Senior Project: Shanshan He Studies Sustainability in Mozambique

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For her Senior Project, Shanshan He ’16 is exploring four interconnected areas of sustainability—ecology, culture, economics, and politics—in Zavora, Mozambique. This past summer, she spent time in the African nation to experience the rich culture and customs of its people and to study the fragile ecosystems of the nudibranch, a soft-bodied marine mollusk. She will communicate what she learned by creating an interactive website that integrates visual arts and scientific and cultural research. She is also completing a series of oil paintings of the nudibranch.

Shanshan said she was inspired by the beauty and “grand diversity” of the nudibranch, which she first encountered on a Field Academy trip to the Solomon Islands last year. The mollusks are known for their vibrant colors, and one of the species Shanshan is taking a close look at is named the Spanish Dancer. Her paintings will capture the flowing movements and rich coloring of the Spanish Dancer and 11 other chosen species.

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To get to Mozambique, Shanshan applied to and was selected for a summer internship at a marine laboratory in Zavora, an area relatively unexplored in terms of nudibranch research. It’s the location of the “jewel of the ocean,” a pool where 33 new species of nudibranch were recently discovered.

“Due to civil wars and British and Portuguese colonialism over the years, marine research in Mozambique was basically nonexistent. The country is currently recovering, and this makes current studies critical,” Shanshan explained.

Shanshan described the experience in Mozambique as life-changing. “One of the lead marine scientists at the lab is a pioneer in nudibranch studies, and working side by side with her was an amazing opportunity. On my first day there, she identified a new nudibranch species, and it was special to be part of the discovery,” Shansan said.

To prepare for her trip, she earned an advanced SCUBA diving certification. Shanshan said exploring the fragile marine ecosystems was both magical and bittersweet. On one of her many research dives, she was even able to swim with a humpback whale. However, due to extreme poverty in Mozambique, the people turn to the sea for their livelihood, and they are harvesting the marine life, such as sharks and rays, at an alarming rate. Shanshan worries about the sustainability of the communities and environment.

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Shanshan’s website will present the interconnection between macro and micro aspects of sustainability. Her goal is to ensure that her audience learns about the nudibranch as well as how dramatic, beautiful, and fragile marine life is. “This species is so sensitive to the environment, and my project will highlight the health and condition of the ecosystem. I’ll lead people from a macro lens describing the sustainability of Zavora, to a visual experience of the nudibranch, then to the molecular world of the Spanish Dancer,” she explained. Shanshan is currently working with Innovation Lab Director Dr. Dave Morgan to abstract DNA from samples she collected in Mozambique, which will then be sent to a lab for sequencing. She said it’s possible that this her samples will identify a new species of nudibranch.

Shanshan said the people, culture, and ecosystems in Mozambique are fascinating, and she hopes to return one day for further explorations. “I named my project ‘And Still, They Dance,’ because it speaks to the resilience and sense of hope among the people as well as the fluid beauty of the nudibranch,” she said.