Using Citizen Science to Fight Harmful Algae Blooms

March 16, 2022

Earth and Environmental Sciences Ph.D. candidate and two-time CUNY alumna Nia Rene lands a job tracking ocean contaminants for NOAA

Nia Rene
Nia Rene (courtesy of Rene)

Growing up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, Nia Rene didn’t spend a lot of time on the water. But she loved when it rained, and she liked to visit the lake in Prospect Park.

“I would always watch the fish and turtles and birds,” she says. “I remember looking at the currents and reflections and just wondering about it. I wasn’t exactly solving anything, but I did a whole lot of soaking it in.”

Rene never lost her sense of wonder about the natural world and the fundamental role water plays in it. These days, she sees the same substance through a decidedly professional lens. Already a two-time CUNY graduate, Rene is now working toward a Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES). She recently began a position with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), tracking nitrogen contaminants and harmful algae blooms in coastal fishing areas in South Carolina. (Her job falls under the administrative umbrella of NOAA as well as the National Ocean Service and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS).)

Much of Rene’s work involves “citizen science,” connecting volunteers with meaningful opportunities for hands-on science engagement, in a program the NCCOS administers as part of an effort to curb the spread and impact of harmful algal blooms. The program trains volunteers to collect samples, identify species of phytoplankton using digital microscopy, and report their data. 

“On a regular day,” says Rene, whose official title is environmental scientist in the Stressor Detection and Impacts Division, “I recruit farmers and organizations and train them on how to sample and analyze a species that may be harmful to shellfish and finfish using a microscope. If a target species is present, participants send them to my lab, and my team and I will analyze the samples for species morphology using SEM (scanning electron microscopy), count cells with a flow cam, and test for toxins via various chemical methods. I get to work outside in coastal waters on regular basis.”

Balancing Ph.D. studies with a professional job is no small feat. Rene manages it through organization, communication, and going after the opportunities available to her.

“Time management is key and I learned to prioritize my health along the way,” she says. “I accepted this position with NOAA after completing the required courses for my doctoral program, passing the first exam and writing a draft of my research proposal. My research focus and the responsibilities of my job are very closely related and therefore are able to inform one another.”

Rene completed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at York College, followed by a master’s degree in earth and environmental sciences at Brooklyn College before starting her Ph.D. research. She chose the CUNY colleges for their affordability and internship opportunities, and because of the faculty’s unique pedagogy.

“What appealed to me about the Graduate Center,” Rene says,” was the integration of earth science and geography in the curriculum.”

If there is one thing that Rene wishes someone had told her at the beginning of her Ph.D. journey, it is to make full use of your academic mentors’ experience and expertise.

“Have genuine conversations with your doctoral committee about your career goals and research interests,” Rene says, “so that they can assist you in a meaningful way.”

For Rene, Professor Jennifer Cherrier (GC/Brooklyn, Earth and Environmental Sciences), the chair of Rene’s committee, has been an especially important mentor. Cherrier, who is chair of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at Brooklyn College, advised Rene’s master’s thesis. Rene qualified for a master’s fellowship with NOAA Center for Earth System Sciences and Remote Sensing Technologies, and that program opened the door for a three-month internship at an NOAA facility with Research Oceanographer Steve Morton, who works closely with Cherrier.

“Through my work there, they were able to see my talents,” Rene says. “That has a lot to do with why I was very comfortable returning and actually holding a leadership position and being a federal employee.”

Asked about advice for other graduate students seeking employment, Rene draws on her own experience.

“Network!” she says. “Communicate with others in your field and in the industry about jobs. Apply for internships, show up to conferences, and stay connected.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing