their eyes and brains directly underwater. Peter Auster, Emeritus Professor and Researcher in the Department of Marine Sciences, has been at UConn for over 40 years and believes the diving program is an exceptional opportunity.

“It is very gratifying to see that the students, after working in my lab or class, have learned something new and changed course and see themselves doing this work or working towards future conservation goals.”


Having an underwater perspective can be essential in educating the public and policy makers.

“What motivates me the most is documenting what is happening so that I can share this knowledge with the people who live around and who will probably care. I really believe that science that isn’t well communicated will always be bad science, ”Ryan said.

Scientific diving is a professional branch of diving, regulated by the government. There is a Dive Control Board, with the majority of members being active science divers. There is a safety manual created by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. These elements set a standard for easier reciprocity between establishments as they all follow the same rules and guides.

Auster’s policy and managerial work begins at the beach and continues to the depths of the ocean. His recent work includes a project to develop habitats and define seabed communities in the Long Island Strait, using cameras and diving work.

“We have a lot of problems to try to solve. Working in the underwater landscape adds a unique perspective to what humans do to the ocean and what we could do to conserve and sustainably use our natural heritage, ”said Auster.

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