Feature Friday: Sara Cannon

Hi, Sara Cannon! Welcome to Reefbites. 

saracannon.ca, @secanno on twitter

Sara is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC), and completed her M.Sc. at UBC (finished in 2017). Sara’s research focuses on coral reef resilience to overlapping scales of human-caused stressors (global versus local, for example). 

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

I’m interested in understanding the ways that global threats like climate change and rising sea surface temperatures interact with localized threats from people, like nutrients and overfishing. Some research has suggested that the most pristine reefs are more vulnerable to climate change than those closer to people, because they are home to more sensitive corals that can be wiped out when they bleach from high sea surface temperatures. I want to quantify this effect so that we can hopefully gain a fuller understanding of how these threats interact. 

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Understanding how climate change interacts with local threats will help us find ways to protect reefs in places that are close to people, where those threats are the most common. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

Right now, there is a lot of debate among reef scientists about how best to respond to the number of threats facing coral reefs. Many scientists argue that we need to focus all of our efforts on stopping climate change, but others point out that localized threats also play a role in reef health and must be addressed. Where I work, in the Pacific Islands, local communities hardly contribute to climate change and do not have the power to end global greenhouse gas emissions on their own (although people in the Pacific Islands have been hugely influential in global movements to stop climate change). They do have power to address local threats to their reefs, but we don’t understand the best way to manage those threats in ecosystems that are also being impacted by climate change. Before we can reach that understanding, we have to have at least a basic idea of how these local and global threats interact. I hope that this research will help us get to that point.

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

I have worked in the Micronesia region of the Pacific for almost 10 years now. I was fortunate to work with One People One Reef as an undergraduate student at the University of California Santa Cruz. I knew that I wanted to continue to work in Micronesia, if possible. When I was applying for graduate school, I came across the work of my current advisor, Simon Donner, from the Gilbert Islands in Kiribati. I immediately knew I wanted to work with him, because Simon works closely with local marine management in Kiribati and makes an effort to make sure his research is useful to them while also contributing to broader scientific knowledge. 

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

I am very disciplined about turning off my computer at the end of the day and making sure I take time for myself and my family (thankfully, I have an advisor who encourages this). While there are times when I work weekends or nights, I am intentional about it and make sure that it doesn’t become a habit (and that I take time off when I’m able so that it balances out). I try to remember that getting a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. Burn-out is real and I found out the hard way that self-care is a necessity if I’m going to stay happy and healthy while still completing my PhD. 

Location of fieldwork; why choose this location?

My PhD work is based in the northern Gilbert Islands of Kiribati and the southern Marshall Islands. This region is unique because of the sea surface temperature (SST) patterns that happen here due to El Niño Southern Oscillation. In the northern Gilberts, which are right on the equator in the central Pacific, corals experience higher than average SSTs during El Niño years. The southern Marshall Islands, on the other hand, are farther away from the equator and thus usually escape the higher SSTs that the Gilberts often experience. This sets up a natural experience of sorts. Corals in the Gilberts appear to have adapted to these high SSTs and are more resistant to bleaching, while those in the Marshalls, because they experience high SSTs less often, have not had the same opportunity to adapt. I am comparing densely populated and relatively unpopulated sites within both the Marshalls and Kiribati, which allows me to look at the intersection of local human influence at these sites and resistance and resilience to bleaching and climate change.

Best and worst parts of your fieldwork:

 I love getting to work in the field. I get to visit new places, connect and learn from the people who call those places home, and spend the vast majority of my time on a boat and in the water, which is my favorite place in the world. There are parts of it that are challenging. We work very long days, are usually on a boat for 10-12 hours a day, and then when we get back have to spend hours inputting data, charging our electronics, cleaning and caring for our dive equipment, and working out logistics for the next day. It’s extremely rewarding and it’s fun, but it’s still work and it can be very tiring.

What advice would you give for successful fieldwork?

When I tell people about my fieldwork, they often comment that it sounds like a vacation. The places I visit are beautiful, but it’s a mistake to think of them as paradise. The Marshall Islands and Kiribati are both mostly atoll countries, with very small land masses that are close to sea level. The people living here face a number of challenges that those of us coming from western countries like the US, Canada or Australia may not have any experience with, like overcrowding in the capital atolls and rising sea levels that cause erosion (keep in mind that the highest sea level in both countries is ~3m!). Learn about the places you’re going ahead of time, connect with people who are doing this work locally, and make sure you’re inviting local people to participate in your research so that you can incorporate the questions that are most important to them and can learn about these challenges and others first hand. Do not think of fieldwork as a vacation and be prepared for long days. If you do that, you’ll find enjoyment in your work while also finding ways to make sure it can make a difference beyond just academia.

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