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Alayna Mackiewicz stands in front of the water with a sailboat in the background.
Alayna Mackiewicz

Alayna Mackiewicz, a Ph.D. student in the department of biology in UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences, is the 2021 recipient of The Gordon W. and Janice L. Plumblee Summer Research Fellowship, which allowed her to travel to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to conduct research at a renowned research lab in biological sciences.

The Summer Research Fellowship, supported by generous donors and by The Graduate School, funded her travel and her research in sensory biology to learn more about how some marine animals use earth’s magnetic field for navigation and migration. As Mackiewicz explained, humans use five senses, such as smell and taste. But some marine animals, such as sea turtles and fish, have additional senses, including a magnetic sense—known in the scientific community for several decades.

“The field has made some progress, but we still don’t know for certain how animals do it, and there is still a lot to learn,” she said. “If we can learn how animals are using earth’s magnetic field to figure out where they are in the world — there are huge implications for navigation.” Mackiewicz said better understanding the earth’s magnetic field and how marine animals use their magnetic sense could have real-world applications, including at the Department of Defense and helping marine animal conservation efforts.

“A lot of people are interested in it in terms of an additional way of navigation,” Mackiewicz said. “It has implications for non-GPS satellite ways to navigate.”

At the Marine Biological Laboratory, Mackiewicz is working alongside scientists to explore the neurobiology of the magnetic sense. Specifically, the research team is using the oyster toadfish to learn more about where in the brain detection and processing of magnetic information occurs.

Mackiewicz, from Minnesota, said spending time outdoors, including at Lake Superior as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, influenced her decision to pursue marine biology. At Carolina, Mackiewicz said the research conducted in the Lohmann Lab drew her to the program and that the Summer Research Fellowship allows for hands-on training that she can bring back to the lab.

“I knew how great the program was, and when I was applying for graduate schools, it was on my radar,” she said. “The fellowship allows me the freedom to pursue and make progress in my dissertation research and alleviate financial stress.”

The Summer Research Fellowships provide summer support to doctoral students so they may focus exclusively on their dissertation research.

By Elizabeth Poindexter, The Graduate School

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