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Impacts of climate change on marine communities, seagrass dieback, and a trip to the Abrolhos Islands!

You may have noticed a lack of posts over the last few weeks.  No holiday for me though, here’s a quick taste of some of the other stuff I’ve been up to!

Impact of climate change on marine coastal ecosystems – A masterclass with Nuria Marbá
I was lucky enough to be invited along to present some research at a masterclass at the Institute of Advanced Studies led by Nuria Marbá in late March.  Nuria is a highly respected marine ecologist, and is mainly focussing on researching how coastal communities will respond to climate related stressors such as increased sea surface temperature.  Nuria gave a fantastic talk on the responses of a variety of different coastal ecosystems to projected future warming; from seagrass meadows in the Mediterranean to seaweed communities off the coast of Greenland.   In particular, the seagrass Posidonia oceanica – the real foundation species of the Mediterranean Sea – is at real risk from a combination of increased temperatures and future human activity.  P. oceanica has historically been able to resist disturbance events through extremely long life spans – a study led by Sophie Arnaud-Hound in 2012 suggest that some clones are thousands of years old!!!  However, this long life span is coupled with extremely slow recovery, and it is the really fast rate of expected change in temperature that is expected to cause the P. oceanica meadows to really struggle.  Above average temperatures in the Mediterranean in the last decade has already resulted in significant shoot mortality (Marba and Duarte 2010 Global Change Biology), and the predictions for seagrass response to future warming events look even scarier – with the present consensus being a “functional extinction of P. oceanica meadows by the middle of the century (2049±10), even under relatively mild greenhouse-emissions scenario” (Jorda et al. 2012 Nature Climate Change).  This is all pretty sobering stuff considering that P. oceanica forms the basis of key ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea.

Closer to home, I presented some initial research that was conducted looking at the effect of the 2011 Marine Heatwave on seagrass populations in Shark Bay.  We travelled up to Shark Bay in March 2011 (right in the middle of the heatwave) as part of a separate research project, and noticed two striking features – water temperatures were far higher than normal, and the dominant seagrass Amphibolis antarctica (wire weed) had experienced severe defoliation (leaf loss) in certain parts of Shark Bay.  Closer analysis showed that the areas worst affected were adjacent to the recently flooded Wooramel River, so we hypothesis that a combination of elevated temperatures and decreased light availability may be leading to the loss of leaves.  Effectively, we believe that the increased temperature increases respiratory demand (the seagrasses get ‘hungrier’ for light) whilst the decreased light availability stops that demand being met.  We are re-visiting previous study sites where defoliation was noticed in an attempt to measure the recovery of the seagrasses; so I’ll keep you posted!

Defoliation in Shark Bay seagrass meadows

A healthy Amphibolis antarctica meadow (left) and a defoliated meadow in Shark Bay (right). We believe a combination of low light availability and elevated tempertaures has led to this loss of leaf material.

Other workshop presentations included a discussion on the impacts of the same marine heatwave on marine communities (in particular, macro algae) up and down the West Australian coastline by Thomas Wernberg, carbon sequestration impliactions from Oscar Serrano-Gras, and a discussion of the effects of warming on feedback in algal assemblages from Scott Bennett.  All in all, a fantastic workshop that will hopefully have positive benefits for the management of marine communities in the face of continued warming of our oceans.

A trip to the Houtmans Abrolhos!
For one week at the start of April I was lucky enough to help out Luke Thomas with his research into coral resilience at the beautiful Houtman Abrolhos.  The Houtman Abrolhos is a chain of small islands located 80km off the coast of Geraldton, Western Australia.  They are really special as they are the highest latitude true coral reef in the Southern Hemisphere.  As such, they may represent an important site that could potentially act as a refuge or a stepping stone for some coral species to move south as temperatures increase.

Acropora research at the Abrolhos Islands

Luke taking samples to investigate coral resilience at the Houtman Abrolhos.

Luke is trying to figure out the genetic connectivity of the corals in the Houtman Abrolhos with those in other locations along the West Australian coast, such as those found in Shark Bay, Ningaloo Reef, and Cygnet Bay.  This will help to determine the resilience of the coral reef communities in the Houtman Abrolhos to future changes in climate (Luke explains things much better than I do here!).  We also carried out some ecological experiments on kelp beds at the same time, so it was a full week of research!  But luckily the weather held up for us and we had some stunning dives – hopefully I’ll be able to post some more photos at a later date!

Kelp research at the Abrolhos Islands

Some fantastic visibility led to some incredible kelp dives (20m depth at this site!) Photo: Gary Kendrick

The inaugural Oceans Institute Student Conference
March also seen a landmark for the UWA Oceans Institute – the first student conference was held at the University Club at UWA.  There were a huge range of talks that showed the breadth of research at the university – everything from tracking marine plastics to studying the biology of pteropods!  And even me trying to get everyone excited about phosphorus cycling in seagrass sediments (what’s more, I was awarded joint first place for the presentation, and won a return trip to Rottnest Island – fantastic!).  One of the highlights from the conference was a talk by renowned marine ecologist Callum Roberts about the pressures facing coral reef ecosystems over the next 100 years.  He was quick to emphasise that warming temperatures aren’t the only threat, with human impacts such as overfishing and pollution likely to lead to worsen negative impacts on these reefs.  Sobering stuff.  On a brighter note, the day as a whole went well, and I think that the 2013 OI student conference will set the benchmark for many more successful conferences in years to come!  Big thanks to Liza, Eric, Renee and the rest of the organising committee!

