Biosystems Engineering Student Spearheads Biosphere 2 Project

April 15, 2020


Image of Team 19094 at the Biosphere 2 in January, 2020: Gabriel Prado, Abdullah Al-Battash, Edgar Gomez, Lia Crocker and Tru Quach.
Team 19094 at the Biosphere 2 in January, 2020: Gabriel Prado, Abdullah Al-Battash, Edgar Gomez, Lia Crocker and Tru Quach.

Project Title: Biosphere 2 Controlled Systems Monitors

Team 19094 Members:
Abdullah Al-Battashi, industrial engineering
Lia Crocker, biosystems engineering
Edgar Gomez, electrical and computer engineering
Clayton Matheson, electrical and computer engineering (not pictured)
Gabriel Prado, biosystems engineering
Tru Quach, electrical and computer engineering

Sponsor: Biosphere 2

Team Contributes to Climate-Resistant Coral Development

Biosystems engineering student Lia Crocker came to Tucson from Pittsburgh, PA because of Biosphere 2, the University of Arizona facility where scientists conduct large-scale experiments on seven model ecosystems.

“These contained ecosystems are the perfect place to do research on things like climate change, because if you want to do an experiment about how weather affects ecosystems in the actual rainforest, you’re putting the rainforest at risk,” she said.

After interning at Biosphere 2 in the summer of 2019, Crocker wanted to continue her involvement through a capstone project and asked her home department to sponsor it. Now, her team is developing a controlled monitor system for coral raceways, in which scientists are working to develop new species of the marine invertebrates.


Image of a coral reef raceway at Biosphere 2
A coral reef raceway at the Biosphere 2

“They’re trying to find a species of coral resistant to conditions caused by climate change, such as rising temperature and changing pH in the ocean,” Crocker said. “It’s important to have really accurate monitoring of what those conditions are.”

Though coral reefs cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, scientists estimate that up to one-quarter of all ocean species depend on the reefs for shelter. They also create billions of dollars in annual economic impact, providing food, tourism jobs and even medicines.

After taking a class where she learned how to use microcontrollers and monitor air quality in the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, Crocker realized she could set up a similar system at Biosphere 2, using a Raspberry Pi. Fortunately, the facility happened to have a couple of the computers on hand already.

The team found open source plans that use Raspberry Pis to monitor home coral reef tanks. Their goal is to scale up the designs for use on larger raceways in controlled environments.

“There’s a place in the Florida Keys where they have 40 of these raceways, with no monitoring system,” Crocker said. “If we built a unit that can be replicated and attach one to each of these systems, that’s important for coral research.”

Due to new social distancing guidelines in response to COVID-19, the team isn’t able to conduct their final acceptance tests at the facility. But they’re not letting that stop them.

“We are doing our best to complete the project with our personal tools and online collaboration,” Crocker said. “Since I am personally involved in this project, I will continue to work on whatever is not completed by the end of the semester.”

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