Feature Friday: Kelsey Barnhill

Hi, Kelsey Barnhill! Great to have you on ReefBites. 

Twitter: KelseyBarnhill1 

Kelsey is a Ph.D. student in the Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences program at the University of Edinburgh. Kelsey graduated with a MSc. in Tropical Ecology and Management of Natural Resources from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Kelsey’s research has been focused on temporal and Spatial Coral Reef Resilience in Kāneʻohe Bay, Oʻahu. Read more about Kelsey’s work below! 

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

My Masters thesis focused on coral reef temporal and spatial resilience at Malauka`a Fringing Reef, Kāneʻohe Bay, Oʻahu in the face of climate change. I re-surveyed 60 transects which had not been repeated since a study in 2000 to see how the coral reef composition had changed. In the 18 years between surveys the reef had been subjected to a 0.96 °Celsius increase in temperature and two major bleaching events. Despite these thermal stressors, the reef showed resilience as percent coverage of the two dominant reef-building corals (Porites compressa and Montipora capitata) did not change significantly between years. However, a shift in species composition did occur, as one new species (with a higher tolerance for increased temperatures) appeared and two species originally present disappeared. During my transect survey I also observed spatial differences in benthic cover between the North and South areas of the reef. This observation led to the development of a reciprocal transplant experiment to see if differences in genetics or environmental conditions were driving these differences. The two sites had distinct environmental conditions with significant differences between temperature, salinity, and aragonite saturation. Linear extension was the same at both sites for both species in the experiment, suggesting the reef-building corals were able to acclimatize to the different environments. Accretion, however, was significantly different between sites for P. compressa, suggesting both environment and genetics impact secondary calcification of the species in Kāneʻohe Bay.

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Corals in Hawai’i and around the globe are experiencing climate changed-induced bleaching events with increasing frequency. It is important to study the long-term survival of these reefs to understand what previous stressors the ecosystem was able to withstand in order to predict future outcomes. It is also important to understand the influence of both genetics and environment factors on predicting coral survival during these future bleaching events. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

The survival of the fringing reef seen through my transects after 18 years indicated resilience and suggests some species of Hawaiian corals are capable of acclimatization to climate change and bleaching events to some degree. The result of my reciprocal transplant field experiment supports the importance of not only considering environmental influences when modeling and mitigating coral responses to stressors, but also their genetic legacies. 

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

My Master’s degree required all students to complete 2 months of field work in a tropical region. I knew I wanted to focus my research on corals and wanted institutional support with access to mentors during my project. I reached out to the Coral Reef Ecology Lab at Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology and was put in touch with Dr. Keisha Bahr, a postdoc in the lab at the time, who ended up being my co-supervisor. Once I arrived in Hawai’i, we discussed projects that would compliment work being done in the lab and I was able to help design my two projects. 

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

Attend conferences whenever possible. Learning how to write and submit an abstract and then create a poster or talk are all valuable skills, however, the biggest take away from conferences is getting to learn about current research and network. I actually met my PhD supervisor after expressing my interest in his research following his talk at Reef Conservation UK 2018. You can often find student travel grants to fund the cost of attending and registering for conferences through the conference itself, from your department, or from an external source such as a society. 

Quick Life Hack: Use a well-organized citation manager (like Zotero) and highlight relevant information in article PDFs to ensure smooth future writing. 

Best and worst parts of your fieldwork:

The best part about my fieldwork was getting to spend hours a day snorkeling in Hawai’i! The worst part of my fieldwork was when I realized 80% of my transects were slanted with some even crisscrossing! Luckily, I had time to re-do them all.

What advice would you give for successful fieldwork?

Schedule some ‘makeup’ days throughout your fieldwork schedule to fix any issues that may arise. Make sure you have backups of everything- a transect tape might break, your pencil might float away! Even though you may be exhausted after a long day of fieldwork, take the time to upload any data collected that day (e.g. GPS coordinates, YSI data, etc.) and check it before saving- this is a lesson I learned the hard way. 

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