“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious – the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
– Albert Einstein
So the last couple days have been extra exciting! As I may have mentioned before, the MCR-LTER is a site that is part of a larger LTER (Long-Term Ecological Research) network that is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Background on the LTER network… There are 26 field LTER sites across the United States and around the world, including sites in Antarctica and also here in Moorea. They are designed to provide funding for long-term research seeking to answer core ecological questions, which can then be compared across varying environments. There are some LTER’s that look at coastal systems and the land-water interface such as the other LTER I am a part of, the Santa Barbara Coastal (SBC) LTER. There are also a couple sites that focus on freshwater systems and processes in the Midwest, sites that look at terrestrial ecosystems and also those that look at only oceanic conditions, such as the California Current Ecosystem (CCE) LTER based out of Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UCSD in San Diego and the one I am a part of here, the Moorea Coral Reef LTER. LTER sites are funded for six-year periods, and every three years they undergo a mid-term review where a team of reviewers are chosen and perform a site visit to observe the research being conducted and make sure that the site is contributing to the overall LTER goals. This year, the MCR is undergoing a midterm review! And I am the super fortunate undergraduate who gets to be a part of the evaluation process of the largest coral reef research program in the United States. Wow. In the words of one of the principal investigators (PI) of the project, “this is big science.”
So beginning Wednesday, the review panel was flown into Moorea and had a preliminary tour of Gump Station and the island of Moorea. Thursday marked the beginning of the 48-hour review period. In the morning the reviewers went on site field trips where they were each paired with a graduate student and then snorkeled around various LTER sites to get a look at the research environment and discuss the MCR’s current and future work. In the afternoon, the PI’s of the project, as well as other colleagues to the MCR-LTER, gave talks on their research. This gave the PI’s the opportunity to fully describe their research and the MCR program, and it also gave the review panel the opportunity to ask questions and delve further into their research goals, proposals, and future work.
While I’m sure that the PI’s were under stress and pressure to present their material to a group of people that decide if future funding will be assured, I was loving every minute of the midterm review! Being able to watch these incredible scientists speak to one another and ask questions about each other’s work was really amazing to witness. On top of that, we were able to see these scientists in a completely different context than the academic setting we’ve become so familiar with. Here, we see them in their life outside of that, as some of the world leading experts in coral reef biology research.
We even got our own nametags!! Wooo so exciting!
I don’t even know how to fully explain my rapturous excitement to be a part of it all! During lunches and breaks, I had the opportunity to speak with many of these scientists and discuss different aspects of their research as well as discuss my own research interests and future plans (more like future ideas…). The entire experience has definitely pushed me further into the mindset of graduate school. In terms of a graduate education, there are so many things to consider – what do I want to study, who do I want to work with, and where do I want to be?! So many things that I just don’t know yet! But… I still have time to figure it all out. For now, it’s exciting to keep finding new things that I didn’t know about before and teasing out areas that I’m finding less attractive (like hydrodynamics and flow… sorry physical oceanographers).
One area of research that I keep finding myself being drawn to is organismal physiology in relation to changing environmental conditions.
As I hope all of you are aware, the oceans are predicted to become warmer and more acidic in the next fifty years due to the direct effects of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ocean is not a static system, it is continually in contact with the atmosphere, and as the ocean covers nearly 70% of the earth’s surface, it is constantly exchanging with atmospheric gases. Nature seeks to be in equilibrium, so more carbon dioxide in the air translates to more carbon dioxide in the ocean. When carbon dioxide gas dissolves in the ocean, it almost immediately breaks down into carbonate, bicarbonate and hydrogen ions. Hydrogen ions are responsible for increased acidity (lower pH = more acidic). As more and more hydrogen ions continue to add up in the ocean, the chemistry of the seawater changes, and this is likely to have important consequences for a multitude of organisms that inhabit the sea. Organisms that use calcium carbonate, which include mollusks that build shells, various kinds of encrusting algae, and reef building corals (Scleractinian corals), may no longer be able to build and/or will have difficulty building their structures if the oceanic conditions continue to become more acidic. This is a huge area of research, and one that the MCR has been investigating for the past decade. Ocean acidification (OA) research is a hot topic and emerging field, and people here (as well as around the world) are trying to understand just how much these predicted environmental conditions may affect biological systems in the future. This is where I have a very strong interest – understanding how the physiology of organisms may influence their response to these changing conditions.
