PeerJ Awards Winners at the 2021 Alaska Marine Science Symposium

The Alaska Marine Science Symposium (AMSS), Alaska’s premier marine research conference, has been bringing together scientists, educators, resource managers, students, and interested public for over twenty years to discuss the latest marine research being conducted in Alaskan waters. Over 700 people attend this 4-day long conference, held every January. Each day of the conference highlights important Alaskan marine ecosystems: Gulf of Alaska (Tuesday), Bering Sea & Aleutian Islands (Wednesday), and the Arctic (Thursday). Research topics discussed range from ocean physics, fishes and invertebrates, seabirds, marine mammals, to local traditional knowledge.

PeerJ sponsored six Early Career Researchers awards at the 2021 AMSS – held virtually this year – with each winner receiving a free publication in any PeerJ journal (subject to peer review).

The PeerJ Awards program aims to support students and early career researchers by highlighting their work, as well as bringing continued awareness to the benefits that open access has in keeping science open and available to all. If you are organizing a conference or workshop and would like to offer a PeerJ Award at your event, please let us know – communities@peerj.com

We recently interviewed the award recipients – 2 poster and 4 presentation winners – to find out more about them and their research.


Amy Dowling M.Sc. candidate at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests? 

Originally from Washington State, I grew up with an interest in marine biology. As a child, I loved to play in tide pools and chase the intertidal fish. I moved to Alaska in 2010 and decided to go back to school for marine biology in 2015. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in marine biology from Alaska Pacific University in the spring of 2019 and was accepted into the Marine Biology Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a graduate student in the same year. My interests include marine biology and marine ecology, with an emphasis on high-latitude nearshore ecosystems. 

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium?

I presented some preliminary results from my master’s thesis. My research is examining size frequency distributions of Pacific blue mussels in high-latitude estuaries, both with and without glacial influence. I am also looking at which environmental variables correlate to these size distributions. My preliminary results suggest correlations between mussel size and substrate size and also fetch (wave exposure).

What originally drew you to this topic?

Through a conversation with my advisor, Brenda Konar. Having done my undergraduate research on sea otter haul-out behavior, I had a particular interest in nearshore ecology. Brenda had a lot of mussel data, so we set to work outlining a project involving this important nearshore indicator species. 

What are your next steps? 

My next steps are to finalize my data analyses and finish writing my thesis manuscript. I plan to graduate in the summer of 2021 and am applying for a Sea Grant fellowship to learn more about marine policy. I hope to begin a career as a research biologist or research ecologist and have the opportunity to continue working in high-latitude nearshore ecosystems. 

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

I enjoyed the virtual conference experience, although I did miss the in person experience as well. Having been to AMSS last year, I found myself wishing very much that we could have been in person. That said, I was also able to attend two other virtual conferences this year, which I would not have been able to attend if they were in person. I realize this is the experience of others who attended AMSS, and I can appreciate their gratitude for virtual conferences as well.


Lauren Bell Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Santa Cruz 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests? 

I’m a fourth year PhD student with a broad interest in how global change will impact high-latitude kelp forests and the ecosystems they support. My current research focuses on the seasonal drivers and variation in Southeast Alaska’s macroalgal communities, projected responses of macroalgae to future multiple-stressor scenarios, and how these changes may impact the rest of the coastal food web.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium?

The research that I presented at AMSS considered the effects of future ocean acidification and ocean warming on the development of Pacific herring roe from egg fertilization to hatch. The combined effects of these global change stressors had not yet been tested on herring from Southeast Alaska, a region where herring occupy a critical role both at the center of the marine food web and the center of the rich culture and traditions of people in this region. In addition to directly testing these impacts, I was very interested in looking at how the living habitat that herring roe are naturally found in – usually, big beds of seaweeds or seagrasses – could alter any effects on these developing fish.

What originally drew you to this topic?

I am honored to be a guest on the traditional, unceded lands of the Tlingit people here in Southeast Alaska. Since moving here, I have learned much about the importance that herring play in this ecosystem as well as the difficulties inherent in ensuring the conservation of these fish in the long term, including how future changes in our coastal oceans at high latitudes may impact their survival.

What are your next steps? 

