Feature Friday: Kristen Fellows

Hi, Kristen Fellows! Welcome to Reefbites. 

Twitter: @kristenfellows_

Kristen recently finished her M.Sc. at the University of Delaware, where her research focused on the mechanisms for thermal tolerance in Scleractinian corals using the model organism, Exaiptasia pallida. Read more about Kristen’s work below! 

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

My work involved examining the symbiosis between the anemone Exaiptasia pallida (as a model system for corals) and their symbiotic counterparts from the family Symbiodinaceae. Specifically, I looked at different strains of the same species of Breviolum that are known to have differing levels of thermal tolerance and, furthermore, how these relationships changed in terms of compensatory electron flow, carbon fixation, and carbon translocation, under thermal stress.

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Many species of coral are listed on the IUCN Red List as threatened or endangered and corals are an extremely valuable resource environmentally, economically, and medically. It is imperative that we use multi-disciplinary approaches in research in attempts to bridge the knowledge gaps in the field. With climate change causing ocean temperatures to rise, it is essential that we determine mechanisms for thermal tolerance in order to maintain and restore coral communities across the globe. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

This study provided a better understanding of genetically distinct symbionts under different temperature regimes. I began to differentiate if certain strains were more tolerant of temperature increase due to compensatory electron flow or if perhaps the algae are in fact being “selfish” and translocating less carbon to the host in order to maintain their photosynthetic machinery under temperature stress. If less carbon is translocated, the anemones will reproduce less, and growth will be slowed. This information is particularly relevant for corals which require calcium carbonate to secrete their skeleton but will require further study given that calcification can alter the carbon dynamic within the holobiont.

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

I’ve been interested in the ocean for as long as I can remember but my interest in corals really started to develop in my sophomore year of college during a field course at the Gerace Research Centre in San Salvador, Bahamas. After I finished my undergraduate degree in Upstate New York, I moved to Florida for a year where I completed two internships at Mote Marine Laboratory (one in an Ocean Acidification Lab and another in a Coral Reef Health and Disease Lab) and worked as a Marine Science Instructor at Seacamp Association Inc. After my time in Florida I decided to begin my search for advisors whose research interest aligned with my own. That is how I stumbled across Mark Warner at the University of Delaware and we developed my Master’s thesis questions together. 

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

There are many things I feel I could write about here, but I’ll list a few (you can shorten it if I put too many). 

  1. Make sure you find an advisor that you feel like you will be able to communicate with openly and freely and someone who will go to bat for you if need be. You should ideally fit like a puzzle piece meaning you’re just as good of a match for their lab, as they are for your mentorship needs. 
  2. Having a solid support network is invaluable. Friends or family members who will be in your corner when times are tough can really help keep you going when you’re feeling super down. 
  3. Try as best you can to stay organized. Keep your files organized and WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN WHEN YOU’RE DOING EXPERIMENTS. You might think you will remember, but you likely won’t. It saves you and everyone down the line a huge headache. 
  4. Lastly, don’t be afraid of taking a gap year to get a better idea of what you want to get out of grad school. I can’t express enough how beneficial this was for myself and so many others.  

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

For now, I work as a Lab Manager for the Nelson Ecosystems Laboratory at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Currently, we are using stable isotope analysis to determine linkages in various food-web systems (one off the coast of Louisiana, one in the Florida Keys, one in the Florida Coastal Everglades, and one in Plum Island, Massachusetts). In the future I hope to pursue a PhD in coral disease ecology. 

Photo credit: Jason Macrander & research team at Florida Southern.

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