Protecting communities while preserving ecosystems


Mariko Polk’s research explores the benefits of living shorelines along the North Carolina coast

Mariko Polk

For Mariko Polk ’15M, the potential to make discoveries that can help protect and preserve our coastal resources brought her to UNCW not once, but twice. She received her M.S. in environmental studies in 2015 and returned in 2018 to study coastal ecology with Professor Martin Posey and Assistant Professor Devon Eulie.

“I can say from my own experience and other students I’ve talked to in my field, we’re asking these questions because we’re passionate about marine science,” Polk says. “We’re going to make a difference with the research we’re doing.”

With support from the Francis Peter Fensel Sr. Memorial Scholarship, Polk is studying how shoreline management strategies protect coastal communities and affect the delicate ecosystems where the water meets the land. There are a number of different strategies available, ranging from an all-natural shoreline to a man-made seawall or bulkhead. Polk’s dissertation work centers on the capabilities of an option in the middle: living shorelines, which can involve native vegetation and a variety of sustainable materials constructed by humans. These types of shorelines do less damage to the intertidal habitat than bulkheads, but their benefits in terms of protection are fairly unexplored. That’s where Polk hopes to provide a contribution through her dissertation.

“We recently discovered that living shorelines have less lateral erosion, or even experience growth, during storm events” when compared with natural, unaltered shorelines, she says. “Next, we’re exploring how living shorelines affect the ecosystem services salt marshes provide, and we are exploring how past coastal management decisions affected the level of damage caused by Hurricane Florence.”

Once it’s finished, Polk hopes her dissertation will help empower coastal managers, marine contractors and homeowners in making shoreline management decisions benefit both coastal communities and their neighboring ecosystems. She’s grateful that the Fensel Scholarship allowed her to persevere with this important work even through the headwinds of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Like many, during this pandemic, my financial burden has increased and the scholarship has reduced the level of stress I was experiencing,” Polk says. “Although I did not have the privilege of knowing Mr. or Mrs. Fensel, I hope that my academic efforts and dedication to improving our coastal communities through science honors them.”

Increasing scholarships to support students like Mariko is a key priority of Like No Other: The Campaign for UNCW. To learn more or make a gift, visit

This article appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of UNCW Magazine.