A first step into the unknown world of academia…….

At the beginning of this blog I did promise to include some writings that would at least be semi-useful (hopefully!) to future students hoping to move into a career in marine science; so here it goes!

From today I am beginning a year long Postgraduate Teaching Internship at UWA.  I was lucky enough to be accepted into the course last year, and with teaching semester 1 just around the conference the professional development aspect of the course will begin soon!  One of the pre-requisities for the course is keeping a reflective journal of my experiences (good and bad!) during the year…so why not just do this on my blog!  At least it’ll keep me honest about whether or not I’m meeting the original goals I set myself at the beginning of the internship, it’ll be interesting to see how my approach to teaching changes over this time and who knows, someone may even find it useful to read through!

The real purpose of this internship is to give some formal training to PhD students who are potentially interested in entering into academia at a later stage in their careers.  Most lecturers (or at least many that I have spoken to) never received formal training, and instead had to ‘learn on the job’, gaining the good and bad habits of other faculty members around them and bringing teaching strategies learnt from their own time as a student.  The professional development aspect of the course aims to teach us some of the main principles about teaching, that could be useful in any subject (from art to physics to marine ecology!).

I will be teaching in two units this year: “Marine Systems” (an introductory marine science unit for 2nd years) in 1st semester and “Ecological Processes” (a 3rd year unit focussing on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems).  For me, there are some broad goals I hope to achieve during this time:

Engaging the students with more relevant assignments: Back when I was an undergraduate, I remember working on many assignments, but not feeling a great deal of pride or love for the final product.  Instead, it felt like more of a ‘box ticking’ exercise needed to pass the course, with the work produced looked at once by the marker and then cast aside forever.  Given the huge amount of time that goes into some of these undergraduate projects (e.g. 100 students putting 5 hours into a project is 500 hours worked!), this seems like a huge waste to me!  Why not get the students to produce something with the aim of it being in the public domain, availabile for anyone else to read, something that they take a great deal of pride in?  I have a few ideas about how to work this into the existing course structure (many of which involve the use of social media), so this will be one of the main points I bring up during my training!

Instil passion for ecology and marine conservation into students:
I love what I do, and possess a strong passion for both ecology as a science and the conservation of the marine environment.  I try to get this passion across to audiences in every single presentation that I give, as I feel people are most engaged with my research when I am excited to tell them about it.  Since this approach has served me well in the past, I hope to use it again when teaching the students.  It might be a bit lofty to imagine that I will give them an inspirational lecture that they will remember for the rest of their lives, but if I could at least engage them, challenge their views of science, and get them discussing (however briefly) concepts I have raised over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer after class then I’ll feel pretty good about it all!  And if I can see the students getting genuinely excited during my teaching, then all the better!

Make some long term changes to the teaching of marine science units at UWA
The internship itself only runs for one year, but I really hope that some of the changes that I make in this time last significantly longer than this.  Yes, not everything I attempt will work, and yes, I’m not going to revolutionise university teaching in a year, but if I can make some significant, lasting changes to one aspect of the way both units are taught then I think the internship will have been fairly successful.

Most of all….have fun!!!
Of course it is a serious project to undertake, but this internship will allow me to communicate with like-minded people for a significant amount of time over the next year, discussing exciting research, future directions of ecology, and how this is important for humanity as a whole! I believe that it is the responsibility of researchers such as myself to pass on the knowledge and skills that will allow future marine scientists to develop….but this doesn’t mean we can’t have lots of fun while we do it!!!

One pre-requisite of the internship is to keep a reflective teaching journal, so I may try to incorporate this (or at least some of it) onto this blog to keep everyone up to date with how it is going!  As for now….I’m off to start reading through some of the effective teaching texts I’ve been given!!!  If anyone has any advice for this aspiring lecturer, feel free to leave some comments!

Predation of juvenile reef fish in coral patches at Ningaloo Reef

The second research article I have decided to discuss is one I had the pleasure to be involved with!  In fact, it was the first paper I was a co-author on, after linking up with the Department of Environment and Conservation through an ANNiMS internship program.  The paper was recently published in the journal Coral Reefs, and can be found here!

Chromis sp. on a coral patch in Ningaloo Reef

The little juvenile fish we used to fertilize our coral patches…so who eat’s them, and when!?

