Igniting Possibilities: Advancing Student/Faculty Research

Biology professor Maria Rosa and Connecticut College students work on a marine research project using 3D printed tiles to attract aquatic life in the Thames River.

Creating a sustainable aquatic habitat along Conn’s riverfront

A centerpiece of science education at Connecticut College is our intensive summer research program, which enables students like Mitchell to complete original research and work one-on-one with a faculty member. Professor Maria Rosa is leading a team of students in building reef balls, hemispheric concrete artificial reefs that are rehabilitating the waterfront.  “Reef balls are extremely common in Florida and certain regions of the Caribbean, but our riverfront is also perfectly suited to benefit greatly from this type of artificial reef,” Rosa said. “This living shoreline is  an incredible resource for student and faculty research.” 

In addition to serving as a habitat for local fish, crabs and other marine life, the reef balls will help rebuild the shoreline by minimizing erosion and promoting the growth of plants. They will also create a protective barrier in the water that minimizes wave action and protects an existing retaining wall and Conn’s rowing and sailing docks. “In the two years I’ve been monitoring the waterfront, we’ve lost about a half foot of beach at high tide. It doesn’t sound like much, but it means that the water line is hitting the retaining wall, and in the next couple of years it is likely to fail,” she said.

“Like living reefs, reef balls create a buffer to wave activity, including boat wake action, which can cause millions of dollars in damage to docks and boats in the water.”

The process of creating the reef balls is relatively simple and can be completed anywhere—including a mostly empty parking lot on Conn’s campus—and depending on the size of the mold, the resulting reef balls can vary from 1-8 ft in diameter and weigh anywhere between 30 and 8,000 lbs. Once placed in the water, the reef balls mimic natural reefs in nearly any way. The design also ensures that even in rough seas, the balls will remain in place or be pushed down into the sentiment, rather than float away.

“It’s a great hands-on learning experience for the students, and they feel a real ownership of the project,” Rosa said, adding that many of the students have written their names in the concrete. 

Rosa says the data she and her students collect will help other scientists and conservationists understand how reef balls might best be used in other New England waterways.

“These reef balls will serve as a living classroom, and they will provide a site for snorkeling and diving and other independent investigations for years to come.”

“Throughout the summer,  I was able to learn a great deal about our waterfront and the opportunity these reef balls are creating,” said Mitchell. “ With just about 100 of them already installed, research can start to be conducted on what effect they are having on our very own shoreline.  It will provide so many opportunities like mine for students to work alongside brilliant professors and understand what doing research is all about.”

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