Skip to main content
A sign outside the Galapagos Science Center with the center's name, "USFQ," and "UNC-Chapel Hill" written on it.
The three 2023-2024 Seed Grant recipients will conduct research in the Galapagos this summer with the support of the Galapagos Science Center’s facility and team.

The Center for Galapagos Studies has awarded three new Seed Grants to UNC-Chapel Hill researchers from the Gillings School of Public Health, the Carolina Population Center, and the College of Arts and Sciences to launch new projects in the Galapagos this summer. 

These Seed Grants enable UNC faculty to engage in new research or further existing research projects and foster UNC’s relationship with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito through their joint Galapagos Science Center facility. Previous seed grant recipients have gone on to earn up to $2.5 million through external grants from organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). These Seed Grants are made possible through the generosity of donors and the Office of Research Development at UNC; in fact, one of this year’s seed grant recipients was funded by a new private donor. 

The 2023-2024 recipients of Center for Galapagos Studies Seed Grants are as follows: 

Heather Wasser, assistant professor in the department of nutrition, Gillings School of Public Health: “Reducing the dual burden of child malnutrition through double-duty actions”

Wasser, who is a registered dietitian and former International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, researches behavioral interventions that can improve infant feeding practices, dietary intake, growth, and child development at Gillings. 

This summer, Wasser’s research in the Galapagos will focus on the issue of the dual burden of malnutrition (DBM), which is the simultaneous occurrence of undernutrition, which can cause stunting and micronutrient deficiency, and overnutrition, which can lead to diet-related non-communicable diseases.

A group of faculty from USFQ and UNC, including Heather Wasser (third from the left) standing between large white buildings on USFQ's campus.
Heather Wasser (third from the left) with CGS interim director Amanda Thompson (second from the left) and USFQ faculty during a visit to USFQ in Quito, Ecuador.

Previous research on this topic, including that done by the Center for Galapagos Studies’ interim director Amanda Thompson and colleagues, indicates that DBM is a significant issue in both the Galapagos and mainland Ecuador. It also suggests that diet modification, which seems like the most obvious answer to malnutrition, is not the only important piece of addressing the issue. Instead, data suggests that an effective intervention involves improving families’ diets and water and food safety as well as increasing sensitive parenting. Thus, Wasser’s research goal is to collect data that will inform the design of a multi-faceted intervention plan, focusing on these components, to address DBM in children in the Galapagos. 

Her research will follow a two-pronged approach. First, Wasser will have several mothers try out a program of sensitive parenting and diet improvement, and then will interview them after one week to discuss the results as well as the ease of adopting these new guidelines.

She will also conduct a series of interviews. The first set of interviews, which she will supplement with home observation, will target several pregnant women and mothers to learn about their infant feeding practices, including their use of breast milk and/or substitutes as well as complementary foods. Wasser will also interview a mix of local government officials, healthcare workers, church leaders, parents, and grandparents about different potential methods of implementing the goal intervention plan, including strategies for engagement and potential delivery channels. 

Wasser will collaborate with UNC and USFQ researchers to finalize her protocol. Ultimately, she plans to apply for expanded funding from the National Institutes of Health once she has a pilot-ready intervention plan at the end of this summer. 

“I’m excited to work alongside my UNC and USFQ colleagues to conduct this formative research,” Wasser said. “We’re simply building upon the excellent work they have published. Now we all get to work together with local women and community members to start building a comprehensive behavior change program that fits the unique needs of Galapagos families.”

Janet Nye, associate professor in the department of Earth, marine, and environmental sciences and the Institute of Marine Sciences: “Trophic control of fisheries production in the Galapagos and beyond”

Nye brings a professional background in climate science and oceanography to her work in the Galapagos. Her research has so far focused on the east coast of the United States, but she plans to expand her scope to study tropical ecosystems as well, beginning with this project in Galapagos. 

Nye’s goal for this research is to develop and refine mass balance food web models, which depict the flow of energy through an ecosystem, in order to understand the relationship between the ecosystem’s oceanography, the species living in the habitat, and its upper trophic level production. The upper trophic levels of marine ecosystems generally include large fish, sharks, and whales. Global climate projections suggest a drastic decline of fish populations in some ecosystems.

Janet Nye and a student observe two large tubs filled with small fish, inside a lab.
Janet Nye assists one of her student researchers with an experiment to understand the temperature preferences and tolerances of different fishes.