We know that predation events structure communities in many ecosystems, but this effect could be particularly important in coral reefs.  Juvenile reef fish that are newly settled on a coral reef patch can be extremely vulnerable to predation attacks.  However, we know very little about predation on juvenile coral reef fish in all but a few ecosystems worldwide.  Given the lack of empirical data in most marine systems, we tried to find out which fish was responsible for the predation encountered at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia (as a side note, Ningaloo Reef is a beautiful place – recently granted World Heritage Status – that everyone should visit if they get the chance… but I will be writing about it a bit later on in more detail!)

To do this, we “fertilised” some coral patches with juvenile reef fish while leaving others untouched (i.e. no juvenile reef fish), and filmed what happened over the course of the day!  We even used special lights to allow us to see what was happening during the first couple of hours of darkness!  We ended up with 199 hours of video recordings, where we identified all fish within 30cm of the patch, measured how long they spent within the vicinity and whether or not they tried to eat one of the juveniles!

We discovered that, unlike most other locations, predation of juvenile reef fish at Ningaloo Reef is concentrated during mid-afternoon times, instead of the normal dusk/dawn periods. We also found an unexpected candidate for the top predator of juvenile fish at Ningaloo Reef…..the moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare).  In fact, of all the predatory strikes we seen on the videos, the moon wrasse was responsible for over 75% of them!  The interest of the moon wrasse towards the juvenile fish was highlighted by them spending significantly longer around the patches ‘fertilized’ with juvenile fish compared with control patches with no juveniles.

The really cool thing about this research is that it displays just how unique Ningaloo Reef is.  Firstly, predation of juvenile fish primarily occurred during the middle of the day, contrary to what we see in most other coral reef environments – a rise in predation during dawn and dusk.  And on top of this, the moon wrasse hasn’t been identified as a major predator of juvenile fish in other ecosystems.  However, in Ningaloo Reef, they appear to be responsible for a large proportion of juvenile fish predation, at least in corymbose coral patches where their slender body shape is ideal for hunting!

ResearchBlogging.org

Holmes, T., Wilson, S., Vanderklift, M., Babcock, R., & Fraser, M.W. (2012). The role of Thalassoma lunare as a predator of juvenile fish on a sub-tropical coral reef Coral Reefs, 31 (4), 1113-1123 DOI: 10.1007/s00338-012-0934-8

Marine Ecology or Marine Biology….what’s the difference!?!?!?

A few of you may be wondering why the blog is called ‘Confessions of a Marine Ecologist” and not ‘Confessions of a Marine Biologist”.  After all, if you ask a group of school kids what they want to be when they grow up, more than a handful would happily answer “marine biologist”, but I would happily put money on none answering “a marine ecologist”!  Even when I decided I wanted to study life in the ocean, I searched for courses on marine biology, not marine ecology!  And I myself often wondered why people I was introduced to describe themselves as ‘marine ecologists’ instead of ‘marine biologists’.  So what’s the difference?  And, more importantly, why do I feel the need to describe myself as a marine ecologist that will almost definitely get me less traffic and fewer looks of admiration from non-scientists (incidentally, these looks of admiration are quickly replaced by confusion when you explain to people that you work on seagrass instead of dolphins or turtles!)

Coral Reef Community at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Why do we find marine organisms in some places but not others? This question is at the heart of all marine ecology!

Let’s start at the difference between the two.  Marine biology is the study of life in the oceans.  The mention of marine biology invokes thoughts of dolphins, turtles, and maybe even some pretty coral-reef fish from Finding Nemo!  However, marine biology is a whole lot more than that, investigating all life in the ocean, from the phytoplankton (very small) to the blue whales (very big).  In short, marine biologists concentrate on studying their chosen species, answering questions like “What type of fish is that?”, “How do the bodies of whales cope with extreme depths?”, and “How do sharks sense their environment?”.  All in all, some pretty cool stuff in my opinion!

