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Hofstra receives federal grant to study ways to protect beachgrass

The grant funds fieldwork and lab research on growing beachgrass, a first line of defense for coastal communities during storms.

Hofstra professor Javier Izquierdo, with students Joshua Pimentel,

Hofstra professor Javier Izquierdo, with students Joshua Pimentel, left, Chaz Scala and Arjun Kumar on Jan. 9, 2018. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Keep off the dunes — you could be disrupting science.

Hofstra University professor Javier Izquierdo and his students are studying the microorganisms that help — or impede — beachgrass survival in the dunes along Long Island’s South Shore. During major weather events, such as superstorm Sandy, beachgrass and the dunes they live on often provide the first line of defense for coastal communities.

Izquierdo received a $476,421 federal grant from the National Science Foundation in March to fund stipends for students’ summer research through 2020. Through fieldwork sampling and research in the lab and a greenhouse, they are studying which microorganisms, or microbes, can aid the growth of Ammophila breviligulata— known as American beachgrass — and help rebuild dunes naturally.

The goal, he said, is to determine if certain microbes can be introduced to struggling beachgrass plants, which anchor the fragile ecosystems found on dunes. If that’s the case, their research could save municipalities millions of dollars in dune replenishment costs.

“What are the microbes that help it be so successful?” Izquierdo said. “How do you figure out which organisms are good versus bad?”

Izquierdo began the project as a hobby in 2015 after noticing beachgrass growing on dunes in Tobay Beach when he moved to Long Island.

“We’re looking at baby dunes, dunes that are in the middle and dunes that have been there a long time,” he said.

His work grew and probably will continue to expand even after the grant runs out. He expects 12 students to be involved in the research before the National Science Foundation funding ends and plans to apply for more grants to continue.

“It’s a longterm project, easily decades,” he said. “We could do this until we get bored. And I don’t think we’ll ever get bored.”

Izquierdo said his team is currently working with several municipalities, including Oyster Bay and Babylon towns, Fire Island and Long Beach. They plan to share their findings and do educational outreach.

“We want to see this become useful,” he said.

Stepping on the dunes — despite posted signs — can disrupt the ecosystems. “I feel terrible when we go sampling,” he said.

One of Izquierdo’s current students, Hofstra senior Chaz Scala, 21, of Merrick, grew up along the water in Freeport.

“The work we do in this lab is personal to me as a Long Islander,” she said, noting that recent weather events such as superstorm Sandy have “made us realize that it’s important for the beachgrass to be healthy.”

Scala, as well as junior Joshua Pimentel, 20, of Deer Park; senior Arjun Kumar, 22, of Astoria, Queens; and senior Savannah Potter, 21, of New Jersey, are working with Izquierdo this year.

Pimentel said he points out the beachgrass during shore trips with his friends.

“Hey, look, there’s the American beachgrass,” he said. “I can’t unsee it anymore.”

Kumar said he has enjoyed doing research that can be applied to life on Long Island.

“I didn’t even realize how much of an impact the beachgrass has,” he said.

About the grant

The National Science Foundation awarded Hofstra University professor Javier Izquierdo a grant to study the American beachgrass and microorganisms that live on it. About the grant:

  • The beachgrass supports ecosystems on dunes, which act as the first line of defense for South Shore communities during major weather events.
  • The $476,421 federal grant runs through 2020 and funds summer stipends for student research.
  • Izquierdo and his students will continue to collect samples in Oyster Bay and Babylon towns, as well as Fire Island and Long Beach and potentially other locations.

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