Matt Ajemian, Ph.D., Receives Prestigious NSF Career Award

Florida Atlantic University’s Matt Ajemian, Ph.D., has received the coveted National Science Foundation (NSF) Early CAREER award through the Biological Oceanography Program. The CAREER program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Ajemian, an assistant research professor and director of The Fish Ecology and Conservation Lab at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute , studies how marine organisms interact with one another and their habitats. His experience includes studies of a variety of species from shellfish up to sharks and rays.

He received a $1,103,081 NSF CAREER grant for a project titled, “Breaking Ground with Underwater Sound – Unraveling Elusive Predator-prey Interactions in Marine Benthic Communities Using Novel Technological Approaches.” The project will build fundamental knowledge on where and when large shell-crushing predators feed in order to ensure a sustainable future for shellfish species. Further, the work can provide guidance to shellfish restoration programs that are currently “flying blind” with respect to predation risk.

Shellfish such as mollusks and crustaceans are facing unprecedented pressures under global climate change, which is threatening the variety of ecosystem services these animals provide to coastal communities. While much research has been dedicated to understanding how changing ocean conditions can influence shellfish development, far less has explored the potential impacts from expanding populations of large, shell-crushing predators such as rays and turtles. This knowledge gap is due to the challenges of working with these mobile species, which require novel technology to track their foraging behaviors and subsequently their effects on shellfish communities.

“Our scientific understanding of the ecological role of large shell-crushing predators is limited due to challenges presented by the elusive nature of these species, which makes them incredibly difficult to track in their expansive marine environments,” said Ajemian. “Filling such knowledge gaps requires novel technological approaches such as acoustics, which can automatically detect and classify these otherwise unnoticed predator-prey interactions in the natural environment.”

Using multiple large predator models such as rays, sea turtles, fish and crabs, Ajemian’s team will make recordings of various predator feeding (shell-crushing) sounds and examine the resulting fragmentation patterns of the shells in controlled experiments at Mote Marine Laboratory. These experiments will create important acoustic libraries to help develop detection and classification alogrithms using machine-learning, creating a sort of “crunch-meter.” They will then distribute recording equipment across seascapes in Florida and Bermuda to study predation patterns and how these change over various environmental conditions such as habitat, tidal state, time of day, and season. Additionally, they will attempt to record these interactions using multi-sensor tags that can track predatory behaviors and record videos and sounds directly on the animal.

“This important NSF CAREER grant is a major advancement for Dr. Ajemian’s burgeoning career and for his numerous contributions in a critical field of research,” said James Sullivan, Ph.D., executive director, FAU Harbor Branch. “His innovative project will not only fill a large knowledge gap in the dynamics of marine food webs, but also will have local, regional and global educational dimensions that will strengthen FAU’s graduate programs and provide him with a platform to develop a new and exciting graduate course.”

In addition to graduate education, this NSF CAREER grant will support numerous undergraduate summer interns and middle-high school students who will be recruited to interact with Ajemian via immersive, hands-on field excursions. Importantly, the fascination of the general public and students with these charismatic animals and the project’s tangible technological components will facilitate developing an interactive “Audio Waves” exhibit at the Harbor Branch Ocean Discovery Visitor’s Center, which will be evaluated several times during the project and slated for permanent display.

Ajemian earned his Ph.D. in marine science at the University of South Alabama and Dauphin Island Sea Lab in 2011, and spent four years as a postdoctoral and research scientist with the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Over the course of his career, Ajemian has developed expertise in ichthyology, ecology, and fisheries science and has covered topics such as foraging ecology, habitat use, movement behavior, fisheries impacts, and bycatch. He will be working on this five-year project with strategic collaborators from Mote Marine Laboratory (Kim Bassos-Hull, M.S.) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (T. Aran Mooney, Ph.D.).