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Brooklyn College in the Know: Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center

The AREAC’s collection of tanks. PHOTO/ Sandy Mui
The AREAC’s collection of tanks. PHOTO/ Sandy Mui

By Sandy Mui

Published: March 21st, 2018

Tucked in the corner of the first floor of New Ingersoll is a set of red double-doors. The room plaque on the right door reads: “Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (Saltwater Research Laboratory).”

The Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (AREAC), located at 100 New Ingersoll, is described on Brooklyn College’s website as “a 15,000-square-foot facility dedicated to basic and applied studies of aquatic organisms and the environments they inhabit.” Inside the facility lies an analytical chemistry lab — which looks like a typical chemistry lab familiar to many chemistry students — and a collection of tanks, each filled with a different marine animal. Faculty use the facility to conduct research on these organisms, and students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels have many research opportunities at their disposal.

The AREAC has many different marine animals on display. PHOTO/ Sandy Mui
The AREAC has many different marine animals on display. PHOTO/ Sandy Mui

However, while AREAC has been around for about 20 years and presents a unique opportunity for students to do research on live animals, not many people on the BC campus even know of its existence.

Dr. Brett Branco, the associate director of AREAC, called AREAC one of the college’s “best kept secrets,” though he’d prefer it not be that way. “It’s sort of hidden away behind the doors,” he said.

“It’s a big door that people just walk by,” Wajeh Masud, a senior at BC majoring in biology, added. Masud is studying the Nautilus pompilius — an endangered species that is a relative of an octopus and a squid — in AREAC. “People get curious what’s behind it, but…it’s not very open to people. Very few professors even take their classes there for a tour or anything.”

AREAC was started by Martin Schreibman, a former distinguished professor in the biology department at BC. Schreibman has since retired, and Dr. John Marra replaced him as director in the fall of 2007. Marra cited “establishing Brooklyn College as a center for environmental science” as one of his chief accomplishments as director, but he pointed out that AREAC “was already well on its way” when he came to BC.

Seven faculty members from three different departments (psychology, biology and earth and environmental sciences) are involved with AREAC. Despite the little knowledge about AREAC on campus, “the faculty are well-known in their respective fields,” Marra said.

Marra hopes AREAC’s renovations in the next year — close to $3 million granted from the state — will encourage more students to pursue research at AREAC. Included in the renovations is the analytical lab — which Marra currently describes as “a mess” — and the goal for more biological and behavioral studies to be done.

“One of the big researches in aquaculture these days is growing larvae — growing them in the egg,” said Marra. “That’s where the research is at the moment anyway, so that’s what we’re trying to do for the renovations.”

AREAC focuses on three areas: environmental assessment, the behavior and biology of aquatic organisms, and biotechnology. According to Marra, the most popular area among faculty research is the behavior and biology of aquatic organisms, while the biggest research areas among student’s center around sustainability and environmental issues.

While many students who do research at AREAC have science backgrounds, AREAC is not limited to only those students. “You can have people not even be interested in biology work there,” Masud said. “It gives you an opportunity to look at animals. It gives you an opportunity to observe them, to learn a bit about them, so if that piques your interest, go for it. If you’re generally curious, you could help out — go for it.”

Discussing his own research, Masud recognized how fortunate he is to be able to study the Nautilus. “There’s only a few labs in the whole world that can do research on all this,” he said. “Very little is known about them, so you have an opportunity to do something unique.”

Chaya Fastow, a senior majoring in biology and studying the Nautilus alongside Masud, elaborated on the research opportunities made possible by AREAC. “You’re not limited to just animals that are in your area,” she said. “You actually have a lab base and that you have animals that you can work with…you don’t have to go to the Bahamas or its native environment to do that research.”

The word “unique” is also echoed by Branco when describing AREAC.

“The AREAC facility is unique within CUNY because no one else in CUNY has a facility that you can maintain live aquatic animals for various types of research,” said Branco. “That’s what makes AREAC such a special place.”

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