Corals need someone in their corner

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Katherine holding all nine of the coral species she is studying for one chapter of her dissertation.

Climate change has begun to show its effects around the world in the form of warming temperatures, increased major weather events, and shrinking global sea ice. Unfortunately, one of the hardest hit species on earth is likely to be the corals, a marine animal, yes I said animal, whose beauty is well documented. Ocean acidification is limiting calcification, a process used for coral growth, and warming ocean temperatures is causing bleaching of once vibrant coral reefs.  However, there is good news for everyone who appreciates tropical oceans, the diversity of ocean life, or just plain old natural beauty. Although it’s still uncertain how corals will be able to adapt to the rapidly changing ocean environment, coral scientist Katherine Dziedzic is optimistic about the future of coral.

Katherine is a fourth year PhD student in Integrative Biology. Her research in the Meyer lab is helping to pinpoint some bright spots in coral adaptation. With the help of many collaborators around the world, Katherine is trying to find the survivors in the coral community, identify the genes theses corals are using to adapt, and then “teach” the rest of the corals how to thrive in a warmer ocean. Katherine is using a research method first developed for human disease studies called genome wide association studies (GWAS) to determine the genetic variants  that are most highly correlated with bleaching corals . Recent results have been promising and Katherine is hoping to narrow in on a potential gene, or genes, of interest. Unfortunately, progress to save the coral is slow going because much of the coral research has not been translated into action, despite the reefs’ charismatic depiction in nature documentaries.

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Katherine diving in Bocas del Toro, Panama collecting samples for her acclimation experiment.

A well-functioning national research program should function as a giant cycle to support government policy. Research improves knowledge, knowledge informs policy decisions, policy decisions lead to new areas of research. However, there are often large gaps between the scientific community, the policy makers, and the general public. Katherine hopes to help bridge the gap between science and policy decisions once she finishes her PhD work. She has completed a graduate certificate in marine resource management and plans to use her knowledge base in coral research to help governmental organizations take better care of our precious ocean resources.

If you want to hear about how Katherine got into coral research, you can listen to Katherine’s episode of Inspiration Dissemination from about two years ago. However, this time we’ll talk to Katherine about what she’s discovered about coral adaptation and her ongoing transition from PhD student to science policy advisor. Tune in Sunday, 12/4 at 7pm (PST) on KBVR-FM!

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