Q&A: Kelli Hunsucker Stands For … Collaboration

Among Scientists, Engineers and the Entire Space Coast Community

This Q&A is part of a series highlighting Florida Tech faculty, their research and their impact, which takes root on the Space Coast and extends around the globe. For it is not coincidence that brings our stellar faculty members to Florida Tech. It’s passion. Be it landing on Mars or restoring lagoon health, curing illness or protecting personal information, their passions shape our community and create powerful connections among the university, local industries and the world beyond. Faculty research isn’t just part of the job; it’s what they believe in—what they stand for. Exploration. Innovation. Progress. Research for the benefit of all humankind.

Dr. Kelli Hunsucker ’07 M.S., ’13 Ph.D., breaks down her research into three components: preventing plant and animal growth on certain underwater surfaces (biofouling), promoting it on others (ecological engineering) and getting the community involved in and excited about marine science and engineering (outreach).

An ocean engineering and marine sciences assistant professor, Dr. Hunsucker spends a lot of time in the Indian River Lagoon, attempting to answer the question locals have been pondering for years now: How can we fix it? Her approach is a mixture of science and engineering—a combination that in the academic sphere, she has found to be both rare and extremely valuable. But carryover between her personal projects alone proves that when it comes to tangible solutions, the key is collaboration—not just between scientists and engineers, but also among legislators, policymakers, residents, youth and the Space Coast community as a whole.

Kelli Hunsucker ’07 M.S., ’13 Ph.D., assistant professor, ocean engineering and marine sciences
Kelli Hunsucker ’07 M.S., ’13 Ph.D., assistant professor, ocean engineering and marine sciences

You have multiple research focuses, correct?

Yes. I pretty much break my research interests into three main focus areas: biofouling, ecological engineering and outreach. 

Great! Let’s start by discussing your work with biofouling.

We—Dr. Geoff Swain, myself and our research team—conduct biofouling research with the U.S. Navy to prevent plants and animals from settling on man-made surfaces, like ship hulls, oceanographic instrumentation, submarines and water intake pipes. 

Probably the most common method for biofouling prevention is the paint that you put on the bottom of a ship or a structure to prevent the growth or hinder it in some way. We test commercially available paints as well as novel formulations that are being developed to be more environmentally friendly. 

We also have a grant to look at the application of ultraviolet light—simply treating an underwater surface with a UVC (ultraviolet-C) lamp to prevent things from growing, or killing off things that are already there. UVC is used a lot in the medical field because it’s germicidal. And now, there’s a lot of interest in disinfecting surfaces because of COVID-19. But in the marine sector, it’s a relatively new concept, and one that there’s still a lot of questions about. 

We’re also working with colleagues to test and develop transparent coatings that you could put on a sensor or a camera, deploy it underwater and not have growth on it. 

Our test sites are local, but I would say the biofouling side of my research is where we’re known more on the national, international scale. 

Very interesting. OK, what about ecological engineering?

On the ecological engineering side, we’re looking at all the things that we’re trying to prevent from growing on the Navy ships—the barnacles and the oysters and the weeds—and we’re actually trying to get them to grow in other places. 

If you look at these plants and animals, they all have a greater purpose in the ecosystem. Some of them filter water, like the oysters and the mussels; some provide food for fish and crabs; some create microhabitats; and they have other ecosystem functions, as well. 

So, we have a couple of different projects that we’ve been working on locally. The first is our Living Docks project, which started in 2013 and involves the construction and deployment of oyster mats. 

Oyster mats are common for water restoration efforts, but typically, after people attach dead and dried oyster shells to the mats, the mats are deployed on the seafloor. In the case of the Indian River Lagoon, though, there’s a lot of fine-grained, organic, rich sediment called muck on the seafloor. So instead, we wrap the mats around dock pilings. 

By putting these oyster mats in the lagoon, we’re trying to promote the growth of oysters and a whole slew of other organisms that are also really important. Essentially, we’re just giving extra surface area to plants and animals to help them grow and do what they would do naturally, which is filter the water and provide other ecosystem benefits.

Dr. Hunsucker constructs oyster mats with youth summer camp students.

