ecology

When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in 2012, Bianca Reo Charbonneau— a biology doctoral candidate at Penn— was one of many looking for ways to help out the affected local communities.

Although she had originally planned on participating in the cleanup effort, Charbonneau ultimately decided to conduct research on coastal ecosystems that would allow shorefront communities to better prepare for the next inevitable hurricane. But what started out as a summer research project quickly snowballed into a master’s dissertation, and eventually, a full research project post graduation.

The overarching objective of her current research is studying how coastal dunes respond ecologically after storm events. In particular, Charbonneau is interested in the vital role that plants play in maintaining sand dunes.

“Coastal dunes are important for a number of reasons,” Charbonneau said. “From an ecological standpoint, they are a really important habitat … from a people community perspective, they buffer up land areas from high tide and storms.”

While various researchers have examined the importance of natural sand dunes in coastal communities, most have neglected the vital role that different species of plants play in building and stabilizing the dunes.

“She’s trying to understand the differences amongst species and their ability to stabilize dunes,” Brenda Casper, chair of the Biology Department, said. “People know that there needs to be a barrier between the sea and where they live, but they’re trying to construct [the sand dunes] artificially with no vegetation. Those sand dunes without plants can wash away.”

Casper and Charbonneau both mentioned that it is important that the sand dunes with vegetation remain in the coastal ecosystems because they are the natural ways to protect the shore.

Most recently, Charbonneau received a grant from the United States Army Corps of Engineers to build a wind tunnel that will be filled with various plant species to analyze how well different plants capture sand in the presence of strong wind. Charbonneau plans on spending the next year collecting more data.

“She has a tremendous amount of energy, and [is] very motivated. Always popping into my office about something she’s thought about measuring or some other device that she’s identified that will enable her to measure what she needs,” Casper said.

The beach has always been a place of fascination for Charbonneau.

“I’ve always been a beach person...it quickly became my favorite place in the world,” Charbonneau said. “When I could drive myself, [the beach] is pretty much where I spent all of my allowance...driving down to the shore and spending time there.”

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