Feature Friday: Elise Keister

Hi, Elise Keister! Great to have you on ReefBites.

Twitter: @elise_keister

Elise is a PhD student in the Kemp Lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her work focuses on identifying resilience mechanisms already being utilized by coral populations. Read more about Elise’s work below!

Give an elevator pitch of what your research/project is about.

Resilience mechanisms are already being utilized by coral populations in reefs experiencing high temperature regimes. My project focuses on identifying these mechanisms (e.g. associating with thermally tolerant algal symbionts, trophic plasticity, high energy reserves, etc.) in thermally tolerant coral populations from nearshore reefs in both the Pacific and Caribbean.

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Coral reefs are in big trouble and have been for a while. Fortunately (but quite unfortunate for coral reef ecosystems), the dire situation has become common knowledge as headlines highlight wide-spread bleaching events caused by climate change. All that being said, there is still hope! Thermally tolerant coral populations are thriving despite experiencing high temperatures. Resilience mechanisms are already in place to aid in the persistence of coral. Though the future looks bleak, it is possible that there will be pockets of healthy reefs in the coming decades.

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

Identifying susceptible coral populations and resilience mechanisms of thermally tolerant coral populations is crucial to informing policy and restoration efforts to ensure the persistence of these coral populations into the next century. Furthermore, I am very passionate about participating in local impact science and as such, I work to engage students both in the greater Birmingham area and in Koror, Palau where the Kemp Lab is working in collaboration with the Warner Lab (UDelaware) and the LaJeunesse Lab (Penn State). In Birmingham, I am a codeveloper and organizer of an undergraduate and graduate organization that aims to encourage scientific thought and engage students in critical thinking through hands-on S.T.E.M. activities. In Koror, I am working with Kira Turnham (Ph.D. Candidate in the LaJeunesse Lab) to develop a Marine Symbiosis in Palau curriculum to be taught to teachers at local high schools in collaboration with the Coral Reef Research Foundation (CRRF).

How did you come to work in this field/project?

Following graduation, I took a few years to work in outreach programs and as a technician, to gain some more experience and to further hone my research interest. Ultimately, this led me to work as an intern in the Ocean Acidification Program at Mote Marine Lab in the Florida Keys. While there, I enthusiastically took the lead in designing and implementing an experiment determining the impact of high temperatures and low pH on the health of four Caribbean coral species. Furthermore, my time at Mote permitted me to meet my advisor Dr. Dusty Kemp, from there everything just fell into place, and I began graduate school the August 2017.

What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?

It is key to have a supportive community of grad students, both within your department and within your field! We are all going through the same exciting, stressful and anxiety ridden period in our careers, and we must stick together. I have also found that making realistic schedules of completing lab work, taking into account the unexpected things that seem to always come up, keeps my motivation high and allows me to stay on target, guilt-free. Lastly, having a life outside of the lab is key. Taking the time to exercise and having quality time with my partner has permitted me to be so much more productive when I am in the lab.

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