Feature Friday: Danielle Becker

Danielle Becker is an American student currently enrolled in a Masters program at California State University, Northridge. Her research focuses on ‘Investigating the effects of nutrient enrichment on coral thermal tolerance’. You can find out more about her on twitter (@dmbeckerr).

Hi Danielle! Great to have you on Reefbites. Please give an elevator pitch of what your research/project is about:

My research interests are centered on how local and global anthropogenic stressors are impacting coral reef resilience. More specifically, my research will explore how anthropogenic eutrophication impacts thermal sensitivity and coral physiology to understand real-world responses of corals to current and future ocean conditions. My proposed research will occur in Mo’orea, French Polynesia and I will be testing the effect of elevated nutrients on coral thermal tolerance for multiple physiological processes.

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Coral reefs, some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, face increased pressures from global and local scale anthropogenic stressors. Coral bleaching events, a disruption of coral-algal symbiosis to short-term high temperature anomalies (i.e. marine heat waves), have been a main driver of coral reef decline over the last century and have caused shifts in community composition and ecosystem functioning. Furthermore, local scale stressors, such as nutrient pollution, could make corals more vulnerable to global climate change by suppressing carbonate productivity and reducing their photosynthetic capacity. Interactions between global and local scale stressors have become more frequent and are projected to increase with anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, a better understanding of the ecological ramifications of thermal anomalies on coral reef ecosystems is necessary.

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

The influence of stressors on organism performance controls population dynamics, species diversity, and ecosystem functioning. The data from this study will improve our understanding of how local scale anthropogenic stressors affect corals response to global climate change and marine heat waves, which are becoming more prominent. Also, understanding the mechanisms influencing coral physiological dynamics will provide insight into the sensitivity of coral reef ecosystems, assisting in forecasting future reef resilience.

How did you come to work on this project?

Ever since I was young, I have been infatuated with the natural world. I knew that I wanted to follow a path that allowed me to interact with the ocean. I was inspired to pursue a career as a research scientist during my undergraduate degree studying marine biology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. Since the ocean was easily accessible, I had a unique opportunity to conduct local field studies and collaborate on numerous projects occurring around Tampa Bay. During my undergraduate degree, I took advantage of opportunities in multiple marine science fields to develop my research toolbox and become a well-rounded scientist. I also conducted an independent study in Dr. Peter Simard’s lab at Eckerd College to investigate the effect of ambient noise levels on dolphin communication and whistle morphology. During my final year at Eckerd, I received the Galbraith/Wardman Fellowship, a fellowship that supports one undergraduate student to participate in a research project at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS). The experiences I gained from this fellowship shaped my understanding of the interaction between environmental and physiological variability within coral reef ecosystems. For one of my research projects, I worked with Dr. Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley researching the effects of parental habitat on the early life history stages of the brooding coral, Porites astreoides, across an inshore patch reef, an offshore rim reef, and an upper-mesophotic reef. I was also able to work with Dr. Samantha de Putron on a feeding experiment investigating how nutrient enrichment influenced the reproductive ecology of P. astreoides, across an inshore patch reef and an offshore rim reef.

Over the next three years, I returned to BIOS to conduct multi-year research studies, educate and mentor students, and participate in community outreach initiatives. As a research assistant in Dr. Goodbody-Gringley’s Reef Ecology and Evolution Lab, I learned how coral ecosystems function in order to maintain biodiversity through examinations of coral population structure, reproductive ecology, and genetic connectivity on tropical coral reef ecosystems, ranging from shallow inshore reefs to the mesophotic zone. As a research assistant in Dr. Rachel Parson’s Microbial Ecology Lab, I learned new laboratory techniques examining how bacterial communities change as low oxygen conditions develop, and found a new area of interest I had not known before. I was also mentored consistently by Kevin Wong, a PhD student in Dr. Hollie Putnam’s lab, and owe him so much for my current understanding of experimental design and my overall knowledge of coral reef ecosystem function. I was humbled by the connections made between such well-established researchers and the high-quality work produced through collaboration and dedication at BIOS. It was with these lessons that I realized my passion for research, mentorship, and outreach concerning protection of coral reef ecosystems would lead me towards my graduate studies and future career.

            While assisting in a collaborative study measuring thermal tolerance and calcification/dissolution responses in two long-lived coral species at BIOS, I had the opportunity to meet Nyssa Silbiger, a biology professor at California State University Northridge and one of the project collaborators. While working alongside Silbiger in the lab, I was able to speak with her about grad school, my research interests, and career goals. Soon after, I began my graduate studies, working in Silbiger’s quantitative marine ecology lab conducting research on coral ecophysiology, the study of how the environment interacts with corals’ physiological processes.

           My understanding of the connections between environmental and physiological influences on coral ecosystem functioning has fueled my interest of coral thermal tolerance. I have seen firsthand the degradation of reefs around the world, and I want to understand the implications of climate change for the future of coral reefs. My graduate research will focus on the physiological responses of corals influenced by local and global scale anthropogenic stressors. By understanding these mechanisms, my graduate research can help advise management strategies that protect coral reefs currently most vulnerable to these stressors.

What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?

My survival resource is a well-kept planner and access to the California coast and mountains. I would have to say my top graduate school life hack is surrounding myself with a strong support system to help advise and guide me through various aspects of grad school.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

No matter what, follow your passion. Through my experience, no matter what you may face, hard work and determination can help you reach many of your goals. Also, staying positive and taking any mistake as a learning experience is essential for growth in this field.

Thanks for joining us at Reefbites Danielle!

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