My next steps for this work include looking more specifically at the physiological response of common macroalgal species to global change stressors. If the productivity of these species changes, it may impact the extent to which seaweed beds can function as a ‘refuge’ from ocean acidification for marine organisms such as herring.

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

I was very impressed by the virtual Alaska Marine Science Symposium experience. Although nothing could replace the in-person event, which I look forward to each year as an opportunity to connect with colleagues and friends from across the region, the organizers did a stellar job of facilitating an online format in which I could easily navigate and interact with other attendees in a productive manner.

Herring mesocosms – see more on Lauren’s Instagram: @lobell_ak


Brian Ulaski Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests? 

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended the University of California Santa Barbara where I got my B.S. degree in Aquatic Biology. While at UCSB, working in a sandy beach ecology lab really focused my interests toward intertidal ecology. I became interested in how communities survive in the extreme conditions of the intertidal. Part of my Ph.D. research is investigating how Alaskan beach wrack serves as habitat for a number of animals in the intertidal, from invertebrate colonizers to migrating shorebirds, while also serving as a natural resource for humans.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium?

At AMSS, my poster was mostly on my fieldwork that was completed in the summer of 2018, investigating the ecological importance of beach wrack to coastal systems. Since macroalgal wrack is used by humans as garden fertilizer, we wanted to get a better idea of how spatially and temporally variable wrack distribution is throughout Kachemak Bay. Through on-the-ground sampling in 2018, we learned that wrack biomass and composition are highly variable among beaches over time. Also, we found that reproductive macroalgal tissue found in wrack remained functional even after being deposited on the beach.

What originally drew you to this topic?

Going back to my time as an undergrad at UCSB, working in intertidal and nearshore ecology labs got me curious about the systems and that’s what I’ve enjoyed studying since then. Even before university, I have fond memories of tide-pooling.

What are your next steps? 

This summer I’ll head back to the same sites I visited in 2018 to repeat the on-the-ground wrack collections, but I also am going to scale-up my investigation by deploying a drone to conduct aerial mapping of my study beaches. This will generate a more robust dataset on wrack coverage and biomass distribution throughout the bay. I’ll also investigate which invertebrates use wrack as a habitat and which migrating shorebirds are found foraging in the wrack. All combined, this information will hopefully encourage sustainable harvests of wrack through an understanding of how timing might be used to mitigate ecological impacts on the system.

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

I enjoyed the virtual conference experience. It’s far different from in-person interactions. A positive way to view it is that you can more easily communicate with a greater number of people than you normally would have time to do at an in-person conference.


Hillary Thalmann M.Sc. candidate at Oregon State University 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests? 

I am a third-year master’s student in Fisheries Science at Oregon State University. I am interested in the effects of thermal variability and marine heatwave events on the growth and foraging of fish early life stages. My research is focused on the response of juvenile Pacific Cod to marine heatwaves in the Gulf of Alaska.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium?

Pacific Cod declined by ~75% following the 2013-2016 and 2019 marine heatwave events, which led to the closure of the Gulf of Alaska fishery in 2020. I am interested in how the diet composition and growth rates of juvenile Pacific Cod may have changed during these heatwave conditions. In general, juvenile Pacific Cod were larger and faster-growing in years impacted by marine heatwaves. Their feeding habits also shifted, with diets during heatwaves dominated by larger prey. These results suggest that during marine heatwave conditions, larger and faster growing Pacific Cod may have had a survival advantage compared to others in their cohort.

What originally drew you to this topic?

I have been drawn to the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems since watching “An Inconvenient Truth” in elementary school! I first studied the effects of marine heatwaves on fisheries as an intern at the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, researching the effects of the warm “Blob” heatwave on juvenile Steelhead in the northern California Current. Being in this lab at the same time as the Pacific Northwest was experiencing record low salmon returns as a result of this heatwave stuck with me.

How will you continue to build on this research?

For my project’s final objective, I will analyze carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes for the juvenile Pacific Cod. Stable isotope data will allow me to look at the trophic history of the fish further back in time than what I am able to capture with diet data. This spring, I will roll into a Ph.D. program, and I plan to expand my work to focus on the response of both larval and juvenile Pacific Cod to marine heatwaves.