So what makes us fully fledged marine ecologist different from our biologist counterparts?  Well, I think that marine ecology is even cooler than marine biology because as marine ecologists we link what we know about the biology of a given species with other plants/animals and the environment as well.  This allows questions to be explored like :”Why do ecosystems that are so depleted in nutrients (like the Great Barrier Reef) have such high biodiversity and productivity?”, “What will happen to the local seagrass and fish population if we build a new jetty here?”, and “How does the presence of keystone predators (like sharks) effect not only turtle and dugong numbers, but the type of plants we see on the seafloor?”.  Nature is extremely complex, and I believe that we can only  gain a limited understanding of how nature works by simply looking at individual species in isolation.  This is where marine ecology comes in….we attempt to understand how species interact with one another and their environment (things like temperature, nutrient/food availability, light……even human-related disturbances).  When we consider that we live in a world where climatic conditions are changing at an unprecedented rate, we need marine ecology to help make predictions about how marine species will respond to such environmental changes, and how best to mitigate against any potential losses.

If we were splitting hairs, ecology is technically a form of biology, but I felt the need to write this post given how passionately I see some researchers stating that they are in one camp or another. Most importantly, we need to have marine biologists and ecologists to help us understand marine organisms and how they interact with the environment and each other.  But as an ecologist (albeit a biased one!) what gets me excited isn’t just finding out how the amazing plants and animals we find in the ocean work, but how they interact with each other and their environment, explaining why we see certain species in some places and not others!

So hopefully this little rant has shed some light on the importance of us marine ecologists!  Though I’m still not holding my breath for any school kids to profess a desire to become a marine ecologists any time soon!

My 2013 PhD Resolutions

So the New Year is upon us, so there is no better time to thrash out what I hope to acheive throughout the year (in an informal, non-official way!)

1) Publish!!!
Boring I know, and this isn’t really a new resolution (and is probably part of 99% of PhD students resolutions) but I think it is important nonetheless!  I had a fairly good year for publications in 2012; with 1 paper as a lead author and a further 3 as  co-author (not too bad for the year where I transitioned from an honours student to a PhD student).  If I was setting myself a target, I would like to at least maintain that rate (so another 4 papers this year), with at least 2 of those as the lead author.  I’m also trying to forage into writing a review (slightly intimidating giving my opinion on a body of literature that has been worked on for several decades!) so it should be interesting!

2) Interact more with the public!
I guess this resolution was the reason for me starting this blog!  As PhD students we are often required to give presentations to other academics (either in-house or at conferences), but we don’t often interact with the public!  So my second resolution is to get more messages out there to the public in plain English…either electronically or through outreach programs!

3) Learn how to teach properly
Last year, I took a lead role in helping with demonstrating in a couple of units at the university – ‘Marine Systems’ and ‘Ecological Processes’.  I found it fantastic, and it’s definitely true that to teach something, you need to know it inside out!  I’ve been lucky enough to be granted a Postgraduate Teaching Internship for 2013 at UWA, a scheme that gives postgraduates some intensive training and allows them to teach (including giving lectures) in a couple of units through the year.  I’m hoping to post all the teaching materials I come up with on this blog, so watch this space!

4) Take more photos in the field!
Every time before I head out in the field, I pack my camera and tell myself that I will make an effort to take lots more photos, and it never happens!  So this year, I am resolving to actually make use of the underwater camera when I pack it!  More specifically, I need to take more photos of me and the rest of the gang doing our work in the field….it’s only when you are asked for some photos of yourself in the field that you realize you have an aversion to being in front of the lens!

5) Have more confidence in myself!
Pretty much do what it says on the tin!  Not that I’m an insecure person, but I guess building confidence in yourself as a scientist is something you should aim for every year during your PhD as you transition from a student to an early career researcher (all going well).

6) Brush up on my ecological theory by reading some seminal ecology papers!
I read….I read alot!! It’s part of the job after all; you need to find out what else has been done in your field of research, find a piece of evidence to support your argument or even find obscure methods to help you carry out an important experiment.  But, as a biogeochemist, I find that I don’t read enough of the classic,
theoretical ecology papers even though they really interest me, purely because I don’t really cite them.  So, this year I am going to make time to at least try to read one classic ecology paper a week!  Even if I get really, really busy………promise!

That’s all I can think of at the moment, I’m sure I’ll add more as time goes on, or if anyone else gives me any bright ideas!  As always, feel free to comment on anything I may have missed!

