Regan Williams, a rising junior at John T. Hoggard High School, recently brought home a $25,000 award at an international competition for outstanding scientific research for her work on preserving coastal habitats.
Months of hopping into the frigid waters at Topsail in waders and wetsuits, collecting thousands of seagrass samples, and extracting their genetic material in a lab paid off for Williams, who was just 15 when she conceived of the project and began her research.
Her work showed that tropical species of seagrass are creeping north into areas that used to be home to only temperate ones, a sign of climate change and a red flag to those working to protect coastal areas.
“This part of North Carolina is one of the few places in the world where you can do this research, so what you find here can be implemented in other areas of the world to protect seagrass meadows,” Williams explained, “which is very cool.”
Seagrass meadows are a critical habitat for everything from snails to sea turtles to manatees. In Southeastern North Carolina the vast underwater ecosystems can stretch for miles, their fluttering leaves taking energy out of approaching storm surges to reduce coastal flooding. The meadows also absorb carbon dioxide from warming ocean waters and their roots anchor underwater sand to guard against erosion.
But all of this takes place under the surface — and under the radar of most people who live near the coast, Williams said.
About 40 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas, and they’re going to be increasingly impacted by coastal flooding and climate change in the decades to come, Williams said.
“Seagrass meadows are these really complex systems, and if we can just protect them, we don’t have to put so much time and funding into these engineering-based projects like levees and dams,” she said.
At the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), where the top young scientists from 75 countries compete to showcase original research and inventions, Williams won the $25,000 Susie and Gideon Yu Award for Innovation in Sustainability.
The prize rewards a student who not only charted new scientific territory, but was also exceptional at communicating the research and its future implications.
That’s where Williams — whose spirited speech and energized gestures convey her passion for science — really shines, said UNCW assistant professor of biology Dr. Jessie Jarvis.
“Communication is an essential skill that not many scientists are good at. You have to get the technical information across without sounding like you’re a know-it-all or like you’re talking to a kindergartener. It’s a fine balance, and we actually teach an entire class on that at UNCW,” Jarvis said. “I think Regan could give that class.”
For months Williams joined Jarvis and her grad students on expeditions to seagrass meadows near Topsail Beach, where she sunk a core into the sometimes-ice cold marshes to collect specimens, and back to the lab at the UNCW Center for Marine Science, where Williams extracted and sequenced the plant’s DNA before mapping it out.
Data collected since the 1970s has shown this area becoming increasingly tropical, Williams said — but her work with seagrass DNA shows that genetic diversity is also decreasing, making species all the way up the food chain more vulnerable to hurricanes or disease.
“We’re not going to solve climate change probably within my lifetime, but we can get very specific and think, ‘Okay, we can plant seagrasses here, but we need to know how to make them resilient,’” Williams said. “A lot of poorer coastal nations like Bangladesh don’t have the money to create infrastructure that can temper some of the effects of climate change, so knowing we can have solutions to protect the seagrasses that are already in place can go so far to help people worldwide.”
The adaptability Williams prizes in her subject matter is a trait she has as a scientist, Jarvis said.
“Her strong work ethic is even more important than her natural abilities. A lot of what it takes to be successful in science is adapting when things don’t go the way you think,” Jarvis said, “because they hardly ever do.”
Williams, an accomplished cellist and multi-sport athlete who has been competing in science fairs since fourth grade, is already thinking ahead to next year’s ISEF, where she hopes to win “one of the really big prizes.”
As a high school junior she will be enrolled in computer science classes at UNCW, and she aims to meld the worlds of biology and predictive modeling to think about answers to pressing climate issues.
“Rather than just being the person collecting the data, I want to use that data to start thinking more deeply about what’s going to happen and then coming up with solutions to implement,” she said.
Sharing the meaning behind her work and getting people in and outside of the scientific community on board will always be her favorite part of science fairs, she said.
“I’m trying to convey as best I can that this is what I’m passionate about and I want everyone to hear about it, which is why winning this award was so special to me,” she said. “This is what I do.”