Feature Friday: Taylor Lindsay

Hi, Taylor Lindsay! Welcome to ReefBites.

Main Instagram: @tayloreece_ 

Photography Instagram account: @hidinginthelilacs 

Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Dr. Carlos Prada’s laboratory with the Biological and Environmental Science, Evolution and Marine Biology program at the University of Rhode Island. Her research focuses on trends in coral morphology and resource partitioning based on isotopic analysis across light gradients. Read more about Taylor’s work below! 

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

Scleractinian corals form calcium carbonate skeletons that exhibit morphological plasticity on the colony-level (macro-) and polyp level (micro-). Each morphology interacts with light in a unique way, providing distinct light environments for the photosynthesizing dinoflagellates living within the coral’s tissues. In addition to this autotrophic relationship, corals filter feed on plankton and detritus in the water column, making them heterotrophic. Many studies have documented trends in morphology and physiology across depth gradients in single species, but few have found trends across scleractinia. We aim to investigate three trends related to light gradients in many species on a reef in Puerto Rico. First, we will document the change in macro-morphology across light gradients. The literature suggests that high-light environments are characterized by corals with complex structures, such as digitate and branching morphologies. These complex morphologies combat photoinhibition and bleaching by self-shading. Conversely, corals in low-light environments are less complex plate or massive morphologies. Second, we hope to determine the role of coral calices in reflecting light back up to symbiodinium. The existing literature has produced conflicting results, with some suggesting that coral calices get larger with depth to produce more surface area for photosynthesis. Another more compelling hypothesis is that calices have deeper relief and steeper walls in shallow water to self-shade, while they are flatter with lower relief in deep water to reflect more light upwards. Finally, we will investigate how coral’s reliance on heterotrophy vs. photosynthesis changes with light exposure by measuring the 13C isotope ratio. 13C is sequestered through photosynthesis, so we expect corals in high-light environments to have higher ratios of 13C. This means shallow corals rely on autotrophy and deep corals rely on heterotrophy for most of their energy. This project will be supplemented with a social science podcasting project in the local community in Puerto Rico. Our podcasts about local environmental issues will help build a relationship between the local and scientific communities, and will gather local knowledge that can inform future scientific research. 

Why is this research/project important and timely?

The overarching goal of this research is to find trends in coral morphology and resource use across many species. This will start by writing a review on the effects of light on coral skeletal morphology. The remainder of my research will be foundational in some ways, because it provides baselines for morphology and resource use in many different species. However, it also builds on very cutting edge research regarding coral genotype segregation across habitat types, also known as ‘cryptic lineages’ (See: Prada & Hellberg 2013). In sum, this work will consolidate years of research on coral morphology and plasticity, while also evaluating these patterns under a new lens of ecotype partitioning. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

As mentioned above, I am working on a second project focused on sharing environmental stories of people in the local community of La Parguera, Puerto Rico. This project stemmed from work I did as an undergraduate, where I traveled to Bhutan and India to conduct interviews focused on environmental issues experienced by people around the world. As a STEM student, this experience with social science research completely changed my outlook on how science and social sciences should interact. This prompted me to write my senior honors thesis, entitled “Improving Undergraduate Environmental Science Education Through Multicultural Work, Interdisciplinary Research, and Service Learning”. During my PhD, I will continue to work on this project by conducting similar interviews in La Parguera, creating publicly available podcasts and publishing our findings for the academic community. We hope to accomplish the following goals: 1) provide broader impacts experiences for undergraduates in STEM, 2) share authentic environmental stories from coastal communities in Puerto Rico with a wide audience, 3) build a relationship between the academic community at the marine lab and the local community in La Parguera, and 4) learn local knowledge about the reef and local ecology that can be used to inspire and build future research projects. 

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

I did my undergraduate degree in environmental science, but I always knew I wanted to study the ocean. Through multiple experiences at the Shoals Marine Laboratory as a student and an intern, I became infatuated with benthic marine invertebrates. I think marine invertebrates are incredible because they are so weird! They don’t really follow the same rules of most terrestrial animals, leading to a fascinating array of body plans and morphologies. Take a look at a list of the animal phyla some time and you will notice that about half of them are marine invertebrates. As I applied for grad programs, I found myself craving the biodiversity of a tropical system, and eventually landed on coral reef studies. My specific project has developed slowly as my PI and I are both exploring new topics for this research. It was born out of his interest in coral genotype distribution across reefs and my focus on the effects of the interplay between coral morphology and ecology. 

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

Your best resources as a graduate student are other graduate students. Even as a student in a lab with a very new PI (I am only his third grad student!), I am so grateful for the knowledge that my fellow grad students have passed down to me. This touches on all aspects of grad student life – your peers know which forms you must fill out and when, which classes to take and what resources you will need, how to find local housing for competitive rent prices, how to find funding, how to be a good TA, and even where to get a good meal and a drink at the end of a long day. From the day you begin applying to grad school, to years after you graduate when you need a collaborator, your peers are an excellent resource!  

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

Please use reef-safe sunscreen and make conscious decisions to reduce your environmental footprint (: 

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