Feature Friday: Nia Walker

Hi, Nia Walker! Welcome to Reefbites. 

Twitter: @niasymwalker

Instagram: niasymone_est1859

Nia is a Ph.D. student at Stanford University (Hopkins Marine Station) studying the trade-offs between coral thermal resistance and recovery performance, and intraspecific variation in bleaching recovery ability. Read more about Nia’s work below! 

Location of fieldwork; why choose this location?

I conduct my research in Palau, which is a country in the Indo-Pacific located in between Guam and the Philippines. I travel across the globe about 20 hours by plane to get to Palau, because this island-nation’s ocean is well-governed (e.g. about 80 percent of the nation’s marine environment is protected), there are accessible reefs all over in Palau’s waters that experience different microclimates and conditions, and there is a fantastic research station largely run by local Palauans called the Palau International Coral Reef Center. It is the perfect location for running controlled field and laboratory-based experiments; I’ve been to Palau six times so far and plan to travel twice more for my research.

What is the elevator pitch for your fieldwork project?

My project specifically seeks to identify links between coral thermal resistance and recovery by evaluating how individual coral colonies can resist and recover from bleaching stress. This research is being conducted through a common garden experiment, meaning that fragments from coral colonies in different locations were collected and then deployed onto a singular location site. In this common garden experiment that began July 2019, corals were artificially bleached in the lab, categorized into high/mid/low bleaching resistance based on amount of time to bleach, and then put back onto the reef to monitor their bleaching recovery ability over a period of one year. I’m using a variety of traditional techniques in genetics and physiology to see how these corals react to heat stress and rebound afterwards.

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Resilience equals resistance plus recovery, and yet a lot of research (especially in genetics) focuses on corals that tend not to bleach. I am interested in thinking about recovery as an active evolutionary adaptation, as opposed to a last-ditch effort by weaker corals. As climate change impacts worsen, we expect to see more intense and frequent bleaching events in the future. Even high bleaching resistant corals we previously considered to be the strongest will be more susceptible to future bleaching events. Therefore, better understanding whether there are trade-offs between bleaching resistance and recovery ability has important implications for future management decisions regarding which “strong” corals and reefs to prioritize for conservation in the future.

Best and worst parts of your fieldwork:

I’d say the best parts are that I get to explore a beautiful place like Palau, the sense of accomplishment when I can make the best of what’s available and adapt to tricky situations, and that I get to tell people I study coral reefs in Palau. As for the worst parts…I feel a lot of stress trying to work through difficult setbacks before I get to the part where I feel impressed with myself, and sometimes the isolation/separation from home gets hard. Ultimately, I just feel really lucky to have these opportunities and try to make the most of the experience!

What advice would you give for successful fieldwork?

I’ve learned to try to plan as much as I can at home before going into the field. Nowadays I travel with a binder filled with daily/weekly goals, packing lists, specific schedules, and organized contact information for locals to rely on. It’s also important to have contingency plans, because oftentimes fieldwork doesn’t go exactly as you imagined it would. Schedule in lots of buffer days (i.e. if you think your work will take 3 weeks, tack on an extra week just in case). Bring extras of important equipment, as much as you can afford this. Try to get to know the locals or other researchers—you never know when the connection might come in handy. And take lots of great action shots doing awesome science!

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

I’m looking forward to meeting more people in the world who similarly share a passion for coral reef science. Feel free to reach out, and I hope to connect at ICRS!

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