Undergraduate student's research on edible seaweed brings waves of opportunities

A female student stands at the back of a UNE boat while another female student pilots the boat
Hannah Korper (right) aboard a UNE research boat piloted by Emilly Schutt (M.S. Marine Sciences, ’22).

Hannah Korper jokes that she knows more about kelp than she ever thought she would.

The Class of 2022 marine biology student has spent her senior year working in the lab of Carrie Byron, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Programs at the University of New England, as part of a large-scale project to study the food safety aspects of various seaweeds.

Seaweed is considered a “raw agricultural commodity” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is therefore not well regulated. Korper’s research involves recording the temperature of Maine seaweed harvesters’ crops for food safety considerations.

The storage and duration of seaweed can impact the safety of edible seaweeds, Korper said, as warmer temperatures could potentially lead to higher pathogen replication and microbial growth.

With funding from a UNE Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) grant and the Aquaculture Research Institute at the University of Maine, Korper has been working with seaweed harvesters across the state to measure the temperature of their crops after they are harvested and before they are processed into consumable products. This past summer, Korper distributed temperature logging devices to harvesters — which record the temperature of the seaweeds compared to the ambient air temperature — and trained harvesters on how to use the tools.

The ongoing project will collect data that will be useful in developing handling protocols for food safety, Korper said.

“Most seaweed is blanched after it’s harvested, and most microbes are killed before consumption so that food safety isn’t of much concern,” Korper said, explaining that fresh seaweed has a short shelf life and that, if it is to be stored any amount of time, it needs to first be processed in some way. “But we wanted to collected this data to see if there are best practices for seaweed harvesting and storage. The data we collect can help inform when temperatures might become a concern during the storage process.”

Growing up by the sea, the Killingworth, Connecticut, native knew she wanted to become involved in research as part of her undergraduate studies, but Korper did not know how far her research would take her.

“I had no idea where this project was going to go, but it’s been a very exciting opportunity,” she remarked. “Getting to meet with seaweed harvesters one-on-one was probably the coolest part, because they were so accommodating to me and showed me their business operations. It’s been amazing to see how my research is helping the industry and to learn from the industry professionals.”

As a result of her work, Korper has been invited to sit in on meetings of the Maine Seaweed Council, a group of seaweed harvesters, researchers, processors, business owners, and associates that strives to protect Maine’s marine algae ecosystems; develops and adheres to sustainable cultivation and harvest practices; promotes the use of Maine seaweeds; and educates the public, regulators, and elected officials about the industry.

Many of the council’s members are the harvesters with whom she works, Korper said. At the council’s meetings, Korper and several graduate students working in Byron’s lab provide updates to the council on their research and gain valuable feedback from council members on how to improve their work.

“It’s been really valuable to sit in on the Maine Seaweed Council meetings because I get to hear from people who are experts in this industry,” Korper remarked. “It’s such a unique thing for an undergraduate student to do.”

Byron remarked that Korper’s work is vital to Maine’s growing seaweed industry as it was requested by the seaweed harvesters themselves who want the data to inform best practices for seaweed handling.

“Hannah has been instrumental in advancing this research — research that was requested by seaweed harvesters — because there are a wide range of harvested species, techniques, and handling practices across the industry,” Byron said. “It is important data to consider as the industry continues to grow in Maine.”

As for Korper, her research will continue, even after she graduates from UNE this May. In the meantime, she will be distributing more temperature loggers to seaweed harvesters and is already training other undergraduate students on how to keep the study going. She also hopes to present her research — pandemic disruptions pending — at the Northeast Aquaculture Conference and Exposition in Portland in April and is already in the process of applying for graduate studies.

“This project became a lot bigger than I ever expected, and it’s only really just getting started,” Korper reflected. “I’m very proud of the work I’ve done so far, and I can’t wait to see where this research takes me.”

A research boat floats at UNE's kelp farm in May 2021.
Kelp is harvested at a UNE site in May 2021.