‘Worldwide diebacks of seagrass ecosystems’: A seminar from Ole PedersenI also had the pleasure of heading along to a seminar from Ole Pedersen; a 2013 Professor-at-Large at UWA.  Ole is one of the authorities in the ecophysiology of aquatic plants (including seagrasses!) and is primarily based at the University of Copenhagen, but is over for a two week stint to do some work in Western Australia!  Ole’s seminar focussed on two potential causes of dieback of seagrass – hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and sulphide intrusion (effectively poisoning!).  Ole has played a leading role in the creation of microsensors that can be used to measure oxygen and sulphide concentrations in the field, and his research indicates the both hypoxia and sulphide intrusion could lead to further loss of seagrass communities as ocean temperatures rise!  I’m lucky enough to be helping Ole and Jens Borum (also visiting from the University of Copenhagen) out with some of their experiments into the potential responses of West Australian seagrass species to changing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the water column, so I should be able to also keep you posted on that research!

As you can see, a busy few weeks, which is why the blog has taken a bit of a back seat!  Rest assured I hope to blog more over the next few weeks!

Marbá, N., & Duarte, C. (2009). Mediterranean warming triggers seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) shoot mortality Global Change Biology, 16 (8), 2366-2375 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2009.02130.x

Jordà, G., Marbà, N., & Duarte, C. (2012). Mediterranean seagrass vulnerable to regional climate warming Nature Climate Change, 2 (11), 821-824 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1533

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Reflections of a postgrad lecturer-in-training: Part 1

In a previous post, I mentioned that I was beginning a stint as postgraduate teaching intern at UWA, and that part of the internship involved keeping a reflective journal.  So I’ve decided that instead of merely writing down my thoughts (and possibly becoming lazy about it as the year goes on) I will share my journal on this blog!  To my mind this has numerous advantages, including transparency (including the students I teach), holding myself to accountability and killing two birds with one stone!
Part 1 will be about my thoughts on the first two days of the professional development part of the course, but before this I think it would be worthwhile to discuss what this academic journal will be about (after all, I will be adding to it consistently over the next year, and you all need to know where to pull my up on from time to time!).

The scope of the reflective journal
This reflective journal is NOT meant to be a simple description of my teaching methods and experiences. Instead, I should aim to make this journal a place for honest and critical evaluation of my teaching and learning experiences, with space for reflectance on how I may make changes in similar situations in the future. In addition, the journal should display facets of my teaching philosophy, and is a place to discuss my preconceived ideas on teaching, and how the change during the course of the year.

My pre-conceived notions
As I said in a previous post, I already have goals that I have set myself that I believe I can reach over the next year.  In short, the theme of these goals are centred around motivating students and instilling them with a passion about the environment around them.  I believe I can do this by conveying my passion to the students at all times, and by using technology to allow them to become more interactive with the subject matter in all aspects of the course: from lectures, to tutorials, to assessments. So now that we are all on the same page, let’s start looking at what I have learnt during the first couple of days!

Professional Development days 1 and 2 – The value of a key strategy

Day 1 started by giving us a real foundation in the theory and philosophy of teaching and the learning process.  There was constant reference to the importance of a cycle involving planning, acting and reflecting on our teaching, which I hope this journal will fit in nicely to!  Another aspect that really stuck with me was the difference between an instructivist and constructivist approach to teaching,  I really see myself as wanting to take a constructivist approach to teaching i.e. helping students to reach answers and solve problems on their own through active engagement, instead of the traditional knowledge transmission that only leads to rote learning and not proper understanding.  In addition, the idea of motivating students also came to the forefront during the first day, with repetition of the formula M(motivation of student) = V (value of outcome/process) x E (expectation of success).  I love the idea of keeping this in mind when designing lectures and assignments, and I really feel like this fits in well with my idea of designing an assignment that will be later put into the public domain.  I really hope an assignment like this will be highly valued by the students, hopefully increasing their overall motivation and the final quality of the assignments!

Given the nature of the subject discussed in the first day (based on teaching philosophies), I was slightly concerned that there was too much focus on our thoughts and feelings about teaching instead of actual strategies about how to make lectures and tutorials more interactive.  I thought there was slightly too much emphasise on this side of the development course.  However, more strategies were provided during day 2, dealing in both large and small classes.  Whilst these strategies were undoubtedly useful, I felt that there was not enough focus and discussion around them.  On the plus side, I have a stack of reading on strategies that could increase interactions in both small and large classes.  In addition, I found out about a new resource called Poll Everywhere that I really hope to use during my upcoming lectures.  Basically, I design questions before the beginning of a lecture (they could be to check students understanding, prior knowledge etc.) and work it into my powerpoint at a specific point of the lecture.  I then ask the students the question during the lecture, and they can answer the questions using their computers or mobile phones.  Within a matter of seconds, the class results are shown on the powerpoint, and we can start a debate, go over key concepts again or just chat about the results as a class!  I really feel this will help students to stay engaged without the fear of giving wrong answers in front of 70-80 of their classmates.  Students also struggle to keep taking information in after about 15 minutes of a lecture without a change of pace, so I feel that proper timing of the questions during my lectures may help students to retain more of the take-home messages in my lectures.

I admit that I already have fairly deep set views as to how I can further the learning process for the students that I will be teaching.  As a result, I found myself really agreeing with certain suggestions at some points during the first two days, and questioning the effectiveness of other suggestions elsewhere.  Not that I think this is a bad thing though; all teachers teach differently, and a one-size-fits all approach definitely does not apply in this situation.  Instead, I see the professional development component as supplying us with a diverse set of tools (some generic, some specialist), which we will pick and choose from based on a wide range of factors such as background, class sizes, teaching subject and (probably most importantly) personal preferences and experiences!

Quick wrap-up of day 3 of the professional development course to follow soon!

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!

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!

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!