The Galapagos is an ideal location for Nye to study this issue because it’s situated between different water sources that allow gradients of temperature, nutrients, and other factors that oceanographers can measure to determine the impact of changing climates on upper trophic level production. Nye will build off of existing mass balance food web models for several regions of the Galapagos this summer. 

Her current hypothesis is that warming and trophic amplification, a process that exacerbates changes in biomass across trophic levels, will reduce upper trophic level production and fisheries catches across a diverse set of marine ecosystems. In other words, ocean warming from climate change will decrease the fish population in a variety of ecosystems, which, among other issues, decreases local fisheries’ production and can harm local economies and populations. 

The work Nye is conducting in the Galapagos will allow her to both inform regulations and management of local fisheries to support the economy – in which fishing plays a significant role both on its own and as a necessary piece of the ecotourism that forms much of the Galapagos’ economic foundation – and apply the results more broadly to understand the consequences of climate change on marine ecosystems and their trophic levels. 

In order to understand what controls fish production, Nye will study food webs across different regions that share similarities in their marine species but have different oceanographic and biogeochemical properties, such as temperature and the role of plankton in maintaining the ecosystem. These differences will allow Nye to track the effects of these changes in oceanographic and biogeochemical properties on upper-level trophic production. She will focus on the Central and Southeastern region of the islands, which contains two of Galapagos’ main fishing ports. 

“As a biologist, to visit the Galapagos is a dream come true,” Nye said. “It feels like I have trained my whole career to have the opportunity to do research that helps protect such a unique ecosystem upon which so many depend. I’m excited to learn where my research in fisheries oceanography can be most useful!”

Alfredo Rojas, postdoctoral trainee at the Carolina Population Center: “Exploring the Relationships Between Diet Quality, Farm Access, and Anemia in Galapagos”

In his postdoctoral research, Rojas studies the relationship between climate change and health; in particular, he focuses on how climate anomalies impact the presence and severity of anemia in women aged 15-49. Anemia, a preventable illness which is often linked to iron deficiency, primarily impacts children, women of pregnancy age, and pregnant women. One promising strategy to reduce anemia caused by iron deficiency is to target reducing food insecurity and increasing food diversity and supplementation. 

Alfredo Rojas crouching over a pile of cashew apples, a small bucket next to him with cashew nuts.
Alfredo Rojas harvesting cashew nuts in Ivory Coast, West Africa.

Rojas chose Galapagos because of food insecurity issues present in the population. Previous research has found that many families in parts of Galapagos reported mild to moderate food insecurity issues, which may be improved by increasing food access and food diversity. Local farming may be one way to address these issues, but agricultural land is relatively limited in Galapagos, and other economic opportunities lead people to abandon rural land. This raises questions about the health of those who farm versus those who do not. 

Expanding on his research on anemia, Rojas will explore the relationship between dietary diversity, farm access, and anemia status by measuring hemoglobin levels, which are low in people with anemia. 

Three main research questions will direct Rojas this summer: What are the overall levels of hemoglobin among household members in the Galapagos? Is access to farmland and increased diet quality associated with higher levels of hemoglobin and lower levels of anemia? Does access to farmland improve diet quality? His current hypothesis is that increased food diversity and access to farmland improves nutrition status as it’s measured through hemoglobin levels. 

While in Galapagos, Rojas will conduct three weeks of surveys with a goal of interviewing 30 households. He will supplement the surveys by measuring each interviewee’s hemoglobin level and anemia status, ranging from none, mild, moderate, and severe anemia. 

Collaboration, both local and global, is at the heart of this project. Not only will Rojas actively collaborate with the Galapagos Science Center and UNC researchers, but he also emphasizes that he is building on other work being done to investigate the “complex cultural and health context of the Galapagos Islands,” including research by Wasser and one of last year’s Seed Grant recipients, Caela O’Connell. 

“I’m looking forward to starting this project because I love researching food systems and their role in human societies,” Rojas said. “Most of all, I am excited to meet new collaborators and learn from the local communities in Galapagos.”

All three researchers will take the first step in their projects this summer as they investigate issues of community health and marine ecosystem production in the Galapagos, thanks to the support of the Seed Grant program and the donations that make it possible. 

By Andy Little ‘24, Center for Galapagos Studies Student Worker

Comments are closed.