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UNC Institute of Marine Sciences celebrates its 75th anniversary


UNC sophomore Emma Rudy Srebnik and senior Jenna Hynes measure and collect samples from a sediment core as part of their capstone research on Oct. 27, 2021. This year's capstone partnered students with the National Park Service to study the impacts of Hurricane Dorian on Core Banks of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Photo courtesy of Morgan Pirozzi. 

This year, the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences is celebrating 75 years of conducting research in the coastal town of Morehead City, North Carolina. 

Originally established in 1947, IMS is an off-campus research laboratory run through the University where undergraduate and graduate students learn and conduct their own research. Last July, the institute became a part of the Department of Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. 

"The institute's faculty have worked across kind of all of these areas, water quality systems, coastal hazards and fisheries, to try to advance the science and help the state make decisions that will keep coastal North Carolina a great place to live for generations to come," Rick Luettich, director of IMS and alumni distinguished professor, said. 

UNC junior Yuki Chen and graduate student Josh Himmelstein talk on the ferry on the way back from a day of field work at Core Banks on Sept. 29, 2021. Students and faculty would take the ferry each time they visited the study site, using the ride back to talk and unwind. Photo courtesy of Morgan Pirozzi.

The IMS field station is located near laboratories for North Carolina State University and Duke University, as well as a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration laboratory and the state's Division of Marine Fisheries. 

This proximity allows collaboration between the organizations, Joel Fodrie, a professor at the IMS and an alumnus of its program in Morehead City, said.

“We have a critical mass of researchers right here in this one part of the world which makes us not only an interesting environmental place but also an interesting intellectual environment as well,” Fodrie said.

The IMS uses its research to provide information to North Carolina state agencies for marine environmental projects and policies.

For sophomore Emma Rudy Srebnik, who has done research through the institute, being able to go out to sea turtle habitats every night during nesting season was a helpful part of her project, which focuses on sea turtle nest relocation rates.

Srebnik spent last semester at the field site in Morehead City.

“I had the chance to interact with the (community members) who were there and really learn their perspective on sea turtles and just various things going on around the coast,” she said. “That was exciting.”

Shelby Ziegler, an IMS alumna and current postdoctoral research associate in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, said that the experiential aspect of IMS provided her with unique research experiences.

“As an ecologist, a lot of times we ask questions, but being able to sit out in the environment and see what was going on day-to-day really influenced the trajectory of my research," Ziegler said. "And it allowed me to pursue different questions that I might not have been able to do if I was on main campus."

She said that being part of IMS has given her a sense of community and belonging in the scientific field that she doesn't think would have been there otherwise.

“Being at a large university, this provided a small and more intimate environment to learn and grow and a support system to help you be able to achieve the goals you have, whatever those might be," she said.

UNC senior Jenna Hynes stores sediment samples to be analyzed as part of her capstone research on Oct. 27, 2021. This year's capstone partnered students with the National Park Service to study the impacts of Hurricane Dorian on Core Banks of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Photo courtesy of Morgan Pirozzi.

Luettich said he hopes that IMS students can experience all that coastal North Carolina has to offer during a critical time in their education and career.

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“I really hope the folks that come here just gain a deep appreciation for coastal North Carolina," he said, “for how valuable it is, how wonderful it is, but yet how vulnerable it is.”

The 75th anniversary of the program has provided a time for faculty, students and alumni of IMS to reflect on the work that they have done, Fodrie said.

For the anniversary, the institute is commissioning a mural that is expected to be completed between June and October. There will also be internal and community events scheduled throughout the year.

From studying the effect of hurricanes on water quality to the activity of brown shrimp, Mike Piehler, director of the UNC Institute for the Environment, said that IMS has consistently produced remarkable science.

“For the University community, I think of it as a real prize and a real lucky thing to have because these things are hard to run,” Piehler said. “We're really fortunate to have had it for these 75 years, and I hope there'll be another 75 years.”

UNC professor Joel Fodrie examines a hammerhead shark as part of IMS's shark survey on Sept. 8, 2021. The survey is the longest running shark survey in the United States and has been in operation for nearly 50 years. Photo courtesy of Morgan Pirozzi.