Biotic dispersal in seagrass seeds…..cool new paper!

Just came across a great wee paper by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, examining dispersal of eelgrass (Zostera marina) seeds through biotic mechanisms.  Basically, they found that the seeds of this seagrass species can actually pass through the guts of marine animals like fish and turtles and still be viable to germinate, much like happens with many terrestrial plant species (think of many of the fruits that you eat!).   Another reminder of the similarities between seagrasses and terrestrial angiosperms!

Now you may be thinking…so why is this important?  Well, it turns out that from an ecological point of view this is exceptionally important, as it may allow the seagrass seeds  to travel to (and eventually colonise) otherwise bare areas that would be too far away for seeds to reach through normal dispersal mechanisms (such as transport with water currents).  To get a more detailed overview of dispersal in seagrasses as a whole, there is a great paper published in Bioscience (Robert Orth is a co-author on this paper as well, as are a few people from my research group).  This paper comes to the conclusion that dispersal of seagrass seeds over long distances (10s -100s km) through mechanisms like biotic dispersal is extremely important to the maintenance of seagrass populations!

All in all some really cool stuff that’s helping shape the way we monitor and conserve seagrass meadows, which form the basis of coastal ecosystems in many parts of the world.

The first of many!

Sub-tropical coral patch

Yes…another PhD student trying their hand with yet another blog.  I’ve thought (too) long and hard about what to say in my first blog, but lets start with some of the reasons as to why I felt the need to start this blog, and why these will hopefully set me apart from other blogs that are out there!

  • To make marine ecology accessible to the publicAs researchers, I think we all know the feeling of going to a party with a group of non-scientists, explaining your research, and getting confused looks back!  I believe that when this happens, it is our fault as researchers, and we need to explore avenues that help raise general awareness to the public.  After all, we cannot expect the lessons we learn in our research to be conveyed to the public effectively merely through the publication of our research in scientific journals.  In short….I’m hoping to write about science in a way that my parents, family and friends find interesting and accessible!
  • To increase awareness of marine ecology: This is fairly similar to above, but I feel it deserves a separate section (my blog, my rules!).  I find that most non-scientists I meet have at least a moderate interest in marine science.  When I tell people that I am a marine ecologist, I generally hear stories back about how fish aren’t the same size as they used to be, or describing whale behaviour from the latest David Attenborough documentary.  But there is a lot more really cool stuff that we do as marine ecologists, yet the knowledge of this work outside the scientific community (and even within the community as well!) is fairly limited.  In particular, I’m hoping to raise awareness about seagrass (the organism that I study!); an extremely important yet often-ignored component of many marine ecosystems.  Hopefully this blog will act as a bridge between some of this research and the public.  We are custodians of the marine environment, and we have a responsibility to deliver what we know to the public in a way that can be understood easily.
  • To give a balanced view of marine ecology in Australia: This is more a personal gripe of mine, with marine ecology not receiving much attention in mainstream media!  I don’t expect research to be on the front page of newspapers, but with the diversity of marine life around our coastline, it really does deserve more attention than it gets!  I’d also like to try to counter some of the misinformation that is continually portrayed in much of the popular media in Australia, particularly in relation to denial of climate change and marine parks.
  • To act as a resource for up-and coming marine biologists and ecologists: In my undergraduate days, I often looked long and hard for Australian websites that gave me easily digestible information about marine biology and marine ecology in Australia.  Or websites that gave me really useful information about how to position myself best for a future career in research science.  I hope that this blog becomes a place where budding marine biologists and ecologists to come and get easy-to-understand, relevant information!
  • Selfish reasons: OK, so I admit there are also ulterior motives in creating a blog…it’ll help me keep on track with my PhD research, it helps to build an online footprint (see here for why that is important!), and it may even increase awareness with the research community about the publications I have produced (even though I want this blog to be broad and not just all about my research!).  But hey, we’re all allowed to be a bit selfish, right!

Above all, I hope this blog will have active community involvement!  I know this won’t happen overnight, but hopefully it will come in time.  I like being controversial (I think that’s the best way to start conversation!), so disagree with me, give me feedback, or even tell me I don’t know what I am talking about!  As long as no boundaries are crossed, constant feedback can only be a good thing!