New device to help FGCU better study red tide, blue-green algae

A tool with a memorable name is helping us understand our water quality in Southwest Florida.

The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University has a new friend in the fight against harmful algal blooms in our backyard: It’s a robot nicknamed Sylvia that’s monitoring what’s in our water.

Think of it as an underwater surveillance camera, or a camera that you can dip in the water to get a better look. It can collect water samples while telling us what’s in them.

“We decided to name her Sylvia after Dr. Sylvia Earle,” explained Hannah Sims, a research graduate assistant at The Water School.

Earle was the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a renowned marine biologist.

FGCU’s Sylvia is one of the university’s latest tools to combat the water crisis.

“So Sylvia basically is a microscope camera,” said professor Mike Parsons, Ph.D., with The Water School. “Sylvia will be able to take water samples and look to see if there are harmful algae or other algae present. And then because of this library, it’ll be able to identify and count them.”

Through recognition software, Sylvia can look at organisms in water samples or eventually in open water and tell us what they are.

“So knowing what’s in our water will help us detect blooms sooner,” Sims said.

That could include Karenia brevis, which is the algae species that causes red tide, or blue-green algae in freshwater.

Before Sylvia can be used, FGCU researchers must create a detailed library of images so the device is able to identify what’s in a given water sample.

While Sylvia is on land now, the goal is to have the device work underwater and identify potential algae in real-time.

“That compares to if we go out on a boat, collect a water sample, bring it back here, get it on a microscope, do all the counts, report the data, and that takes a lot more time,” Parson said. “So Sylvia would really be speeding up the process.”

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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