Feature Friday: Morgan Farrell

Hi, Morgan Farrell! Welcome to Reefbites. 


Instagram: @morganvfarrell 

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

I am interested in what factors contribute to coral resiliency. I am working to understand how coral microbiomes change when corals are transplanted into a new environment. My project focuses on the surface mucus layer of the coral because it is the first line of defense against invading pathogens and therefore is a critical part of coral resilience. The aim of my study is to determine the flexibility of the microbial community within the surface mucus layer and what drives community restructuring when corals are transplanted into a new environment. To test this, I conducted a transplant study in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. I outplanted Acropora cervicornis colonies to five different sites along Punta Cana’s fore reef. The outplants of different genotypes were taken from the coral nursery created by Fundación Grupo Puntacana, which is used for their restoration projects. Over time I documented the changes in the coral mucus microbial community by swabbing coral surfaces. Using 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing I will determine the microbial taxa present within the mucus layer of the coral colony. With this data I can compare how the microbial communities differ across different genotypes of A. cervicornis and how the microbial communities change over time when transplanting into a new environment. I hope to uncover whether environment or genotype is a stronger driver of microbial community composition when transplanted in a novel environment.

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Microbes are increasingly linked to coral heath and resilience. With new methods in next generation sequencing, we now know that they serve critical roles such as antibiotic production, nitrogen fixation and sulfur cycling. However, their role in coral adaptation to environmental stressors is poorly understood. Uncovering how coral microbiomes respond to a change in environment, especially within the microhabitat that is most linked to coral defense, could give insight into the process of coral adaptation.

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

Coral reefs are declining at rapid rates and a new avenue for coral intervention is leveraging the microbial symbionts that the coral already houses. Uncovering the primary functions of the corals’ resident microbes could allow for the development of coral probiotics to supplement a coral microbiome and increase its resilience to climate change. Since we are still understanding how the community structure of the coral microbiome changes across its microhabitats, it’s important to have foundational studies that demonstrate the flexibility of the coral microbiome and highlight key drivers that influence community composition.  

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

I became very interested in the mechanisms of coral resiliency when I implemented a coral microfragmentation program with Fundación Grupo Puntacana in the Dominican Republic. I was working on increasing Punta Cana’s coral cover by rearing and outplanting corals onto the reef. Our restoration efforts aimed to increase coral cover, but that did not always guarantee their persistence or the rehabilitation of that site. I wanted to work on ways to increase the resilience of outplanted and native corals. I narrowed my focus to the microbial associations of corals’ microbiome and how there was so much more to learn about the microbes present. I was especially interested in the differentiation of microbes within the microhabitats of the coral and the functions they are serving for the coral colony. My master’s research will help to lay the foundation for future studies to parse out the functions of coral microbes and to improve coral restoration techniques. 

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

Staying as organized as you can! Knowing how and when you plan to delegate your time makes you a lot more productive. When you plan how long you think something will take (e.g. writing that paper or doing that experiment) always double it, because it’ll never go as smoothly as you think it will. Being well organized also means setting aside time to do things that you enjoy. Don’t feel guilty about taking a break! You need to have other things in your life to keep you motivated otherwise you’ll just burn yourself out. 

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

I am a huge proponent of community environmental programs and the inherent knowledge that the local community has for their ecosystem. We as scientists have a duty to share our findings and collaborate with the public. One of the things I loved most about my master’s research was getting the opportunity with Fundación Grupo Puntacana to host tours and work with the public to invite people into our research. I felt it was really important to include members of the local community in the restoration efforts of the coral reefs and to build relationships with the local fisherman. 

Best and worst parts of your fieldwork:

The best part of field work in Punta Cana was getting to be in such a beautiful place and spending 100+ hours diving on the reef. I also had a wonderful group of visiting researchers and native Dominican scientists to motivate me and help to troubleshoot issues in the field. The worst part of fieldwork was the inevitable hurricanes and tropical storms in the Caribbean that push you behind schedule. As well as having so many goals to complete and never enough tanks or hours underwater to accomplish them.  

What advice would you give for successful fieldwork?

I would say that planning is everything. This includes 1) planning the work you want to get done, 2) the supplies you need, and 3) the schedule for when you are going to do it. Since a lot of us work in remote places it can be really hard to get the supplies you need, so it is imperative that you are prepared. I would also advise giving yourself extra time for completing tasks, because often things don’t move at the pace you want them to. 

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