Student Spotlight: Sydney Williams

Sydney Williams

PhD Candidate, Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, UF

Before diving into a graduate program at UF, Sydney worked with The Nature Conservancy and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources – major stakeholders in her home state that partner to develop coastal management strategies. These post-bachelor experiences provided insight into the southeast’s cultural and historical relationship with mussels, oysters, and clams and the existing knowledge gaps in bivalve research, setting the stage for her graduate research and inspiring Sydney’s focal research topic: the Atlantic ribbed mussel and the water quality services they provide. As benthic suspension-feeders, mussels depend on an influx of water-borne materials, primarily phytoplankton, that enter salt marshes during high tide for their survival and growth, and act as intermediaries in coastal nutrient cycling within salt marshes. Through their suspension-feeding, mussels and other bivalves can serve as nitrogen conduits, filtering excess nutrients, in the form of plankton, from the water column. Her research strives to further our understanding of how these organisms affect and are affected by water quality, especially in nutrient-impaired systems.

“There is exciting potential for coastal communities to leverage the bivalves in their backyard to mitigate the consequences of cultural eutrophication, like severe hypoxia or harmful algal blooms, and to support nature-based alternatives to traditional stormwater treatment practices. I hope that the outcomes of my research will inform policy initiatives related to bivalve aquaculture and restoration and inspire people whose livelihoods are reliant on their surrounding coastal ecosystem.”

Now a second-year PhD student with Dr. Christine Angelini, Sydney has two field seasons under her belt and multiple projects underway. With her sample analyses wrapping up this Spring, she plans to publish the results of her initial projects this year. Check out the Angelini Lab website to learn more about the lab’s other students and their important work conducted throughout the Georgia and Florida coasts and beyond.  

Looking ahead, Sydney has secured external support to continue pursuing her research goals with the Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship, a program that provides funding to graduate students to conduct estuarine research within one of the 29 reserves in the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) System. Fellows address a key coastal management question to help scientists and communities understand coastal challenges that may influence future policy and management strategies and develop a meaningful cross-discipline research project in conjunction with scientists, community leaders, and other organizations. Sydney has been collaborating with the Sapelo Island NERR since August 2020 and will begin implementing her proposed field experiments this summer.

After her time at UF, Sydney envisions a career that builds off her current research, working with coastal partners to strengthen our scientific understanding of suspension-feeders and water quality and to inform community programs and policy initiatives in the southeast.