The Micro-layer & Algae Blooms

Morning sunrises and the micro-layer of Corpus Christi Bay.

Morning sunrises and the micro-layer of Corpus Christi Bay.

This summer I was lucky enough to get to work with Dr. Silliman, his graduate student Katie Dion, and his lab assistant Becka Krygowski on the Micro-layer project.

The research question Dr. Silliman came up with is:

Can the micro-layer be used as a predictor for algal blooms?

If Dr. Silliman’s hypothesis is proven to be correct it will have a huge impact on science and will benefit many people who live and work among coasts by predicting algal blooms before they arise. This could allow scientist to discover what causes algal blooms and how to stop them from occuring.

Now lets get into the details a little more specifically…


Lynette Solis



You might not know, but the micro-layer is the thin top layer of the ocean. This where many micro-organisms live but also many organic compounds can be found.

We are actually looking for organic compounds from land plants (long alkanes) and algae plants (short alkane). We do this by collecting samples of the micro-layer and determining the ratio between the two.

Dr. Silliman is currently trying to determine a baseline ratio to compare samples to.

If you do not live near a coast line, you and your students may not know the extreme effects algal blooms have on coastal towns. Here in Corpus Christi, Texas we have an algae bloom called the red tide. This algal bloom is harmful to marine life and also to humans. Predicting these blooms before they happen could allow us to try and eventually stop them from happening.

It is important for middle school students to understand that many things we do as humans can effect our oceans and overall our lives in general because we depend so heavily on the ocean. Giving them a better view on algae and the pros and cons of it can help them understand many different things about our world.



Methods & Procedures

During this summer research project we participated in two distinct parts of Dr. Silliman’s research project, collecting samples and extracting samples.

Collecting samples:

Here we have the directions we were given when we first began our summer research on how to collect samples.

Here we have the directions we were given when we first began our summer research on how to collect samples.


On Wednesday mornings we would wake up bright and early to go and collect samples at two distinct locations.


Every time we went out to collect samples we would have to collect three samples from each area we went to (because three is the lucky number).  We collected the samples using a glass plate, rope, funnels, vials, and a Teflon scraper.

We would have to first clean both the glass plate and Teflon scraper with De-ionized water and ethanol to rid them of any microorganisms that might be on them. We would have to also wipe them with Kim wipes to dry the plate and scraper. We would clean both the glass plate and Teflon scraper before and after we used them.

De-ionized water – is very pure water that lacks any mineral ions. Which means it is pure H2O.  Fun fact: DI water is not safe to drink. It can cause you to become severely dehydrated because it lacks the minerals we need as humans.

Ethanol– is alcohol. It was used because it is one of the least harmful chemicals we could have used over the sea water.

Kim wipes – disposable delicate wipes (like paper towels/tissues but without lint). They are used mainly in laboratories.

To collect the samples we would tie the glass plate to the rope and then lean over the dock and dip the glass place into the water just enough to cover it three times. While one person was doing this task the other person had a clean vial and funnel along with the scraper in their hands. When we pulled the glass plate out of the water the person with the vial would quickly move under the plate and collect the dripping water. They would then use the scraper to scrape the rest of the sample into the vial.  After we were done we would place the sample into an ice chest and repeat the cleaning and sampling process until we had three samples and then continued onto the next location and repeat.

The samples are placed in the ice to slow down the reproduction process of any microorganisms that might be reproducing in the vials.



Extracting Samples:

These are the lab notes/instructions we were given to do lab extractions of the water samples.

These are the lab notes/instructions we were given to do lab extractions of the water samples.

On Mondays and some Wednesdays we would do what is called extracting.

Which is when we take a water sample and use a chemical called Dichloromethane (DCM) and a Standard solution that was made by Katie to extract  the specific organic compounds we were looking for.  They are not water soluble so when they mix there is a visible line to where the chemicals and water separate.

We would place  the water sample, 5ml of DCM, and .03 ml of the standard into a separation funnel. We had to make sure to rinse the water sample vial three times with DCM also into the separation funnel as well to try and get any organic compounds that might be left in them. We then would place a stopper on top of the funnel and shake it for 2 minutes then place it back in the stand and let it sit for 2 minutes so that the liquids could separate. We then would dispense the bottom liquid which contains the DCM, Standard, and organic compounds into a new clean vial. We would do the same thing two more times to this sample only adding 5ml of DCM each time. After we were done the sample would then be placed back in the freezer until we had enough to send off to a lab for testing.

Dichloromethane (DCM) – is an organic compound that mixes with many organic compounds but not water. Fun fact: This chemical can also cause cancer. We were very nervous when we used it. We had to wear lab goggles, aprons, gloves, closed toe shoes, and used the chemical inside of a vent-a-hood.

Lisa is shaking the mixture of the sample, standard, and DCM. She is also wearing the proper attire and containing the sample inside the vent-a-hood.

Lisa is shaking the mixture of the sample, standard, and DCM. She is also wearing the proper attire and containing the sample inside the vent-a-hood.




There is no data currently collected for this project.

Due to the lack of proper equipment for the project, Dr. Silliman has not sent out any samples for testing yet. He is waiting to collect and extract enough samples to determine a baseline ratio between the plant alkanes and the algae alkanes.

From there he hopes to notice a trend of an increase in long alkanes when there is an algae bloom arising compared to the baseline ratio.

This project is expected to continue on for a few more years.

Dr. Silliman, the supervising scientist, will be collecting more data in the future.


Why is this research significant to becoming a teacher?

This research experience has helped change my perception of teaching science because it has given me an authentic experience of what it is like to be a scientist. Science is not about clean easy experiments that have perfect answers, it is messy and sometimes unexpected. During this experience I had to get sweaty and dirty to collect samples and learn to be diligent and precise in a laboratory. I believe that our students are lacking these types of experiences in the classroom. If we as teachers were given more opportunities to experience real science we could teach our students the beauty and true meaning behind it.


Participating in this research I learned many things about algae and what can cause them to bloom. A great science lesson I thought about would be to grow algae in tanks and see what types of materials cause algae to grow faster. This is similar to how run-off from rain effects the amount of algae that grows in our bay and also eutrophication. You can find a link to the 5E Lesson below.

Lesson Plan

Effects of Algae Blooms Lesson Plan

8th grade TEKS:

(11)  Organisms and environments. The student knows that interdependence occurs among living systems and the environment and that human activities can affect these systems. The student is expected to:

(B)  investigate how organisms and populations in an ecosystem depend on and may compete for biotic and abiotic factors such as quantity of light, water, range of temperatures, or soil composition;

(C)  explore how short- and long-term environmental changes affect organisms and traits in subsequent populations; and

(D)  recognize human dependence on ocean systems and explain how human activities such as runoff, artificial reefs, or use of resources have modified these systems.