One of the colleagues to the MCR-LTER, Dr. Ruth Gates, is a PI from the University of Hawaii and presented her research on the relationship between corals and their endosymbionts, Symbiodinium spp. Symbiodinium is a type of single-celled algae that actually lives within the tissues of corals. The algae are able to photosynthesize and provide their coral host with sugars that they fix using sunlight and inorganic nutrients. In return, the algae are given a relatively safe home from predators and most importantly, access to sunlight. The relationship between corals and their endosymbionts is very complex – nearly all corals cannot survive without their endosymbionts.The more I learn, the more interested I’ve become in understanding this intricate relationship. I am also really interested in learning about how the physiological components of the different types of Symbiodinium may mediate future coral resilience to these environmental changes.
Science!! Ah I have been so pumped on research after all of these talks and presentations and chatting with these prominent, incredible, and super friendly scientists. It has given me so much motivation to keep moving forward in my career. Every single person I have met here has been more than willing to offer suggestions, advice, and feedback on research ideas and career plans. It is truly an incredible group of people.
“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”
I love this quote. I think it sums things up pretty well.
So back to the review! Friday was the second day of the review and consisted of more field trips and science talks. Here, I learned about the MCR-LTER online databases that are open for public access as well as the education outreach that the MCR-LTER does. We’re so awesome. There is so much outreach and education going on around the world, in universities across California, at the REEF (where I worked), and one MCR graduate student even wrote a children’s book that utilizes Moorea as the backdrop for a story that presents science to kids in a way that is approachable and most importantly accurate. It is such a great way to engage more people in research and to encourage them to be curious and interested in what’s going on in our beautiful oceans! So that was especially exciting to me – it showed me that opportunities to write about science are definitely available. That has always been something I believe to be extraordinarily important, communicating science to others. What is the point of doing research if it’s not being discussed and used by other people? In order to make effective changes to the way we live and view the world, there needs to be an open door of communication between the science and the general public so that everyone can realize what we’re trying to do and understand why it’s so important!
By the end of the summer, at the latest, I hope that I can successfully show you all why the ocean is so important and why it’s so valuable to better understand it.
So to wrap up this very long post, I will end with a great note. The review went fabulously. After a four-hour deliberation between the review panelists, the PI’s joined them and the panelists discussed their opinions on how the MCR was performing. Apparently the reviewers were extremely impressed with the program! I even heard that they said the graduate students were the best part, so yay and congratulations to all the wonderful, hard working graduate students here!
Finally the review was over. Now it was time to feast! Dinner Friday night considered of a traditional Tahitian feast. The food is all prepared a day ahead of time, and then placed on top of an underground fire. The food is covered and cooks beneath the ground for the entire afternoo. Everything was so delicious! There was fresh, raw fish cooked in coconut milk called poisson cru that is soo good. I’ve been eating any and all food that is put in front of me and I’ve been enjoying all of it.
Here is a image (though slightly blurry) of the Tahitians uncovering the food that had been sitting underground all day.
After the delicious meal, we danced! Hinano, the education and outreach coordinator for the station, plays a huge role in combining the MCR and other research done in Moorea with the locals and Tahitian traditions. She and many of her friends and relatives prepared all of the food we ate during the review and also cooked the incredible feast that we had in the evening. She also spoke during and after the meal, describing what each dish was and how it was prepared. There was also music, and at times she would stop and explain what the words of the song meant – one of them described the winter maramus while another one spoke of the beauty of the Tahitian woman. After some beautiful music, there was dancing by everyone! It was another amazing experience that I will always treasure as part of my time here in this Tahitian land.