Crucian Kyle Jerris Investigates Major Marine Science Questions At UVI

In the summer of 2018 Kyle spent several weeks working at the  University of Pennsylvania  lab as a participant in the Bridge to Ph.D. Program.

In the summer of 2018 Kyle spent several weeks working at the University of Pennsylvania lab as a participant in the Bridge to Ph.D. Program.

Kyle Jerris, a Masters of Marine and Environmental Studies student at the University of the Virgin Islands, is engaged in a field of study, combining two major scientific questions that have rarely been looked at simultaneously; questions that are crucial to the future of climate change and species protection. At the age of 25 this proud Virgin Islander has become a mentor and role model and aspires to become a doctoral student one day. 

I have always been interested in learning new things” Kyle says, “science is all about this: learning about the world and what makes things the way they are.

As someone born and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kyle is uniquely positioned to travel his chosen road to acquiring advanced degrees in marine science. And his work and experience are well timed given the global concerns he is addressing. 

Growing up on the beaches of St. Croix, Kyle’s interest turned from sand to sea at an early age. And when his voracious childhood curiosity led to trips to Coral World Ocean Park on St. Thomas and participation in a St. Croix Environmental Association’s summer program Kyle’s love for the sea became full blown.  In the years since realizing he could have a career that matched his passion, Kyle has made hundreds of scientific dives and has grown into an experienced field researcher. He has done it all -- from fish surveys and coral restoration dives to seagrass research and exploration.  

Always a willing volunteer, Kyle assists another Masters student with micro plastic collection. Photo: Kristin Wilson Grimes

Always a willing volunteer, Kyle assists another Masters student with micro plastic collection.
Photo: Kristin Wilson Grimes

Much of what Kyle has done has been as a volunteer.  It is his natural tendency to be of service. That quality led to him work alongside visiting researchers like Paul Sikkel Ph.D., who after working at UVI for several years is now an associate professor of biology at Arkansas State University. The investments made by VI-EPSCoR  have supported UVI in becoming a magnet for researchers, thus affording students these kinds of opportunities. 

With invaluable support from his thesis advisor Teresa Turner, Ph.D and thesis committee member Edwin Cruz, Ph.D., Kyle has at times found himself far afield from his usual environment, presenting his own research at national conferences.

Those are the fun parts. As most students do when they enter the program, Kyle has also collected fish, cleaned tanks and carried buckets.

KYLE’S LIGHT SHINES ON SEAGRASS

Now in his second year of the MMES program, Kyle’s attention is even more deeply focused on seagrass. The recent appearance of the Halophila stipulacea seagrass piqued Kyle’s interest because of the many unknowns resulting from the presence of this new species in the Caribbean. The uninitiated don’t realize how important it is to learn more about seagrasses and to study this recent invasion. For one thing, seagrasses are uniquely positioned to absorb carbon dioxide, counteracting rising ocean acidity, and scrubbing it from the atmosphere, where it is a major cause of climate change. Seagrasses also provide a vital nursery and feeding ground for juveniles of local species such as sea turtles, grouper, snapper, conch and lobster. 

Is it possible that the new seagrass will be consumed by herbivores that rely on native species – or will those herbivores leave to find another food source? Can native seagrass outcompete the new species, or will these species be lost, along with the specific benefits they provide the Caribbean ecosystem? Answering these questions requires careful monitoring of how H. stipulacea grows and changes shoreline habitats.

Turtle grass ( Thalassia testudinum ), seen here, is the preferred food source for the juvenile sea turtles found in the USVI. Photo: Joe Townsend

Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), seen here, is the preferred food source for the juvenile sea turtles found in the USVI.
Photo: Joe Townsend

Kyle scuba dives to takes close-up pictures of his subject. Photo: Joe Townsend

Kyle scuba dives to takes close-up pictures of his subject.
Photo: Joe Townsend

 

Before the 2017 hurricanes Irma and Maria, researchers had observed the invasive seagrass already starting to settle across St. Thomas’s Brewers Bay, but these non-native grasses were found largely in areas without existing seagrass beds (it can be difficult for the established turtle grass to be replaced by an incoming species). When the hurricanes cleared away most of the seagrasses regardless of species however, they potentially laid the groundwork for the invasive species to take over.

After the devastation of two back-to-back hurricanes, Kyle observed that the invasive grass was indeed the first to return, preceding native species like the turtle grass and manatee grass.

For example, areas where manatee grass would normally begin to repopulate immediately after a major storm, H. stipulacea has already taken hold due to its natural ability to grow very quickly from even the smallest fragment. One can only imagine how many pieces were broken and distributed during the storms.

Hence the importance of Kyle’s thesis topic – it lies at the crossroads of two extremely complex fields of study: invasive ecology and disturbance ecology. Both have been studied intensively and documented in in the ecology literature. But an understanding of how these processes actually intersect with each other is limited. 

As part of his research, Kyle combines principles and ideas from these two fields to generate a unique understanding of what happens in a seagrass community that is facing invasion after a major hurricane, or any other major disturbance.

Some of the constant and reoccurring questions that arise when studying an invasive species must and will be considered by Kyle and others as this emerging field of study grows are:  

  • do we let nature run its course?

  • do we let the natural controls and defenses decide which is dominant leaving native grasses to fend for themselves? or

  • since humans are usually the culprits one way or another in introducing these invaders, should the humans intervene and try to level the playing field?

Kyle and fellow MMES student Dan Mele examine an arrowhead crab off the western shore of St. Thomas, VI. Photo: Joe Townsend

Kyle and fellow MMES student Dan Mele examine an arrowhead crab off the western shore of St. Thomas, VI.
Photo: Joe Townsend

FIELD RESEARCH is abundant AT UVI

Kyle is preparing to earn his master’s degree and begin the next phase of his career development as he ponders these and other questions. Growing up in his beloved Virgin Islands has allowed him to spend much of his life in direct contact with his favorite subjects. 

With the sparkling turquoise water lapping at the perimeter of its campus, UVI is uniquely positioned to allow all students direct contact with their subjects. It is not uncommon for students elsewhere to devote their research to a subject they have never observed alive or in the wild. For anyone studying in UVI’s MMES program, the proximity to the sea makes a student’s experience come alive. 

A Bridge to a ph.d.

Last summer Kyle and four members of his graduate student cohort participated in the SEAS Your Tomorrow: Bridge to Ph.D Program.  This program, a partnership between the University of the Virgin Islands and Pennsylvania State University, provides funding for minority students to spend a summer of study under Penn State faculty. 

With extensive field research under his belt, Kyle wants to expand his horizons to develop skills and questions that can only be solved with advanced molecular techniques. The Bridge to PhD. Program illustrated for him what it will be like to work on an advanced degree at a major research institution like Pennsylvania State University.

A lot of the questions we ask in the field is ‘if’ something happens. Using molecular techniques, we can add the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions to our field observations.
— Kyle Jerris

Now an experienced scientific diver and effective field researcher, Kyle is using his expertise to address current and pressing scientific questions about the world around him – a long way from cleaning tanks and carrying buckets in only a few short years.

VI-EPSCoR investments in marine and environmental science at UVI has helped create this opportunity for Virgin Islanders like Kyle.