GSO student receives national science scholarship to study pollutants in food chain, water, air

Anna Robuck is one of three recipients nationally

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Anna Robuck, a Ph.D. student at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Photo by Michael Salerno.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I., Aug. 2, 2017 — It all started with the Little Mermaid, the charming Disney movie about a mermaid who dreams of becoming human. Anna Robuck’s endless childhood viewings led to an obsession for anything—books, videos, toys—about the ocean and its preservation.

Now 29, Robuck is well on her way to protecting the global waters and its marine life as a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Robuck won the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program, a leading science organization that supports women in the ocean sciences. She was one of three recipients nationally.

“This is an incredible honor,” says Robuck, who lives in Newport and grew up in Chadds Ford, Pa.  “I’m elated. This scholarship allows me to pursue a lifelong passion—preserving the ocean I love, and its amazing creatures.”

The third-year Ph.D. student will research how chemicals used as water repellants and flame retardants are contaminating air, water, sediment and animals at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a popular whale watching spot at the center of Massachusetts Bay.

Anna Robuck caring for a bird at a wildlife refuge. Photo courtesy of Anna Robuck.

To accomplish this, she’ll focus on how contaminants get in the food web of the Great Shearwater, a common seabird off the Atlantic coast that rarely comes ashore, except during storms. The bird lives and feeds over a vast area so examining it provides information about the entire offshore environment.

“I want to paint a picture of what pollutants are out there, and how they might be traveling through the food web that supports the birds,” says Robuck. “Great Shearwaters are an ideal subject for this sort of work. They are top predators but still a manageable size. Studying them allows me to get all sorts of data about the top of the food chain and work my way down.”

Robuck, who already has preliminary samples from the birds at the marine sanctuary, will continue traveling to the area on a research vessel over the next few years. She’ll examine live Shearwaters, caught with hoop nets, and dead Shearwaters, accidentally captured in fishing nets, to determine what they’re eating and the types of pollutants in their tissue.

“My research will clear up a lot of unknowns in this offshore environment,” she says. “My work will help piece together who’s eating who out there. If my results show contaminants in the birds, this says that chemicals from products we use daily are traveling through air and water miles and miles offshore. This could be cause for serious concern. We don’t know how the chemical soup the birds are exposed to could be harming them.”

Awarded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the scholarship provides Robuck with $196,000 over four years. She also gets to use NOAA research facilities, and she becomes an ambassador for NOAA’s marine sanctuaries division.

“The Nancy Foster Scholarship program is extremely competitive so it’s gratifying to see Anna recognized in such a prominent way,” says David Smith, associate dean of GSO. “NOAA has made a wise decision investing in Anna’s future. Not only is she passionate about her research she is also passionate about engaging people, particularly young people, in recognizing some of our most pressing environmental issues.”

The scholarship was established in memory of Nancy Foster, a former NOAA administrator, past director of the agency’s National Ocean Service, and a well-respected marine conservationist. Congress created the scholarship after Foster’s death in 2000 to honor her and increase the number of women and minorities in oceanography and ocean-related fields.

Robuck joined the laboratory of GSO Oceanographer Rainer Lohmann in 2015 after receiving her master’s degree in marine science from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Lohmann is an internationally recognized expert in marine pollutants, especially highly fluorinated organic chemicals that have been in rain-proofing materials and products such as firefighting foam and nonstick coatings for more than 60 years.

Robuck’s research is cutting-edge and timely: Scientists are only beginning to understand how these organic pollutants travel in the environment and how they’re harmful to marine creatures, as well as humans. In fact, some studies link the pollutants to autoimmune diseases and kidney cancer in humans.

While pursuing her master’s, Robuck worked as a research assistant for the Lower Cape Fear River Program, a major environmental and water quality program in North Carolina. There, she learned that the health of human and animal communities is closely tied to the cleanliness of waterways.

“I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of understanding how important it is to have clean water,” she says. “These chemical pollutants are invisible so it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind. That’s a risky attitude. We need to pay attention to what we’re putting in our water. These chemicals can be very harmful.”

Outside the lab, Robuck spends her free time volunteering at the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island, diving, surfing and hanging out with Gypsy, her Doberman Pinscher. “I’m an outdoor person who loves the Earth and wants to see it flourish,” she says. “That’s what motivates me, that’s what keeps me going.”