Hi, Candice Cross! Great to have you on ReefBites.
Candice is a first year Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her work focuses on assessing the impact of an invasive Caribbean seagrass on coral reef community diversity. Read more about her work below!
Give an elevator pitch of what your research/project is about.
Seagrasses provide food, shelter, and nursery space for fish and invertebrates common to coral reefs. Recently, the Caribbean has experienced a large shift from native seagrasses to a noxious invasive seagrass, Halophila stipulacea. My research team and I have found that H. stipulacea is capable of outcompeting native seagrasses and alters epifaunal and fish communities. During my Ph.D., I aim to use environmental DNA (eDNA) metabarcoding to describe the degree of these changes and inform Caribbean park service management plans.
Why is this research/project important and timely?
The invasive seagrass has already spread throughout the eastern and southern Caribbean and to the north coast of Venezuela. Because seagrasses are responsible for community support, ecosystem balance, and connectivity to coral reefs, it is important to understand if this invasive will serve as a suitable “replacement” for natives. Environmental DNA has only recently been introduced into marine studies, but it provides a new opportunity to conduct broad species level assessments of communities.
What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?
Understanding long term changes in fish communities due to the invasive is important for ensuring the sustainability of Caribbean fisheries. If H. stipulacea does not offer adequate trophic support, modifications to fishing practices may be necessary.
All of my Caribbean research has been conducted in protected areas and would not be possible without partnerships with local park services. These collaborations streamline my field work while also providing mainland funding and lab resources for questions posed by island agencies. I hope to use my research as a way to bridge the gap between educational and government institutions while also encouraging applied science.
How did you come to work in this field/project?
I actually grew up living on a boat with my parents and being exposed to marine organisms on a daily basis really kickstarted my passion for the field. In college, I was fortunate to have a phenomenal mentor who brought me onto the invasive seagrass project. After being in the field for the first time with professionals and grad students, I knew immediately that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. so I could mentor others in the future. Prior to that, I had also worked on a microbial genetics project, so I believe the combination of all my undergraduate studies led me to genetic marine ecology at UCLA.
What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?
For me, taking one thing at a time is the most important. It can often feel overwhelming trying to juggle research, teaching, classes, and outreach projects, so I try to give 100% of my focus to one task at a time. This also helps me prioritize activities avoid over-worrying about the others in the meantime.
Any additional information or comments you would like to share?
I am a huge advocate for diversity and inclusivity in STEM. Being Filipina and Latina, I haven’t had any marine science mentors that share my ethnic background. I’ve learned that being the odd one out in research environments can feel pretty taxing and discouraging, and because of that, I am inspired to be a mentor for the next generation. I take every opportunity I can to work with underrepresented students to encourage their interests in STEM and provide a relatable role model in the sciences.