As the Dean of Upstate’s College of Graduate Studies and a professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Mark Schmitt, PhD, divides his time among two offices and a research lab in Weiskotten Hall.
The most relaxing of those spaces is the fourth-floor office, which houses a 120-gallon salt-water reef fish tank. Schmitt inherited the massive tank five years ago from professor Richard Cross, PhD, who moved his office down the hall.
The tank is home to more than 30 kinds of live coral and seven colorful fish – a purple tang and a hippo tang (think Dory from Disney), a pair of clownfish (Nemo), a coral beauty, a royal gramma and a very shy Mandarin that is rarely seen.
Students and colleagues often stop by to check out the colorful array.
“Some people are surprised and stare at it,” Schmitt said. “Some people are almost intimidated by it, I don’t know why. It varies by person. Some students have their own reef tanks and we trade coral fragments. The coral grows and gets bigger, so you can break off fragments and pass them around to other people.”
The tank is an ecosystem all its own, with biochemical processes taking place thanks to the live coral, a UV sterilizer, protein skimmer, a sump filter, bioreactor and special lights. Plastic “bio beads” are a carbon source for the bacteria, which eat harmful impurities like phosphates and then are removed by the protein skimmer.
“There’s a lot of science involved in maintaining the whole reef tank, so being a scientist I find it to be very fascinating,” Schmitt said. “The bright green coral, that’s where a type of fluorescent protein comes from, and that’s used a lot in science.”
Schmitt feeds the fish three times a week, using a combination of flakes, frozen brine shrimp and seaweed. The fish, it seems, get along better than the coral.
“Corals, as they grow, have toxins that kill corals around them and keep expanding,” Schmitt said. “As some grow, depending on who’s the better fighter, they kill the coral next to them, so you have to sort of weed them back.”
In his youth Schmitt kept freshwater fish, including a big Oscar that was “almost like a pet – it would eat right out of your hand,” he said. “I’d almost be able to pet it if I’d wanted to.”
The saltwater fish are more wary and virtually impossible to catch, Schmitt said. He doesn’t add new ones often because of the risk of a new addition spreading disease.
Despite the reef tank’s high maintenance factor, Schmitt says it can be a relaxing distraction.
“It has a great calming effect when you’re working on a paper or a grant, and you need a five-minute break,” he said. “You can go feed the fish or look over and see what they’re doing. It’s enough of a distraction, and then you go back and do what you’ve got to get done.”
Elsewhere in the office Schmitt displays items from former students and post-docs, including wall art from Bangladesh, a statuette from India and a fan from China.