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Blair Foundation funds scholarships, environmental research

Protecting environmentally sensitive and important mangroves, determining the impact of micro-plastics on area waters and game fish and helping to improve the health of aquarium fish during transport are just a few of the many research projects upon which Blair Foundation gifts have made an impact at Florida Gulf Coast University.

The foundation’s gifts this year have again made scholarships and grants possible to students majoring in Environmental Engineering, Environmental Science and Marine Science. These scholarships are awarded to first-generation students as well as those who qualify academically and demonstrate serious commitment to protecting the environment through their studies, research and volunteer service.

The Foundation is named for philanthropists and ardent conservationists Dorothy and John Blair, who became Naples residents in 1967. Today, family members serve as trustees of the foundation.

Red mangroves near FGCU’s Vester Field Station in Bonita Springs.

Since 2014, the Blair Foundation has provided funding for FGCU students to study environmental impacts on the Southwest Florida ecosystem and beyond. The foundation has donated $225,000. Matching funds from Florida’s First Generation program added another $165,000, making it possible to provide scholarships to more than 70 students.

“We like to do STEM and natural resources investment,” says Dick Reiman, a trustee of the foundation and the Blairs’ nephew. “The family thought if you have an education, no one can take that away from you. So we have invested in education with FGCU.”

Among this year’s scholarships, 10 were awarded to full-time undergraduate and master’s students who conducted summer research through FGCU’s Whitaker Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education.

Laura Frost, director of the Whitaker Center, said, “Part of the mission of the Whitaker Center is to support student research in STEM areas. Blair Foundation scholarships allow full-time focused summer research. This is significant for master’s students as there often are less available scholarships for their work.”

Blair Foundation grant funds also were allocated to FGCU’s Vester Marine and Environmental Field Station in Bonita Springs to support studies that address local environmental issues

Michael Parsons, director of the Vester Field Station, said, “The Blair Foundation funding has allowed us to expand our capacity for student research and further utilization of the Vester Field Station. These projects will use the Vester Field Station for their base of operations, and the resulting work will help our community to minimize impacts on the environment.

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Associate Professor of Marine Sciences David Fugate conducts a lab at Vester Field Station.

“One study will establish a long-term monitoring capability at several mangrove locations in Estero Bay.  This will allow researchers to determine how mangroves are responding to coastal development and sea level rise over the next 10-plus years. These results will provide valuable information that will help to safeguard these important ecosystems for our fisheries and coastlines.”

Other studies funded by Blair Foundation funds involve micro-plastics and nutrient recycling.

“Prevalent in apparel and many fabrics, micro-plastics appear to be getting past water treatment plants, entering directly into the watershed,” said Parsons, a professor of marine science who also serves as director of the Coastal Watershed Institute. “This study will determine if they represent a danger to game fish and filter-feeding shellfish. Ultimately we need to answer the question, how are we and our environment impacted by the micro-plastics in our everyday lives?”

Micro-plastics are often invisible to the naked eye and can enter the food chain via fish.

The Nutrient Recycling Study explores possible solutions to a problem experienced with the transport of aquarium fish when ammonia levels build up while fish are being transported, resulting in many deaths. By reducing ammonia levels, fish will remain healthier and more will survive transport.

The Nutrient Recycling Study explores possible solutions to a problem experienced with the transport of aquarium fish.

This study will increase survival rates of fish in transit, creating a positive economic impact on businesses and consumers, and will improve the sustainability of the aquarium fish trade — thereby protecting this resource for future generations.