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Unique Research in the Marine Valley Laboratories

The University means more than just studies; it also means scientific research providing university students with an opportunity to implement research projects working together with scientists. We present the stories of three students of Klaipėda University (KU) sharing their experience of participation in projects and of conducting marine research as well as their as young scientists’ future prospects.

From dreams of riding horses to genetics research in the lab

Adelė Mačiūtė, Bachelor in Ecology and Environmental Management of Klaipėda University, before deciding on that study programme had dreamt of working with riding horses. “I grew up in Smiltynė, in Klaipėda, surrounded by water and nature. I used to spend a lot of time in the countryside, often went to a horse breeding farm, and planned a nature-related future career. In fact, I considered studying veterinary, but then I met prof. dr. Zita Rasuolė Gasiūnaitė, the present Director of the Marine Research Institute of KU, and heard about the studies of ecology at Klaipėda University. She encouraged me to enroll in that study programme”, said Adelė who this year was awarded a bachelor’s degree.

According to Adelė Mačiūtė, in the years of studies, she accumulated different experience as she was able to get acquainted with more than one field of environmental sciences. “During the first two years of studies, with an advisor of a course paper I worked on the toxins and the larvae of the midge Chironimus tentans living in the Curonian Lagoon. Under the Erasmus+ programme, I twice went to Portugal: the first time I studied biology and marine biology at the University of Algarve for one semester, and the second time I did internship in the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries and worked on deep sea corals. It was there that I understood that I liked to work in a laboratory. On coming back to KU, I changed the advisor in order to have more opportunities to work in the laboratories of the Marine Research Institute,” said the young researcher.

Nowadays, Adelė has been staying in the laboratory from morning till night, as she takes part in the projects NitFix: The Role of Atmospheric Nitrogen Fixation in the Largest Eutrofied European Lagoon and INBALANCE: The Influence of Associations between Benthic Invertebrates and Bacteria on Nitrogene Uptake in Estuarine Ecosystems. “I tend to focus on the methodological part. I am investigating the genes responsible for the nitrogen fixation in water in the Curonian Lagoon. Before that, it was clear that cyanobacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen and thus make the Curonian lagoon bloom. We try to find out whether it is only the cyanobacteria that fix nitrogen: there may be some other bacteria. We take water samples, identify DNA and RNA, and look for genes responsible for nitrogen fixation. The project aims to contribute to a better understanding of the Curonian Lagoon that still hides many mysteries.”

In September, Adelė intends to continue in graduate studies at Lund University (Sweden). “I shall take the study programme in Aquatic Ecology, however, I am already deeply sorry about having to leave Klaipėda University. The Marine Research Institute is like a home for me with its pleasant atmosphere and great staff. I was surprised to see how warmly students were welcomed here. There’s no big distance between professor and student, our relations are friendly. I can safely say that as I have been to many places. Klaipėda University is special because I can approach any staff member or researcher, even if they do not directly work with me, and they will always find time to hear and advise me. Therefore, the working conditions are really excellent here, both from the scientific and human viewpoint,” admitted KU bachelor Adelė Mačiūtė.

Scientific research not only in a laboratory

Jonas Gintauskas, 4th year student of Hydrology and Oceanography, was born in Kaunas and came to Klaipėda University due to a happy coincidence. “Actually, at first I had doubts about my choice, but after enrolling in that intriguing study programme, I changed my mind. Klaipėda University is a vibrant place where quite a lot of projects and activities are carried out, we sail on the university vessels, the infrastructure is excellent, a new complex of labs was opened, we have visiting professors coming from abroad and get students from other countries under the Erasmus + exchange programme,” said Jonas Gintauskas.

“Now that I can compare myself with my classmates studying in other universities I can say that at KU I had more different internships. The most memorable was the oceanography internship when last year we sailed on the University sailboat Brabander from Tallinn to Kotka in Finland and took part in the Tall Ship Races. The hydrology internship took place in western Lithuania: we investigated rivers and lakes. The geodesy internship was done at the seaside, followed by independent internship at the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research in Warnemünde, Germany. We had many different opportunities.

Currently Gintauskas is involved in two research projects where he is responsible for the field research and the analysis of sattelite imagery. “These are international EU projects intended for the monitoring of water bodies and coastal areas. Presently we focus on the Curonian Lagoon and Plateliai, Metelys, and Dūsia Lakes. We also sail in the Baltic Sea. During our expeditions, we measure chlorophyll concentration in the sea surface layer with special equipment, take samples, and bring them to the labs of the Marine Research Institute of KU,” explained the specificity of his work in research projects Jonas Gintauskas.

Another responsibility of the student is the analysis of sattelite imagery. “Water pollution can be established through spaceborne images. The satellite passes several times a week, and through images received from it we can establish chlorophyll concentration, water temperature, etc. Thus we can cover larger areas, e.g., several satellite images cover the entire Curonian Lagoon. Then we analyse the obtained data. In the long run, we are monitoring the pollution of water bodies, find out the reasons for it, and look for possible solutions.”

Next year, Jonas Gintauskas will complete the undergraduate studies and is currently considering what he will do in the future. “I know for sure I want to continue in scientific research, however, I think of going for an Erasmus + internship abroad and afterward will decide whether to continue studies at KU or abroad. ” Jonas is really happy to have spontaneously come to Klaipėda University: “My study programme is surely top level, quite a few of practicians among the teaching staff, and we get along with our teachers: they provide students with numerous opportunities, encourage, and help to find jobs, which makes it easier to combine studies and work.”

Fighting marine debris

Seven years ago, Laura Lauciūtė came from Kupiškis to study in Klaipėda. “In the 12th form, during a study fair, I remember coming to the Klaipėda University stand and talking to people there; they introduced me to a study programme related to geography and exact sciences. In that way, I became a first year student in the study programme of Hydrology and Oceanography.”

On completing her bachelor’s studies, Laura got a job in the Environmental Protection Agency, however, soon she realised she missed research activity. “In a year’s time, I enrolled in the graduate study programme of Ecology and Environmental Studies and continued with the subject of my bachelor’s final thesis: marine debris (microplastics) on the coast and in water. Prof. dr. Gerald Schernewski invited me to a scientific research project on the same subject,” said Laura Lauciūtė.

The young researcher believes the problem is relevant all over the world. “Based on the EU document, i.e. Marine Strategy Framework Directive, Lithuania needs to evaluate the state of its beaches and propose measures to reduce pollution. By our project we contribute to that.” In the project, the young KU scientist is responsible for the fieldwork: “We go to beaches, sieve sand with special equipment, and look for garbage. Later in the lab we sort it out by size, the type of plastic, etc. In the framework of the project, we investigate not only the beaches in Klaipėda, but also go to other countries of the Baltic Sea Region.”

Laura confessed she has never had doubts about the decision to study at the Lithuanian seaside. “I feel in my place, I do not even know where else I could live. The studies were top level, stimulating excellence, posing challenges, and providing opportunities to cope with them.”