Postdoc Spotlight: Karuna Agarwal, Ph.D.

Postdoc Spotlight: Karuna Agarwal, Ph.D.

Florida Atlantic Postdoc Seeks to Better Quantify Harmful Algal Blooms

The green sludge that coats the surface of Florida’s waters can make people and animals sick. And its occurrence is increasing, according to Karuna Agarwal, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Florida Atlantic Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Exposure to this sludge — known as harmful algal blooms — either by eating contaminated seafood or drinking water, or breathing in the toxic air, has been linked to severe damage to liver, intestines, brain, heart, lungs, kidney and the reproductive system. HABs also harm the environment and economy.

Scientists and managers being able to see blooms coming ahead of time can help reduce health risks to people with warning systems and impacts to the ecosystem and fisheries, Agarwal said. To do that, quick and accurate detection methods are needed, she added. “Right now, we don't have good ways to quantify its abundance in the water.” So, she’s devising a method to better detect the individual cells of the Microcystis organism using a three-dimensional holographic imaging system. “It’s basically a 3D camera,” Agarwal said.

An autonomous in-situ version of the holographic system, developed at Florida Atlantic University and called the AUTOHOLO can record individual microcystis colonies. For her postdoctoral fellowship, Agarwal is developing an image-based method to count the individual cells within the irregularly shaped colonies. Knowing how many individual cells within a sample can help scientists understand how the colonies are organized and how they can rapidly progress into a giant bloom.

Additionally, Agarwal said she plans to make the image processing more robust and faster too, because right now, it is limited by speed. The goal is to have many instruments like AUTOHOLO deployed in the water once it can be done economically. That’s a lot of data being collected, which means “we need to have software that can process data quickly,” she said.

Prior to joining the Oceanographic Institute in September, Agarwal was a National Research Council research fellow at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center implementing machine learning techniques to data from acoustic surveys in the Gulf of Alaska. She earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, a bachelor’s in technology in mechanical engineering and master’s in technology in energy technology from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

Argawal said she has always been interested in how things work, which is why she studied engineering as an undergraduate. Her research throughout the years has covered a variety of fields, but what ties them all together is the ability to measure things in datasets without enough samples. “I like the ability to take measurements, especially in systems that are just so beautifully complex like the ocean,” she said. “These data will help scientists gain a broader understanding of marine environments.”

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