Feature Friday: Natalie Smith

Hi, Natalie Smith! Great to have you on ReefBites. 


Natalie is a recent MSc in Marine Environmental Management graduate from University of York, UK. Natalie’s research focused on coral-sponge interactions in Kāne’ohe Bay, Hawai’i. Read more about Natalie’s work below! 

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

My masters research project assessed the interactions between dominant coral and sponge species found in Kāne’ohe Bay, Hawai’i. It aimed to investigate why sponges are highly prevalent within fouling communities – covering several artificial surfaces including ropes and buoys – yet are in low abundance within the reef’s cryptic communities. It also aimed to broaden our understanding of the nature of coral-sponge interactions and sponge ecology more broadly. 

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Hawai’ian sponge research generally is in its nascent phase, despite sponges being some of the oldest living organisms on our planet. Beyond their importance in maintaining water quality and enhancing reef structural complexity, sponges also show great biotechnological potential. Efforts to improve our understanding of their ecology may allow us to reap similar benefits in the future. Understanding why sponges represent some of the most persistent and successful invertebrates in our oceans is also important considering the challenges facing our oceans today. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

By improving our understanding of sponge life histories and their species-specific relationships with corals, this research poses exciting avenues for future study. The nature of coral-sponge interactions in Hawai’i is interesting when considered in the context of the biotic and abiotic factors shaping these communities. Anthropogenic climate change and indiscriminate fishing practices collectively threaten coral reefs and their dependent communities, including spongivores who play a key role in regulating sponge populations. Previously, sponges have survived several mass extinction events whilst biocalcifiers like coral haven’t been so lucky. This raises interesting possibilities for coral-sponge competition considering the mass coral bleaching and spongivore declines currently occurring throughout our world’s oceans. Will someone come out on top, and who? How will this affect ecosystem services? So many questions! 

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

Throughout university I developed a great interest in coral reef ecology, particularly in the face of climate change and how this impacts ecosystem services. As part of my masters degree I had to undertake a two month research placement which could be completed anywhere in the world. I knew I wanted to work with corals and gain more field work experience, and from previous students I also knew lots of great coral research was being conducted in Hawai’i. After talking to lots of fantastic researchers at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology I learned that there was an opening for someone to conduct research on sponges living in the bay. In all honesty, I didn’t know an awful lot about sponge ecology at this point, but what better way to find out more! Thankfully the great people at the ToBo lab thought I was up to the job, and that’s how I ended up snorkeling in Hawai’i all summer!  

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

Self-discipline, organisation and lots of coffee! Making sure I organised my time effectively was a huge help when juggling lots of assignments and commitments. It also helped when a hurricane almost threatened my data collection! Beyond uni work it’s also important to schedule in time out to relax, socialise with friends and exercise, no matter how guilty you may feel for doing it. It made the time I did work more productive and allowed me to enjoy all Hawai’i had to offer! 

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent researching in Hawai’i. It was my first experience of practical marine research and I learned so much, not just from a scientific perspective but a personal one too. All the ups and downs of experimental life certainly made me more resilient! For the moment I’ve left my sponges behind and moved away from pursuing a career in research and academia. Instead, I’m working in marine and coastal management back in the UK and I love it. That being said, my time in Hawai’i was an invaluable experience and has equipped me with some valuable skills and knowledge that I don’t doubt will help me wherever I go! 

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