The University of North Florida and Jacksonville University Are Increasing Programs to Capitalize on the Area's Geography, Including Rivers, Marshes and the Ocean, Which Are Ripe for Study. Science Begins to Dive Deeper into Our Waters

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Byline: ADAM AASEN

To University of North Florida President John Delaney, the St. Johns River and surrounding waterways are more than just unique bodies of water.

They are like a "stew or a soup for scientists to study."

Different ingredients - from the river to saltwater marshes, beaches and the Intracoastal Waterway - all can be found within a short distance. So can manatees, crabs, shrimp, sea turtles and dolphins.

UNF and Jacksonville University plan to pump research dollars into niche programs such as coastal biology, marine biology and coastal engineering to capitalize on the area's geography.

"The St. Johns River is a woefully understudied system," said Quinton White, head of JU's marine biology program.

MARINE RESEARCH INSTITUTE

JU has raised $5 million for a 30,000-square-foot Marine Science Research Institute.

About $10 million is needed, but construction will begin late this year, even if fundraising isn't complete.

The energy-efficient building will have solar panels and a rainwater drainage system. There will be an amphitheater classroom and a 40-foot pontoon boat classroom.

The building also will house the St. Johns Riverkeeper and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Officials are working to set up marine biology programs with 12 to 17 Duval County high schools.

Taylor Engineering of Jacksonville donated $1 million to start a coastal engineering institute at UNF.

Bruce Taylor, chairman of UNF's board of trustees, said the program will teach students about coastal construction, navigation, dredging and the effect of hurricanes. As chief executive of Taylor Engineering, he said he knows there are plenty of jobs for program graduates.

TEDIOUS, BUT IMPORTANT

White said students used to suffer from "Flipper syndrome," in which all they wanted to do was train dolphins. Once they learn about science, he said, they prefer other research.

UNF graduate student Katya Schuster-Barber is studying the habitat of gopher tortoises at Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve.

Several times a week, she trudges through thick brush to see if any tortoises have fallen into traps she has dug. She measures the reptiles for a study about which is better for the endangered creatures: burning or mechanically cutting the brush.

She knows her findings will have real applications.

"People that aren't biologists sometimes can't see the importance of it, and that's frustrating," she said.

UNF assistant professor Matthew Gilg's research sounds even more laborious. He spends hours looking at larvae under a microscope.

He's examining green mussels, a non-native species increasing in the area, to see what impact they might have on the ecosystem. He takes a boat across the Intracoastal Waterway to collect tiles attached to plastic poles covered in green sludge and barnacles.

That's the fun part, but it's a fraction of the project.

"As a researcher, you really have to care about answering the question, because there's so much tedious work to do," he said.

It's not all lab work. Students get to work outdoors - on boats, in parks and under water. JU students fly in planes to spot manatees and collect data on fish during the annual Kingfish Tournament.

HELP FOR POLITICIANS

Not only should the programs boost academic prestige, but officials believe they will benefit the environment and economy. …