The tat­toos on Ashley Cryan’s ankles depict a chicken and a pig. Since the days of Cap­tain Cook, sailors have donned the ani­mals’ like­nesses to help them walk on water and guard against drowning. According to folk­lore, the animals—which sur­vived ship­wrecks more often than humans—had a spe­cial power that pro­tected them from suc­cumbing to the sea.

Cryan, whose grand­fa­ther taught her to sail when she was 11, got her tat­toos after sur­viving a ship­wreck. She said they sym­bolize strength and sur­vival, two qual­i­ties that the recent envi­ron­mental studies grad­uate is also inter­ested in from a research perspective.

Cryan won the 2013 Research, Inno­va­tion, and Schol­ar­ship Expo’s award in phys­ical and life sci­ences for her work exam­ining the impact of cli­mate change on the inci­dence and severity of a toxic species of algae called Alexan­drium fundyense. According to Cryan, the red tides—as the blooms are com­monly known—have been a growing con­cern since the 1970s when a mas­sive bloom shut down shell­fish­eries along the Gulf of Maine’s coast­line for more than a month during the peak of har­vesting season.

Alexan­drium nat­u­rally pro­duces one of the most potent neu­ro­toxins on the planet: sax­i­toxin. As this com­pound accu­mu­lates in the bodies of shell­fish that con­sume the algae, the con­cen­tra­tion of the toxin ren­ders them unsafe for human con­sump­tion. There is no cure for par­a­lytic shell­fish poisoning—the life-​​threatening syn­drome caused by inges­tion of these con­t­a­m­i­nated shellfish—and so shell­fish beds must be closed for the dura­tion of the bloom. This puts an enor­mous finan­cial burden on fishers whose liveli­hoods  depend on oys­ters, clams, and mus­sels. If a con­t­a­m­i­nated shell­fish makes it to a human’s dinner plate, Cryan said, Alexan­drium becomes a major public health concern.

Cryan first learned of Alexan­drium on co-​​op at Woods Hole Oceano­graphic Insti­tu­tion in Mass­a­chu­setts. “My super­visor was working on devel­oping a way to sup­press blooms by burying the cyst form of the organism in the sed­i­ment so it wouldn’t ger­mi­nate,” she said.

On the WHOI annual cruise, Cryan mea­sured cyst quan­tity in the Gulf of Maine’s sed­i­ment bed. Changes in ocean tem­per­a­ture, average pH level, and carbon con­tent and spe­ci­a­tion, she explained, indi­cate that Alexandrium’s growth and sur­vival may also be changing.

For her RISE research, Cryan exam­ined the entire body of lit­er­a­ture on the topic, looking for exam­ples of how these kinds of changes affect the organism. “The focus of many recent studies of the dynamics of the Alexan­drium pop­u­la­tion is on finding ways to pre­vent, con­trol, or mit­i­gate blooms,” said Cryan. “We need to look at applying this knowl­edge to blooms in the con­text of cli­mate change in the future.”

Cryan plans on spending the summer researching toxic algae with WHOI and then set­ting sail for Cal­i­fornia, where she hopes to con­tinue her research on the impact of cli­mate change on marine ecosystems.