Lauren Bell is a PhD student at University of California Santa Cruz, studying algal communities’ responses to ocean acidification and warming. Originally from Homer, she completed her Masters degree in Sitka through UAF and has served as a research biologist at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
Q: Could you tell us about how you got into the field of ocean acidification?
I suppose my pull towards ocean acidification research began over the course of my master’s degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. At the time my research was focused on marine food webs in the Arctic Ocean. I was always curious about how ocean acidification would impact the rich epibenthic communities I saw on the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea shelves that were often dominated by shell-building organisms. When I moved to Southeast after finishing my degree, I was amazed at how frequently I heard people talking about ocean acidification on the docks and in the coffee shop. It was clear that this was an issue at the forefront of many folks’ minds in Alaska, and there was a general hunger in the community for more locally-relevant information. I decided I needed to figure out how I could contribute.
Q: What motivated your desire to go back to graduate school?
I’d been doing local ecological research with the Sitka Sound Science Center for several years, and in that role I had the opportunity to assist UCSC Professor Dr. Kristy Kroeker with her kelp forest community studies in Sitka Sound for several seasons. I was enthralled by the innovative approaches she was taking to investigate the impacts of global change in coastal systems, and even more so by the multitude of lab and field-based methods she was using to tease different ecological drivers apart. When the prospect of becoming Kristy’s PhD student was put on the table, I saw an opportunity to learn how to link experimental and field studies in order to ask complex questions about coastal ecosystem function in multiple-stressor scenarios. I couldn’t imagine a more timely or relevant addition to my education; it was too good to pass up.
Q: For your PhD you’re focusing on algal response to OA and warming. Could you tell us more about the importance of algae in this setting?
Macroalgae and seagrass beds function as important habitat and food sources to fish and invertebrate species along Alaska’s coastlines. Because these beds can act as localized carbon sinks by drawing down CO2 through photosynthesis, there is broad interest in the possibility that these substrates may provide refuge against low pH for their closely associated communities. However, we are just starting to understand the full suite of physiological responses of high-latitude algae and seagrass species to acidification, especially in concert with other stressors, such as warming. For example, how will the seasonality of algal growth and nutritional content change in future conditions? Will some algal species outcompete others? I hope to investigate how changing oceanic conditions could impact these coastal sources of primary productivity, as well as the bottom-up effects of these changes on higher levels of the marine food web.
Q: What advice would you have for other students getting into the ocean acidification field?
My main advice is to not let the chemistry intimidate you! Acidification has the potential to effect every level of marine communities, from individual species’ physiology to predator-prey interactions to ecosystem functioning. In order to understand the complexities of these layered responses to acidification, we’ll need marine scientists with a diversity of backgrounds and skills to contribute to our growing pool of knowledge. It’s a great field for interdisciplinary collaboration.
Q: What’s your most memorable moment from the field, lab, or classroom?
I had the opportunity to co-mentor two outstanding high school students from Sitka last summer for an ocean acidification internship, alongside my friend and Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Specialist Esther Kennedy. The two students spent the summer learning carbonate chemistry, designing their own dockside study, going out in all kinds of inclement weather to collect water samples, and then working with Esther and me to interpret their data. They then took the initiative to take a week out of school to attend the 2018 Alaska Marine Science Symposium and present their results. I have been beyond impressed by the commitment and enthusiasm of these two young women, who both remain engaged in ocean acidification research. The entire experience of working with them has been memorable for me.