Another part of the Living Docks project is exploring how to replace the plastic mats, which are what most oyster restoration projects use, with metal mats—we use a mild steel.

But anytime you put something metal in the water, there’s a possibility that it could corrode. So, our process cathodically protects the steel at a faster-than-normal speed, and in doing so, starts a series of chemical reactions that changes the pH at the surface of the steel. When that happens, there are extra electrons available that combine with ions present in seawater, such as calcium and magnesium, and they precipitate out as calcium carbonate, which is what a lot of organisms use to build shelves, reefs and hard parts. 

The theory is, with all this chemistry that is happening, there are more electrons available for the things that need them to build their hard parts, like oysters and barnacles. So, we got a small grant from the Space Coast Office of Tourism to investigate this a little bit further. We have three sites, and the results are really promising that they promote the growth of oysters, I would say, at an equivalent rate or a higher rate than the plastic.

And the last component you mentioned was community outreach?

Yes, there are a few outreach components. For one, we have a weeklong summer camp that our department has been hosting for maybe 15 years. When I started working on it, marine and environmental science was a big focus. Then, a couple of years ago, Dr. Robert Weaver came on board. So now, there’s also an engineering focus, which has been nice because the activities blur the line between science and engineering. I think it’s good to get the students exposed to some aspects of both at a young age.

We also have the Lagoon Science Bus, which is a refurbished RV that has a self-contained laboratory with equipment for hands-on learning activities that we bring to local middle and high schools to conduct a series of modules with the students. That’s been a lot of fun, and we rely really heavily on our Florida Tech students to help run through the modules, which gives them great experience talking about science and helping develop different ways to showcase it through hands-on experiences.

And finally, we have the Indian River Lagoon Research Institute. Dr. Weaver and I do a lot of community-based outreach. We couldn’t do it last year because of COVID-19, but through the institute, we organize an annual conference on coastal water quality, From Science to Solutions. So again, it has the engineering twist. We know the science; we’ve studied the science. Now, what can we take from the science and develop an engineering solution to help improve our local coastal waters? That’s what the conference is about.

Why do you think the outreach component is so important?

It’s important on a couple different levels. I think it’s important that the community knows what we’re doing. Because myself, other researchers and our grad students are out in the field, and we might have more insight into some of the current problems, solutions and legislation. We can keep them informed on what matters. Also of significant importance is that people want to know how they can get involved—something besides just sitting in a meeting and hearing people talk. They want something hands-on to do, where they can see tangible results. So, they can join us in deploying the oyster mats and other projects.

Then, from a science and engineering perspective, engaging students at a young age is so important. The lagoon is in our backyard, and what people are doing is drastically impacting the health of the lagoon. So, just giving students that knowledge and that confidence that they know what’s going on and how they can impactfully make a difference matters. And hopefully, it will then excite them about science and engineering in general.

A group of people creating oyster mats
Dr. Hunsucker leads an oyster mat workshop for the Brevard County community.

Why is Florida Tech, or the Space Coast as a whole, the best place to conduct your research?

Brevard County is the largest county that borders the Indian River Lagoon. So, we have this huge footprint on the Indian River Lagoon. And I think when it comes to getting the lagoon back to where it was—or at least back to a healthy lagoon—you have to approach that goal from many different aspects: legislators, people on the policy side, people on the engineering side, people in science. And I think our projects are nice because they’re taking the science and the engineering, and they’re trying to come up with some kind of tangible solution that can be implemented.

Our methods are simple, but they involve the community, and they give everyone who wants to be involved a way to do so. I can’t tell you how many emails I answer about science fair projects or community groups who want to help the lagoon. The people here care, and that will make a difference in getting our Indian River Lagoon back.

And something that separates Florida Tech from other universities and other research groups is the fact that we have scientists and engineers who collaborate. I think that is really unique. It’s nice to have that synergy, working toward the same goal and solution.

The people here care, and that will make a difference in getting our Indian River Lagoon back.

Kelli Hunsucker ’07 M.S., ’13 Ph.D., assistant professor, ocean engineering and marine sciences
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