Westhampton Beach Student's Seaweed Fertilizer Project 'SPARKs' Success

Jessica Curran earned fourth prize in the plant science category at Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair 2024

Jessica Curran at the TES beamline enlarge

Jessica Curran at the National Synchrotron Light Source II where she used the Tender Energy X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy beamline to study how a seaweed fertilizer affected seedling growth. (Kevin Coughlin/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Invasive red seaweed species that reach Long Island’s waterways all the way from the western Pacific Ocean threaten local ecosystems; they outcompete native species for habitats and have the potential to cause harmful algal blooms that are toxic to marine life. But what if these disruptive seaweeds could be repurposed in a way that benefits the environment?

That question drove research by Jessica Curran, a senior at Westhampton Beach High School who ultimately created a highly effective seaweed liquid fertilizer from red seaweed samples collected on local shorelines. She conducted her research as a participant in the Student Partnerships for Advanced Research and Knowledge (SPARK) program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory. The year-round program provides high school students and their science educators an opportunity to become visiting researchers at the Lab’s world-class scientific facilities. 

Realizing that the red seaweed was affecting my local community really made me realize I wanted to do something about it and see how I could potentially find a way to change that issue,” said Curran, who used advanced tools at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), a DOE Office of Science user facility at Brookhaven Lab, in her research.

Her project recently earned fourth place in the plant science category at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) 2024, the world’s largest pre-college STEM competition.

“Everybody’s projects were so cool that I could’ve seen anyone winning the competition, so the fact that I was among the top ones was really exciting,” Curran said.

Fertilizer findings

Curran collected samples of two types of invasive red seaweed known as Dasysiphonia japonica and Gracilaria sp. along the shores of the Peconic Bay and Shinnecock Bay. Both seaweeds are chock-full of nutrients and plant hormones that are essential for plant development.

She turned each seaweed species into a liquid fertilizer and tested them under different conditions for comparison against a control group of plants grown with no fertilizer at all and plants grown with a popular commercial chemical fertilizer.

Curran drenched the soil of okra plants with liquid fertilizer made from Dasysiphonia japonica and sprayed Gracilaria sp. liquid fertilizer directly onto okra leaves. She also observed how Gracilaria sp. seaweed fertilizer affected Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress, seedlings grown in agar cultures instead of soil.

To learn how seaweed fertilizer applied to Arabidopsis thaliana performed, Curran used the Tender Energy X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (TES) beamline at NSLS-II, where experts from all around world come to Brookhaven Lab to study materials at the light source's highly specialized experimental stations.

At the TES beamline, X-ray beams enable scientists to investigate the detailed structure of materials. Curran used the beamline to see how micronutrients were distributed in seedlings grown with seaweed liquid fertilizer compared to the control group and seedlings that took on chemical fertilizer.

“It was a really great experience because you don’t really hear of anybody having access to this sort of equipment, so the fact that I got to use it for my project was actually so rewarding,” Curran said. “I got to control the beamline to scan my samples. That was really cool.”

Ultimately, Curran found the seaweed fertilizer performed just as well as, or in some cases better than,  chemical fertilizer in terms of plant growth, nutrient uptake, and pigment concentrations in each plant type and fertilizer application used in her experiment.

Beyond the benefits for plant growth, Curran emphasized that seaweed liquid fertilizer offers a sustainable alternative that leads to less harmful effects than chemical fertilizer, all the while removing an invasive species from the local environment. Plus, it’s a free resource available right on local the shoreline.

“My research offers a multipurpose solution to solve large-scale environmental problems,” Curran said in a short video submitted to the Regeneron ISEF 2024 competition.

Curran shared her findings at the fair, which took place from May 11 to May 16. There, she found a shared enthusiasm for science among the competitors.

“I think that was probably the best week of my life,” Curran said, adding later, “It was such a genuine experience getting to talk to everybody about the same stuff that I’m passionate about and just having that shared connection. Everybody was like, ‘I can’t believe we made it here.’”

Curran’s science teacher and research mentor Dianna Gobler said she was proud to see a driven and bright student she’s known for a long time recognized for her effort.

“She’s not just a hard worker, she’s not just brilliant, she’s really likeable and everybody in the class adores her,” Gobler said. “She’s constantly helping people with homework. To see a student like her be successful in this incredible way is just very rewarding.”

SPARK program connections

Curran was first introduced to the capabilities available to researchers at NSLS-II as a participant in the SPARK program organized by Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs (OEP).

During SPARK, Curran collaborated on a project in which she and students from four other local schools identified contaminating microplastics using synchrotron infrared microspectroscopy at the light source.

“It really opened the door for me to do my seaweed fertilizer research there, too, at the TES beamline,” Curran said. “It was a great experience all around, and it really enhanced my research understanding for procedure methods and what to do.”

SPARK gives students a feel for what science research is like in the real world, said Gobler, Curran’s SPARK mentor.

“We're very thankful to Brookhaven Lab for having the SPARK program and allowing students to use the facilities for their research,” Gobler said. “It’s really just incredible for them to have this really authentic, hands-on research experience, and I’ve seen a number of my kids who have gone through the SPARK program then decide they want to do research science as a career.”

Curran is heading to Princeton University to study environmental engineering and said she’s interested in pursuing sustainable agriculture. She recently returned to Brookhaven on May 30 to share her research poster at the Open Space Stewardship Program Symposium, a chance for middle and high school student scientists across OEP environmental education and research programs to showcase their projects.

“SPARK provides students the opportunity to perform research alongside Brookhaven Lab scientists, with facilities and instrumentation that high school students would generally not have access to otherwise, even within most academic institutions,” said OEP’s SPARK Lead Sharon Pepenella. “We are thrilled that Jess and our other dedicated SPARK participants can elevate their research to the next level with this program.”

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit science.energy.gov.

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