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

I thought that the virtual AMSS was both accessible and informative, while still capturing the essence of the AMSS conference experience. While I missed engaging with other scientists in person, I appreciated the efforts to digitize AMSS 2021 and make it a success. As the conference was free and virtual this year, my undergraduate interns were even able to attend and get a taste of the research currently happening in Alaska, something they all enjoyed and likely would not have been able to participate in if the conference had been in-person.


Natasha Griffin Graduate research fellow at Oregon State University 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests? 

I’m part of the Beaufort Lagoon Ecosystems long-term ecological research project, which is working to understand the rapidly changing ecology of Alaska’s Arctic coast. I’m interested in how microbial communities form and survive across extreme seasonal changes in the lagoons, and in how microbes drive lagoon ecosystem processes like nitrogen and carbon cycling. 

Before joining the Beaufort group, I studied soil microbiology in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys and stream microbiology on Alaska’s North Slope. So far, the overarching theme of my research is being cold during fieldwork.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium?

My symposium talk was about seasonality in lagoon sediment microbial communities on the Beaufort Sea coast. Based on previous DNA sequencing results from lagoon waters, we had expected to see huge seasonal differences in sediment microbial community composition. To our surprise, the communities were actually very stable across seasons! Instead of varying seasonally, bacterial communities differed across lagoons with different nitrogen concentrations and sources. We also saw an interesting potential food web connection where protists seemed to respond quickly to changes in sediment pigment concentrations.

Collecting samples through the ice in Beaufort Lagoon (Ken Dunton)

What originally drew you to this topic?

This project was a lucky outcome of the pandemic. I had originally planned to work on a different experiment in the Beaufort lagoons, but when our 2020 field season was canceled, I needed something else to work on in the meantime. We already had this great dataset with sediment microbes and chemistry that nobody had explored yet, so I got to jump in and it ended up being really interesting.

How will you continue to build on this research?

This study was based on DNA sequencing, meaning we could tell which microbes were present but not which were alive and active. The stability we saw might have been partly due to dead or dormant microbes that essentially hibernate when environmental conditions aren’t right. To see how microbial dormancy might figure in, we’re now working to sequence sediment microbial RNA to see which microbes are actively expressing genes across seasons.

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

I really enjoyed the virtual conference, although I was sad not to see my research group in person. It was nice to take my time thinking of questions for other people’s work. And it’s pretty convenient to be able to watch presentations while hanging out at home in sweatpants!


 

Robert Levine Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests? 

I’m an oceanographer interested in how ecological systems respond to changes in the physical environment. I use active acoustics from ships and autonomous platforms to collect observations across a wide range of both temporal and spatial scales, and my current work is focused on the role of advection in the distribution and movement of juvenile fishes in the Pacific Arctic.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium?

I presented a synthesis of my dissertation investigating the movement and variability of the pelagic fish population in the Chukchi Sea. We’ve found that there are large populations of juvenile fishes in the Chukchi in summer, and their abundance and distribution is highly variable across years. Advection is the primary driver of this variability as currents are transporting these fish into the Chukchi Sea from the south. We’ve begun to see large populations of subarctic species in the region, an indication that increased northward transport and changing climate may alter and restructure the fish community.

What originally drew you to this topic?

I’m really interested in acoustics as a tool to collect data, in particular how we can use remote instrumentation to see what is happening in an ecosystem that we can’t directly observe with traditional sampling. The Pacific Arctic is a seasonally ice-covered region so new technologies are now making it possible to monitor the ecosystem year-round, and as the region is undergoing rapid warming it’s important to understand the implications of these changes for the future.

What are your next steps? 

After 3 years of fieldwork, we have a lot of data to begin to fit together, from physics to phytoplankton to fish to mammals. My next steps are to continue fitting together the pieces of the puzzle to determine how the system is connected.

How did you find the virtual conference experience?

While you lose some of the networking and more casual conversations that naturally occur at in-person conferences, you gain a lot in terms of the number of people who can attend and have access to see your work. I also really enjoyed the ability to go through the conference at my own pace, rewatch talks, and not miss anything that I thought might be of interest.

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